In September of 1986, Britain’s Lloyd Honeyghan set foot in the lion’s den, facing what most said was inevitable defeat. The rank outsider, the long shot, the hopeless underdog, Honeyghan dared challenge America’s undefeated, undisputed World Welterweight Champion, Donald Curry.
At the risk of spoiling the ending - although I’m sure you know what’s coming - this is a recollection of the night when nobody told Honeyghan he was supposed to lose.
Curry arrived on the night with an immaculate record (25-0-20 KO) including wins over Marlon Starling, Colin Jones and Milton McCrory to name a few. Essentially, Curry had cleared the division of everyone who was anyone and was justifiably being touted as one of the finest boxers on the planet.
Conversely, Honeyghan entered the ring as a relative unknown; somewhat unfair given that he too boasted a flawless record (27-0-16 KO). For the bookmakers, however, the record of Curry held far more weight than that of Honeyghan making him the overwhelming favourite with many refusing to even offer odds.
Shrewdly, Honeyghan spotted an opportunity and placed $5,000 on himself to win the fight at odds of 5/1. It’s not uncommon, in fact, it is wholly expected, that in the build-up to a fight a fighter will talk themselves up regardless of their status. What is rare though, is to see a fighter quite literally put his money where his mouth is.
On occasion, it can be difficult to differentiate between a fighter’s attempt at selling the fight or whether they truly believe what they are saying – very few outside of Honeyghan’s closest circle believed a word of his promise to return to Britain as the champion, but little did that matter.
The fight itself was staged at Caesar’s Hotel and Casino, a venue with a capacity of no more than 1,000; not exactly the stage expected to host an undisputed championship bout.
All the talk that circulated in the pre-fight build-up was about changes in the Curry training camp, the champ’s struggle to make the 147lb limit and how he longed for bigger names such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. None of this talk had any bearing on Honeyghan and his focus – He had a job to do and he was determined to get it done.
The first bell sounds and the two men meet in the middle of the ring. On one side, the champion supreme expected to obliterate the “Ragamuffin Man” and on the other side, the game challenger prepared to 'give it a go'.
Early on Curry, who appeared rather timid and cautious, looked to set himself up behind the jab and find his range. Curry’s start was somewhat tepid allowing Honeyghan to regularly be first to the punch. The two men had clearly different strategies as Curry looked to land long, heavy single shots whilst Honeyghan opted for fast combinations.
The tone was set early and the challenger was on the front foot. In the second round, Honeyghan continued to apply pressure and shocked all in attendance when he thundered a right hand into the jaw of Curry forcing his legs to buckle beneath him and bringing his right knee agonisingly close to the canvas. Though Curry didn’t touch down he was clearly hurt and Honeyghan pressed on sensing what could well be a short night’s work. Curry recovered and regained some stability in his legs prompting Honeyghan to sensibly retreat from the all-out offensive.
Round three and there’s a slight shift of momentum, Curry shows glimpses of the champion the fans had come to expect unleashing vicious looking body shots followed by a straight right upstairs that gained Honeyghan’s attention. Unfortunately for Curry, his short and infrequent success did little to fluster or shake the resolve of Honeyghan and the third round ended with both fighters trading blows at close quarters centre ring.
With Curry seemingly growing into the fight, viewers would be forgiven for thinking that he had warmed up and would start to assert himself and display his dominance. But this isn’t the story of another win on the Curry slate – Honeyghan evaded the champion's attempts at landing single power punches and what better way to answer back than to land one of your own?
Midway through the fifth round, Honeyghan found the mark again, right on the jaw of Curry. Any confidence the champion had rebuilt seemed to quite literally be knocked out of him as he began to backpedal to avert the perpetual pressure of Honeyghan.
The sixth round followed on in much the same way as the fifth, Curry looking bereft of ideas and Honeyghan dismantling the champion’s spirit and eventually his body. An accidental head clash that cut Curry over his left eye seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. After another gruelling round, Curry returned ominously to his corner at the end of the sixth, locked eyes with his trainer and shook his head and even before a word was spoken it was clear that he wanted no more. Surrounded by his cornermen, the ringside doctor and officials, it soon became clear that Curry couldn't go on.
The seconds that followed Curry’s withdrawal neatly encapsulated the extremes of emotion that sport - especially boxing - generates. At one end of the emotional spectrum, Honeyghan, the newly crowned, undisputed World Welterweight Champion flung himself to the floor in a state of sheer bliss and ecstasy at realising his lifelong dream. In the corner diagonally opposite, and at the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Curry remained on his stool – a dejected, deflated and ultimately defeated man. Within a single frame, one man realises his dreams whilst the other sees his crumble.
In the immediate fallout, Curry offered up his reasons as to why he was off on the night,
"I usually want to get a little nervous, but I didn't feel that way. I couldn't get into the rhythm, and during the fight I was weak and sluggish” said Curry.
“I still thought I could handle it. I just couldn’t get into my rhythm. In the first and fourth rounds, I tried because I knew my legs wouldn’t stand up… I won’t fight at welterweight again”.
Honeyghan didn’t care – he had told everyone what he would do and while very few believed him, he delivered 'The Ring’s: Upset of the Year', and one of the most memorable nights in British boxing history.
After the fight, both men went their separate ways as Curry honoured his promise not to fight at welterweight again. After three rebuilding fights, Curry was matched against Mike McCallum for the WBA World Super Welterweight title and entered the fight as the favourite – little good it did him as McCallum put the matchup with a wide swinging left that was a knockout of the year contender.
After dusting himself down and rebuilding, Curry again found himself in world title contention against Italian Gianfranco Rosi for the WBC title. On away soil, Curry did a demolition job on Rosi dropping him to the canvas no less than five times on his way to a 10th round retirement. Curry's next European jaunt saw him defend his WBC title against Frenchman Rene Jacquot and once again found himself as one half – the wrong half – of The Ring’s Upset of the Year as he lost his title by unanimous decision.
Curry fought three more times before hanging up the gloves for good in 1997, 17 years after his first professional outing.
The Ragamuffin Man vacated the WBA title but went on to defend his IBF and WBC titles three times before picking up his first professional loss in quite peculiar circumstances against Jorge Vaca.
On the night, Honeyghan didn’t look his usual self and seemed to be lacking some of the tenacity fans had come to expect of him. Vaca was comfortable in the fight up until an accidental collision of heads in the eighth round that resulted in a nasty cut above Vaca’s right eye, brought an abrupt halt to proceedings. After what seemed like a lifetime of confusion, the official verdict was a split decision Vaca’s favour. In defeat, Honeyghan was respectful and magnanimous conceding that he felt Vaca was the rightful winner.
The pair met again only five months later in an immediate rematch that ended emphatically as Honeyghan dug a spiteful blow into the solar plexus of Vaca rendering him unable to beat the referee’s count. Honeyghan’s second reign as world champion was short-lived as he succumbed to defeat against Marlon Starling only two fights later. Honeyghan fought on for another six years accruing a record of 10-3 but never quite reaching the lofty heights which he once sat atop.
So, there you have it – The hopeless Brit who travelled Stateside, walked into the lion’s den and put a beating on, at the time, one of the world’s most formidable champions. In six scintillating, exhilarating and mindblowing rounds, Lloyd Honeyghan etched his name into boxing’s history books and placed himself in contention for the best performance of any British boxer abroad.