Lennox Lewis’s eyes showed utter shock in Madison Square Garden on the night of March 13, 1999, after 12 dominant rounds against Evander Holyfield. Erislandy Lara wasn’t too tired from beating Paul Williams around the ring for 36 minutes to muster an expression of rage in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Paulie Malignaggi gave a post-fight interview that more resembled a tirade against the Texas State Athletic Commission and Golden Boy Promotions after clearly outboxing Juan Diaz. A smirk across the face of Manny Pacquiao showed his utter bewilderment following his dominant showing against Timothy Bradley in Las Vegas, Nevada. While Lewis, Lara, Malignaggi and Pacquiao all responded differently on these occasions, their reactions all came from the same source: they were robbed. Some would call these decisions “controversial,” “questionable” or “debatable.” Those terms are flat wrong. “Robbery” is the only term that fits.
This year all boxing fans hoped, as they do every year, that the new year would put an end to robberies. Wishful thinking to be sure, but no one expected the first one of the year to come in the first televised fight card of the year. That is exactly what happened Friday night when former Cuban amateur Rances Barthelemy faced off against Arash Usmanee on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” While Barthelemy had been featured on FNF before, it was a big fight for the junior lightweights. A number 2 ranking in the IBF was at stake, and the winner was in line for a title elimination fight. Maybe it was the high stakes, or the fact that it was both fighters’ first appearance in a televised main event, but Barthelemy and Usmanee put on a high quality fight. Then the decision was read: two judges had it 116-112 and one had it 115-113 for Barthelemy. It was quite surprising. The reactions that followed were not. First, Barthelemy’s face showed that even he was shocked by the decision. As Barthelemy’s hand was being raised, an ESPN2 color analyst and former trainer yelled, “It’s either incompetence or corruption! That is disgraceful!”
Fans took to social media to protest the decision. Noted boxing scribes such as ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael (“awful decision”; “robbery of the year candidate”), Ring Magazine’s Dougie Fischer (“Barthelemy gets a gift hometown decision”; “sucks”) and Steve Kim of Maxboxing.com (“a rancid decision”) all decried the decision.
Rightfully so. A viewing of this terrific fight (one which shows the next great nationalistic rivalry along the lines of Mexico and Puerto Rico could be Cuba and Afghanistan — kidding) shows that the official decision rendered by Ric Bays, Richard Green and Valerie Dorsett was completely off base. In fact, the only rounds that Barthelemy clearly won, in my opinion, are 1, 2 and 9. In the first two rounds, Barthelemy was able to use his jab and movement to negate Usmanee’s aggression and land some solid punches. In round 3, however, Usmanee’s pressure started becoming effective. The Afghan was landing effective punches, particularly some heavy body shots. While Usmanee was landing, Barthelemy was moving or punching much. This dynamic continued through rounds 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. In round 9, Barthelemy was able to land some punches while Usmanee seemed to tire somewhat. Rounds 10 and 11 were close rounds that could have gone to either fighter. Both seemed tired, as they had never been that far in a fight before, and there was not much difference between the two. You could give either round to either fighter (I scored the 10th for the Cuban and the 11th for Usmanee). There can be no dispute about the 12th round. Usmanee nearly stopped Barthelemy on at least two occasions and landed many more effective punches, while Barthelemy was lucky to make it to the final bell. Adding up the scores and giving the close rounds to Barthelemy, the score would be 115-113 for Usmanee. That is giving Barthelemy all the close rounds. Thus, we have a robbery.
One of the key factors of this questionable verdict: the fight took place in Miami, Florida. Barthelemy is a Cuban transplant who resides in Miami and is promoted by Florida-based Warriors Boxing. Two of the judges, Bays and Green, are Florida judges (Dorsett is from North Carolina, of all places). None of the three have judged any notable fights before (you can view a judge’s scoring history on www.boxrec.com). Certainly, the idea that this was a “hometown” decision for the “house” fighter is not out of the question.
In order to further understand the idea of a “house” fighter, revisit boxing’s last robbery which, incredibly, occurred on the last televised fight of 2012: the rematch between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham. Like Barthelemy and Usmanee, these heavyweights put on a good fight that seemed to produce a clear winner. Despite outboxing Adamek for most of the 12 rounds, which were televised on NBC, Cunningham was initially announced to have secured only a draw. Then the scores were correctly tabulated and it was revealed that the Polish former light heavyweight titleholder and cruiserweight champion was the winner. In that fight, though, it was not clear who the “house” fighter was, as both combatants are promoted by Main Events (though it can be argued that Adamek, based on his popularity in his native Poland and ability to draw fans at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, is probably higher on the Main Events priority list than Cunningham, who fought most of 3 years in Germany). Moreover, neither fighter seemed to enjoy a hometown advantage at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as Adamek is very popular in the northeast and Cunningham is a Philadelphia-based former cruiserweight titlist.
