The economy of boxing is built on the story of the underdog. As an industry, pugilism posits that it is a haven for individuals who are underdogs in life, literally fighting their way out of given circumstances. But on a more practical level, the industry is fueled by the possibility that underdogs can win, and that any fighter can win any fight on any given day. Because if not for the audience believing that to be true, much of what the sport offers in a given week would be unpalatable.
In all likelihood, boxing produces the most lopsided competitions in terms of betting odds in all of mainstream sports. The structure of boxing is such that most bouts made on a weekly basis are not actually intended to be competitive. Boxing is a rare sport in which the competitors, but more accurately their managers and promoters, have complete agency over who they fight and when. A large percentage of fights that occur are matched so one fighter can pick up a win and progress their career. Some of those bouts are matched to specifically give the A-side fighter more resistance than others, but the intended end result is all the same. This formula is most common in earlier stages of fighters’ careers, but remains the same even at higher levels. Most fights are simply preludes to something bigger.
From a marketing perspective, interest in the vast majority of scheduled bouts hinges upon the audience’s belief that the underdog could win, or hope that they will, unless they are personally invested in the favorite.
Particularly towards the end of the year, 2021 was touted as “the year of the upset” on more than one American boxing broadcast. In the autumn and winter months, fans watched Sandor Martin defeat Mikey Garcia, Kiko Martinez shock Kid Galahad and George Kambosos stun Teofimo Lopez. But were upsets more prevalent this year than in previous years?
In modern times, the unofficial recordkeeper of boxing betting results, particularly upsets, is Twitter user @Fight_Ghost. He compiles an annual list of the biggest boxing upsets of the year, which is the clearest statistical view we have at our disposal into the quality of boxing’s matchmaking in a given year—or more appropriately, how often it was bucked.
According to Fight Ghost’s research, 15 upsets occurred in 2021 in which fighters listed as +900 underdogs or higher prevailed. This was an increase from 2020, when only eight fighters who met that same criteria were victorious. The biggest upset of this year, according to oddsmakers, was James Martin’s April victory over Vito Melenicki Jr. in which he closed as a +1800 underdog.
The gold standard in recent years as far as topsy-turvy results was 2019, in which 26 fighters who were +1000 betting underdogs won their bouts. In fact, three fighters who took part in fights considered so uncompetitive that no odds were offered whatsoever, won recorded bouts that year as well, including Adan Gonzalez’s bonkers upset over double gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez.
Though it would be difficult to say so conclusively, the general feeling in the boxing community is that big upsets are more commonplace these days. Of course, that knife cuts both ways: the reason more big upsets can occur is because of the number of bouts taking place with a monstrous favorite expected to win. According to boxing betting expert Jim Karas however, there’s another reason why it might feel like more upsets are occurring—there are simply more odds offered than ever before in a booming sports betting climate where wagering on sports outcomes is becoming legal and accessible in more North American areas.
“I attribute the high number of upsets that we've seen in recent years, to the fact that we have more fights to bet on than ever before. It wasn't that long ago when we would get odds on only a handful of fights each week. Undercards weren't offered extensively, and neither were smaller cards from around the globe. Today we regularly get odds from Russia, Spain, Italy, France, Canada, Australia, Japan etc. Not to mention the undercards getting covered more extensively. It was an uphill climb to get to where we are now,” said Karas. “There's one main person to thank for the progress we've seen in the boxing betting world, and that's Bet365 oddsmaker, my friend Ian Vickers. Ian sets the market for the entire industry, and is the reason we have so many options today. We owe him a thank you for that.”
Boxing’s matchmaking and operations in general are frequently compared to its combat sports cousin mixed martial arts. Compared to boxing, MMA sees significantly fewer monstrous upsets, but also rarely, if ever, has underdogs in bouts with odds as lengthy as boxing sees. At MMA’s highest levels at least, there is one organization and matchmaker and managers don’t have much, if any pull when it comes to which path their fighter might take. From a labor practices standpoint, particularly within the UFC, this is a nightmare. But purely from the perspective of creating evenly-matched fights, the model is successful.
Cody Saftic, who hosts the Dog or Pass Podcast, specializes in finding value in MMA underdogs. Without the long odds boxing often provides, but because of the frequency of underdogs winning in MMA, Saftic often focuses on parlay bets, stacking a number of wagers together, generally including a number of underdogs, in order to boost the potential payout. According to a study by GamblingSites.com, “in 2015 and 2016, (MMA) underdogs won their bouts 38.5% and 36.8% of the time, respectively.”
“A typical UFC event features 12-14 competitive matches with betting lines ranging from even money to 3-1,” said Saftic. “Boxing by comparison builds its shows around the main event without much thought of the undercard. The result is only one competitive fight that you can wager on and series a squash matches with A side fighters coming in as 50/1 favorites. Highly regarded UFC champion Amanda Nunes was recently defeated in what many in the MMA community called the biggest upset of all time. She was a 10/1 betting favorite. Boxing on the other hand featured 15 upsets bigger than that this year.”
From a betting perspective, boxing might more closely resemble American college football than it does mixed martial arts. In NCAA football, the teams at the highest level win the vast majority of their games, to the point that two losses all but guarantees exclusion from the College Football Playoff. This year, only two teams in the Top 25 suffered more than three losses over the year. Although most teams are beholden to a number of predetermined in-conference matchups, the remainder of their schedule is compiled of games negotiated and scheduled by the college. Those games are either easy wins meant to pad the team’s record, or calculated risks meant to help boost the team’s acclaim from the committee which decides rankings. This structure creates single contest odds that are seldom seen elsewhere. The biggest point spread upset ever, Howard’s 2017 win over UNLV in which the spread was 45 points, saw Howard win the game outright as a +55000 underdog.
Stunners like Howard-UNLV don’t happen often, so bettors approach college football much like they often approach boxing, by finding wagers within the game itself, or making more specific wagers in order to find a more desirable payout.
“A lot of times when betting on boxing we almost know who will win the fight. So we analyze fights from a different angle. It's not about who wins, but how they win. KO, decision and other various props give boxing bettors something to bet on, as opposed to laying those big numbers on the moneyline. The boxing bettor often has no choice but to get a lot more creative with their approach than the MMA bettor does,” said Karas.
The perception that upsets are happening more often is exciting for fans, but could also wind up working against them. Outrageous upsets ultimately give cover for the construct of the sport that is designed to tease the possibility of them but works to avoid them entirely.
Still, boxing’s biggest flaw, its institutionally mandated lack of parity, also creates its greatest gifts. The James Martins and Kiko Martinezes of the world can hit some of sports’ highest notes, ones that sound even sweeter in contrast to the predictable tune boxing often hums.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman