Politics and Complacency in the Sport of Boxing

Whoops — sorry about the formatting, folks. Still getting used to this system.

We all remember the 2002 Olympic figure skating controversy. Despite a seemingly clearly inferior performance, a Russian pair won the gold medal in the face of a dazzling performance by Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. The blame immediately fell on the French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, but what most people forget — indeed, what never seemed to get any attention in the first place — is that five judges put the Russians on top — those from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and China as well as France. When I ask my friends why nobody seemed to question their decisions, they respond that the French judge gets all the attention because she was “pressured”. This is a wholly unsatisfying answer: first, because the only reason we know she was pressured was because she was immediately the target of suspicion to the exclusion of the other four judges, and second, because the reason we were originally outraged by the decision in the first place was because it was so clearly wrong, not because of bribery or pressure. That should have fallen on the heads of all five judges, not just Ms. Le Gougne.

The truth is far more dark: the reason we were shocked at Ms. Le Gougne’s conduct, but not that of the Chinese, Russian, Polish, or Ukrainian judges, is because we expected the latter to vote for their skater. It’s the way things work: Eastern bloc judges vote for eastern bloc skaters; western bloc skaters do the same for their own. The idea is for these forces to wash each other out and have a neutral judge (here, Japan) be the deciding factor. As far as the sport of figure skating was concerned, Ms. Le Gougne’s sin wasn’t that she had the wrong pair winning; her sin was that she didn’t vote for “her” team, which prevented the neutral judge from being the swing vote like she was supposed to. The idea that figure skating judges would support their own was so built into the culture of the support that nobody even thought to question it.

I think we’re seeing a very similar dynamic in the sport of boxing today. I want to preface this by saying that I do not believe that last night’s decision in the Diaz/Malignaggi fight was a “robbery” — but I don’t think it was a coin flip either. I can see a 115-113 card for Diaz, but I think you had to reach for it. Had Diaz won a split decision, or even a unanimous decision 115-113 across the board, I might have raised an eyebrow, but I wouldn’t have been motivated to write this post. But Gale Van Hoy’s 118-110 card, or even the Okie judge who had it 116-112 (he was the guy who had Daniel Jacobs pitching a shutout against Ishe Smith, which is equally absurd even though Jacobs did win that fight) are simply indefensible under any reasonable standard.

I find decisions like this outrageous, but even more infuriating is the way that the respectable commentators of the boxing world seem to react to them. HBO was dancing around the issue all night — a few times Harold Lederman took notice of the biased judge panel and some shady behavior by referee Laurence Cole (who deserves his own chapter in the “Bad for Boxing” book), but that was about it. At one point, Cole warned Malignaggi for some ticky-tack infraction, and after some discussion about how it was really a stupid warning, one of the commentators (I think it was Lennox Lewis) said it was “inexplicable”. It’s not inexplicable, it’s Lawrence Cole refereeing a fight in Texas with a Texas fighter in the ring. Far from being inexplicable, all of us know exactly how to explain it. But we dance around it because it’s impolite to say.

After the fight, as Malignaggi is trying to vent some completely justified rage into the mic, it was clear that the last thing Max Kellerman wanted to discuss was the fact that Malignaggi’s pre-fight complaints were completely borne out. “Putting aside the decision” — as if that was some inconsequential portion of the evening’s entertainment, to be brushed aside because everybody applauded Paulie’s performance (incidentally, if I were Malignaggi and were asked “who do you want next”, my immediate answer would have been “Gale Van Hoy — tonight”). And when he returned ringside, everyone agreed that Paulie “did himself no favors” by having the temerity to actually speak the truth into a camera. Then Max went on some bizarre tangent about how the “market has spoken” in giving Diaz all the advantages he enjoyed tonight. I entirely agree that Diaz has a more exciting style, has built more a fan base, and thus has earned the right to have the bigger purses and some degree of control over the way the fight is organized. But if the “market” dictates this result, then paint me red and call me comrade, because this is the sort of outcome that ruins the sport of boxing.