So what can be done to halt these robberies? In the case of “hometown” decisions or verdicts rendered in favor of the “house” fighter, not much. This is because such decisions are either the product of corruption or the geographic location of the fight. Corruption in boxing is as old as the sport itself. If promoters are influencing judges with payoffs, it would be very tough to halt that practice. In NBA, it took a long time before they were able to recognize referee Tim Donaghy’s connection with illegal gambling. The state athletic commissions, which regulate, oversee and license judges, could perform thorough background checks on their judges and applicants. That would be a good start.
There seems to be no way to combat a “hometown” decision. If a fighter is from the geographic location where the fight is held and has fought there often, it is only natural that the judges from that same location are going to be well acquainted with the fighter and his team, whether generally or socially (the boxing community is a small one, after all). Indeed, the judges may have even become fans of those local fighters. While this is something that could be revealed in background checks, anything short of honest answers to conflict of interest questionnaires by judges would not reveal those acquaintances or admiration.
Whether the judges are from the locality or not, the fans in the club/arena/casino ballroom/stadium are naturally going to root for their hometown fighter. This rooting could involve cheering and hollering when the hometown fighter throws a punch that doesn’t necessarily land. A judge who is not paying close attention could be fooled by the crowd into thinking the hometown fighter is doing better than he actually is. Or the crowd could just plain distract the judges. Admit it, even you knowledgeable readers have problems scoring a round on television or in the crowd when Ricky Hatton’s partisans are singing “There’s Only One Ricky Hatton.” The only solution to these issues is more training for judges. The solution is most certainly not having fighters fight outside of their home regions. If anything, boxing needs more of that to stay relevant.
Interestingly, though, if “illegal” payoffs to judges were eliminated, we would still have the matter of the legal payoffs to judges. That’s right everyone, the payment judges receive for working a fight is paid by the promoters of the fight. Some have used the example in the past that this is akin to the Steinbrenner family (the owners of the New York Yankees) paying the salaries of the umpires that work their games. Using the Barthelemy-Usmanee fight as an example, Barthelemy’s promoter, Warriors Boxing, paid the judges for that fight. While there is absolutely no evidence of corruption in that fight or the Adamek-Cunningham rematch, it is only natural to contemplate that the judges might have considered who the company paying their fees would want to win.
The biggest issue is what the judges be trained on. It is axiomatic that most judges, if not all, need some combination of training, more training and a massive amount of training. The criteria that judges use to score a fight are memorized by heart by all big fight fans (cue the Harold Lederman impression) – clean punching, effective aggression, ring generalship and defense. Aside from clean punching, what the heck do the other criteria mean? How does aggression become effective…if the punches land? If it causes the opponent to move backwards? If it causes the opponent to stop throwing punches? If it looks cool? Even more complicated, how does one define ring generalship? Is it making the opponent move to the areas you want him to move? If that’s the case, then the judges need to know the fighter’s game plan ahead of time. Is it getting a counter-puncher to throw lead punches? Now the judges need to know who the counter-punchers are. Is it pushing your opponent against the ropes? Or what about using the rope-a-dope tactic? Or playing possum? As you can see, the list goes on and on, and ring generalship is quite the amorphous concept. Finally, how does one score defense? Does a blocked punch equal a jab or a power punch? Does a dodged punch score as well as an uppercut? Let’s be fair, Robert Hoyle, Patricia Morse Jarman and Dave Moretti most likely gave Floyd Mayweather his well-earned decision over Miguel Cotto in May because of his jabs, right hands and uppercuts, as opposed to his lateral movement and his shoulder roll. Basically, we need better definitions of these criteria. I’ll leave the question of who is to determine and set the definitions of these criteria for another day.
Ideas to improve judging, however out-there they may seem, are most certainly needed. Boxers sacrifice for their careers and make their living by punching for pay. That’s why a boxer who loses a decision that he deserves is labeled as a boxer who was robbed. As such, we need outside-of-the-box ideas to make sure that improvements are made to judging.