The consensus best heavyweight in the world is the current IBO/IBF Heavyweight Champion, Wladimir Klitschko, and with good reason. He has beaten a lot of good fighters of late and in dramatic fashion, but none perhaps, as dramatic as the knockout that he was at the end of in 2003, when a pinpoint straight left hand from the huge underdog, Corrie Sanders, sent him to the canvas and out of the fight in just two rounds. It was the crowning achievement for an underachiever and placed the WBO Heavyweight Title around the waist of the South African.
Sanders was known as “The Sniper,” a fitting name for such a sharp and accurate power-puncher. He always seemed on the verge of doing something special in the heavyweight division, but he never really applied himself. He began his career with twenty-three wins in a row, sixteen of those by knockout, and some was against decent competition. He knocked out Johnny DuPlooy in one round to win the South African Heavyweight Title, got decisions over Mike Dixon and Mike Evans, both incredibly tough competitors.
One win that made the public take notice…at least the boxing fans that followed the sport, was a knockout win over Bert Cooper in 1993. In just three rounds, he dominated and dispatched him to the canvas. This was the same Cooper that just two years prior had given Evander Holyfield the fight of his life, knocking him to the canvas and nearly winning the world title, and then went on to trade knockdown after knockdown with future heavyweight champion, Michael Moorer. Cooper had a reputation of a tough guy with a big punch and a lot of spirit and Sanders extinguished it quickly.
A name that may not ring any bells, but was also known to be a very tough customer was Levi Billups. He wasn’t an easy man to stop, and he had actually picked up a good win just two years prior when he decisioned former heavyweight champion, James “Bonecrusher” Smith. Billups would later go on to go the distance with a young Lennox Lewis in 1992, taking the future hall of famer the ten rounds, but would get blasted out of the fight in just one by “The Sniper.” A follow up win over the one time prospect, Mike Williams, also in the first round, let the boxing world know that Corrie Sanders was a force to be reckoned with, but in 1994, the crueler side of the sport would chime in and the undefeated record would vanish.
Nate Tubbs, 12-1, 11 KO’s, was not looked at as a really serious threat to Sanders. He did have a punch and he did come from a boxing family, but the South African appeared to be too talented and too quick for the slow clubber. For one round it seemed that way, but a vicious shove to the canvas by the stocky and incredibly strong Tubbs seemed to rattle Sanders. A right hand in the second round would obliterate him, crumbling him into a pile in the corner of the ring. The referee counted him out in front of his South African hometown audience. The Sanders express had derailed and he soon got the label of an overhyped contender that really wasn’t a player in the division.
Sanders would rebound in 1994 with two wins over nondescript opposition, follow up with two more wins in 1995, and have four quick knockouts in 1996. He was rebuilding his career. In 1997, he would face Ross Puritty for the WBU Heavyweight Title, a meaningless trinket, but the opponent is what mattered. Although Puritty has never been a successful or renowned heavyweight, he was a truth machine. If you weren’t at your best or weren’t the real deal, he would expose it as he did with Tommy Morrison and Wladimir Klitschko. He got a disputed draw with Morrison, after knocking him down twice, and actually stopped “Dr. Steelhammer” in a war of attrition. He was much better than his record indicated.
Sanders showed that he could box and out-boxed Puritty for the entire fight, winning every round and walking away with an easy decision win. This was a confidence booster, and proved that he could handle a guy that didn’t fall down when he hit them. Puritty was the type of fighter that could take your best punch and get into your head by his insistence to move forward, but Sanders overcame that and walked away with a good win.
The activity of Sanders began to slow down. Nearly a year after his win over Puritty, he came to the states to fight former cruiserweight champion, Bobby Czyz. It was a massacre with the bigger man using his power and accuracy to drill Czyz to the canvas. There was nothing that the former Showtime commentator could do against the vicious onslaught. This was a victory that didn’t mean a great deal on paper, but it got people talking. People knew who Czyz was and to hear that he got starched in two rounds made some headlines and got some people talking about the South African import.
Sanders took another year off to return with a first round KO win over Jorge Valdes, and came back after another year off to record one of his best victories, a first round knockout over former cruiserweight champion, Al Cole. Cole was known for his chin. He stood up to heavyweight punches from Michael Grant, who didn’t knock him out. He would retire in the corner after a battle. Cole went the distance with Tim Witherspoon, taking a lot of big shots and Cole was no defensive whiz either. He had an iron chin, but Sanders was too precise and had magic in that straight left hand. He could knock anybody out at anytime if he was able to land it, and he landed it, lowering the boom on Cole, icing him in one minute, thirteen seconds.
Three months later, it was time to face a well known and respected contender, Hasim “The Rock” Rahman, who stated before the encounter that if he couldn’t beat Corrie Sanders, then he had no business in boxing. Sanders entered the ring at 225, but he looked fat, while Rahman looked like a rock. It was a George Foreman-Ron Lyle type of match up, with both men stunned and down, but it was Rahman’s better conditioning that secured the 7th round knockout win, mostly from body shots. Sanders wasn’t taking the sport seriously and paid a dear price for it. He had blown a huge opportunity.