There’s more to that last sentence than just snark. A lot of times we ask “why is this fight happening in (usually) Las Vegas, when fighter X has a great following in location Y and the fight could make so much more there?” At some point, the answer starts to be “competitive integrity”. We can’t always put fights where the “market” demands them, because in far too many “good fight” locations — Texas, Oklahoma, Montreal, Germany — it stops being a fight and starts being a farce. To a large extent, Las Vegas is the only place in the sport that really can be called neutral turf. So sure, fights are going to be there even when economically they maybe shouldn’t. How can we complain? I don’t begrudge anybody making money off this sport, but my first obligation is to the integrity of the game, and I could never ask any out-of-stater to take a fight in Texas and say with a straight face they’ve got a fair shot.

When folks in the fight game do decide to get on a moral high horse, they tend to direct their outrage at the sanctioning organizations. There is no question that’s a deserving target. But while sanctioning bodies can do a lot of horrible things — strip titlists for no reason, approve bogus mandatories, have six “interim champions” at once — what they can’t do is ruin a career. Bad judging, bad referring, and bad commissions all have that effect in a sport which is merciless towards even one loss and is very quick to drop someone into the “opponent” category (and everything I’ve said about geographic bias can be said with just as much apoplexy with regards to “house fighters”). They are three times the problem of the sanctioning organizations and get a third of the attention. It’s a signal of our priorities, and it’s not a good one.

To be sure, bad calls will happen in any sport. But they should be aberrational and exceptional; we should never be in a situation where one can plausibly expect to be robbed before the match even commences. In a sport that was serious about itself, that would never happen because we wouldn’t hold fights in contexts where we knew the deck has already been stacked. Serious sports make sure their officials are neutral. I’ve heard complaints about basketball or baseball or hockey refereeing after the fact, but never once have I heard a manager fret that the assigned officials were biased before the contest began, because those sports don’t have officiants who are known to be bad at their jobs (or worse). The fact that we all knew this was likely to happen in Texas, the fact that it’s become so woven into the fabric of the sport that it hardly even stirs emotion, is a sign of complacency. Sure, there are lots of people who will write angry posts about this decision. But there is no real indication that there is a systematic problem worth addressing. We don’t question whether Houston or Montreal really is a good fight town; sure, the crowds are loud and excited, but what is it exactly they’re watching? If a fair fight was considered a priority in the boxing world, we’d significantly reshuffle our deck of “good fight locations”. If Texas wants the money that comes with having a big fight event, then at the very least they should have to show they’re capable of putting together a fair and equitable proceeding. But instead, resignation prevails — hometown calls are just part of the sport, and we all have to live with them.

So what do I want? I want the luminaries in the sport of boxing to start doing their job and speak up against this. Oscar de La Hoya apparently admits that Van Hoy’s scorecard was way out of line. Is De La Hoya going to use his considerable heft to make sure there is some accountability for that? If Golden Boy Promotions said flat out: “We won’t do cards in your state if Gale Van Hoy is in the rotation”, there’d be some changes and fast. I cannot believe that Bob Papa, Max Kellerman, and Harold Lederman — all folks who have swam in boxing waters for a long time — don’t know about Laurence Cole’s reputation as a referee and concur in it. So say that: When telling us “the referee tonight is Laurence Cole”, append “who has a pretty low reputation in the sport of boxing”. That’s nothing but the truth, and shame brings changes.

If I want to watch the outcome of a political struggle, I’ll watch CSPAN. If I want to watch it in an athletic context, I’ll watch Olympic boxing. We’re getting to the point where this sport is turning into figure skating or gymnastics — where biased jduging and bogus decisions aren’t just tolerated, they’re accepted as part of the culture. And that’s a horrible thing.

Long story short, a little less gentility, and a little more Teddy Atlas:

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.