Five fighters who got their big break late in their careers

Profile Picture: Danny Howard

Danny Howard

November 17th, 2021

When a boxer wins the big one, it can set the stage for the rest of their careers. Many of the greats did it early, and kept doing it for years, while others finally struck it big when it looked like they were nearing their curtain call.

These five fighters beat the odds and caught their big breaks late in their careers.

1. Tony Bellew

Bellew was a bit of an afterthought after a failed run at light heavyweight, but his fortunes changed when he moved up to cruiserweight. His resurgence in the division culminated in winning the WBC title, and earning a role as the antagonist in 2017’s Creed. Bellew’s crowning moment came at heavyweight, twice beating David Haye in shocking upsets. Though he ended his career in defeat to Oleksandr Usyk, Bellew’s grind paid off big in the end.

2. Cornelius Bundrage

After flaming out in the second season of The Contender, Bundrage received a much-needed break in 2010 when he was given a title shot against Cory Spinks. He stopped the champion in five rounds and, at 37, became the oldest man to win the junior middleweight championship. He made two successful defenses of his title before losing it, but was a staple in the division well into his 40s.

3. Glen Johnson

"The Road Warrior" saw plenty of bad decisions and had his share of bad luck over the course of his long career, but his fortunes changed the night he faced Roy Jones Jr. in 2004. Johnson was seen as nothing more than an easy opponent for the rebounding Jones, but Johnson had none of it. He battered and concussed Jones, ending his journeyman perception overnight. While he did stick around a bit too long, Johnson spent the next decade in high-profile fights from super middleweight to cruiserweight before retiring in 2015.

4. Freddie Pendleton

There was one point in Pendleton’s career that his stat line read 13-13-1, which doesn’t bode well for any fighter. Despite his awful record, he was always tough and willed himself into title contention. After a loss to Pernell Whitaker in 1990, something changed in Pendleton as he went on the run of his career, winning 12 of his next 13 fights which included a lightweight title. It wouldn’t take long for Pendleton to go back to trading a win for a loss, but his status was forever elevated after winning a world title after 54 fights.

5. Bernard Hopkins

It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a time when we celebrated Hopkins’ greatness. Hopkins was a decided underdog against Felix Trinidad in 2001, but Hopkins flipped the script.

After humiliating and stopping Trinidad in the biggest fight of his career, Hopkins suddenly got the big fights that eluded him when he was younger. It's astonishing that Hopkins fought for another 15 years after this, but he did so as one of the sport’s premier attractions.