Two knockout wins, one in 2001 over Michael Sprott, and the other over Otis Tisdale in 2002, would propel him into the biggest opportunity of his career and an opportunity that he would not let slip away in March of 2003: A WBO Title shot against reigning champion and HBO’s most promoted big man, Wladimir Klitschko.
Sanders was a name that was first mentioned as an opponent for brother Vitali Klitschko, who opted not to take the fight. It was rumored at one time that Vitali was nearly signed to fight Sanders until he was advised not to because of the KO power that “The Sniper” had. Younger brother Wlad needed an opponent and there weren’t too many takers. Sanders wasn’t supposed to be the guy, but everything else failed and they needed somebody to get destroyed by the next big thing.
Once again, Sanders would weigh 225 pounds, but he was tighter and he looked very focused. He was taking this bout very seriously as well as he should. Despite the WBO’s reputation of having B to C level heavyweights as their champions, it has grown to be respected and counted alongside the WBA, WBC, and IBF. Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, Tommy Morrison, and Riddick Bowe have held it and have used it as a bargaining chip to bigger things, but by this point in 2003, it was near the point of equality with the others, and Sanders realized that as he stared face to face with the intimidating and enormous champion.
Wladimir, who had one forty of his forty-one fights going into this bout, was nearly destroyed in a round. He barely survived the first round to be knocked out in twenty-seven seconds of the second. As Sanders looked at the mangled heap that once was the WBO Heavyweight Champion, he screamed, raising both his hands in triumph. He had reached the top of boxing, beating the most talked about heavyweight in recent times and not only beat him, but destroyed him. We saw on this night what Sanders could be and could have been had he maintained focus and dedication to the game.
After the win, big brother Vitali, obviously rattled by what he had just seen, approached Sanders in a threatening fashion, stating something to the effect that he was going to regain the title for the Klitschko family. He, like most, was in total shock of the outcome and couldn’t handle seeing his baby brother laid out. Sanders just laughed in his face, not allowing the bad sportsmanship from Vitali to ruin his moment. This face off, however, would lead to a vacant WBC Heavyweight Title fight one year later between the two.
HBO kept flip-flopping between which brother to support and promote. When Vitali quit against Chris Byrd, they left him and moved on to Wlad, and when Wlad lost to Sanders, they came back to Vitali. Now, they stopped calling him “robotic” and called him “tough.” Tough enough to handle the power of Sanders…something that Wladimir could not do. He got the chance to prove it on April 24th, 2004, as he took on the man that beat up his little brother. There was a lot of intrigue going into this bout.
Before the bout, Sanders had commented that he had the key to beat both brothers, which I believed meant that he was going to throw straight down the pike and just knock out Vitali has he did Wlad, and may not have been prepared for a long and grueling contest. HBO’s statement that Vitali was tough, was not a lie, as he stood up to some rocky moments to systematically destroy Sanders. Corrie landed a few straight left hands and some had a good effect while others were too little too late. He stood tall, taking the punishment before he was finally rescued in the eighth round. The courage that Sanders showed in that bout was amazing. He just kept on coming and trying to land that haymaker that would change it all. It didn’t happen and now with him out of the way, HBO could get back to Plan A: push Vitali’s career.
Sanders would have one more fight in 2004, a quick KO over an unknown and hapless opponent and then take two years off before returning again to score another fast knockout over another journeyman fighter. He would wait nearly another year, when he returned in 2007 to score a decision win over Daniel Bispo, injuring his hand in the process. With his sporadic fighting schedule and advanced age, the writing was on the wall that his career was at the tail end and the greatness that he achieved in 2003 would never be repeated.
We got confirmation this month when a 239 pound Sanders crumpled to the canvas after a body shot in the first round by Osborne Machimana, who had only won fourteen of his twenty fights going in. This was it for Sanders. He had stopped so many fighters in the first round and now it had happened to him. It was a sad ending for a very good fighter that could have been a great one.
The story of Corrie Sanders is incomplete. In a time when a lot of heavyweights are labeled as big busts by the media, Sanders could be described as a bust by choice. He never applied himself one hundred percent, and because of that, he didn’t make it to the level that he really belonged. He was born with something that cannot be taught. His left hand was a wrecking ball and he had perfect timing. It’s very easy to imagine him cutting through the heavyweight division at nearly any time in history if he had been motivated, focused, and fought on a consistent basis. He just wasn’t willing to do that.
Sanders’ record stands at, 42-4, 31 KO’s, and will be remembered as the guy that temporarily derailed who many consider to be the best heavyweight in the world. He did hold the WBO Title and deserves to be mentioned as a champion. I think that despite the fact that he is linked forever with the Wladimir Klitschko victory, it’s not a bad thing. The image of him screaming and throwing up his arms in victory is a moment in boxing history that should be remembered. It was a moment when the underdog lived up to his potential and for a moment in time, conquered a perceived unbeatable foe. It is one of the scenarios that makes boxing so special and it was a great example of it, and a moment that Sanders surely deserved.