(Joseph Agbeko reacts to a low blow; photo: Tom Casino, Showtime)
In the championship fight of the Showtime Bantamweight Tournament at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, a close, action-packed, and interesting fight between Abner Mares and Joseph Agbeko was overshadowed by a terrible performance from referee Russell Mora, who failed to penalize Mares for the plethora of illegal punches he landed below Agbeko’s beltline and went so far as to rule a knockdown on a blatant low blow in the 11th round, a round Agbeko had been winning.
Ultimately, Mares was granted a majority decision with the scorecards reading 113-113 and 115-111 twice. Unfortunately, Mora was the story. Jim Gray did not choose Mares, the winning fighter, for his first post-fight interview as is customary, instead justifiably choosing to question Mora about the low blow debacle. Mora initially contended that the punch Mares landed in the 11th was legal, then relented somewhat after seeing the replay, though he said he needed to review the tape more carefully in a contentious interview.
Mares, when interviewed after Mora, said he would be open to a rematch, and with Nonito Donaire already locked up in his next fight and Showtime reportedly owning an option on the winner of the tournament, a rematch would be the only fair outcome given the controversy. Agbeko’s team claimed that they will protest the ruling with the IBF, and I don’t blame them one bit.
It’s a shame that a good, competitive fight was overshadowed by an unbelievably bad performance by a referee. Usually, we complain about the performance of the judges of a fight, but tonight the scorecards were actually very representative of a closely contested affair. TQBR scored the bout 114-111, giving Mares rounds 1 (10-8), 2, 3, 5, 6, 11 (10-9), and 12, and Agbeko rounds 4, 7, 8, 9, and 10. However, had Mora not ruled the low blow a knockdown in the 11th and if he had taken a point from Mares at some point in the fight, Agbeko would have earned a majority draw on the judge’s scorecards.
There was more drama to the fight than just the referee. Mares began fast, fighting behind his jab and putting sharp combinations together before Agbeko could set himself. He forced Agbeko against the ropes throughout the round and scored a knockdown with a left hook to the body late in the round.
Mares continued to outwork and outbox a sluggish Agbeko throughout the first half of the fight. A crushing overhand right from Agbeko that shook Mares to the bone helped give Agbeko the 4th round, but Mares controlled the action for most of the first half of the fight, using sharp, straight combinations in between Agbeko’s wider shots. I gave Mares five of the first six rounds, with an extra point for the knockdown in the first.
The tide turned in the second half, however, as Agbeko fought more behind his jab and began to get the better of exchanges with Mares. An unintentional headbutt caused a gash over Mares’ eye, and though Mares handled the adversity well, Agbeko continued to come on in the fight.
Already edging his way back into the fight, Agbeko put together his best round of the contest in the 10th, outworking Mares on the inside as Mares looked to be slowing down as quickly as Agbeko gained steam. By this point, I had given Agbeko rounds 7 through 10 and he was creeping closer and closer on the scorecards as momentum swung towards Agbeko.
The trend continued until the fateful punch of the 11th. What could have been a 10-8 round for Agbeko if Mares had been penalized likely became a 10-8 round for Mares on the judges’ scorecards, though TQBR scored the round 10-9 for Mares since Agbeko controlled the majority of the action.
Sensing correctly that he was ahead, Mares boxed in the final round, staying on the outside and occasionally unleashing fast combinations to edge the round and earn the tournament championship.
Unfortunately, tonight’s tournament final decided nothing decisively. Mares, who looked to be potentially turning in a star-making performance in the first half of the fight, instead is left with a tainted victory. Agbeko is unjustly tagged with the third loss of his career, a loss as attributable to referee Russell Mora as to the performance of Mares.
Given the outcry from Showtime commentary booth, Jim Gray, Agbeko’s corner, and likely the fans, Mares would almost surely face incredible criticism if he does not grant Agbeko a rematch. Hopefully, if and when they do fight again, the action in the ring will eclipse the performance of the referee. Additionally, the IBF and/or the Las Vegas commission should investigate Mora’s performance and consider invoking penalties against him for such an obviously poor performance.