Say you’re a cheery, upbeat type and you want to look on the bright side of the embarrassing outcome in Las Vegas Saturday night, when two judges dumbfounded the world by awarding a decision victory to Timothy Bradley over Manny Pacquiao. It won’t be all bad for business, you might say, and you might be right. Pacquiao is one of boxing’s two true megastars, but Bradley was so anonymous beforehand that the pay-per-view buys probably won’t cross the 1 million threshold where Pacquiao has regularly lived since 2008. A rematch now has a certain zing to it, with a storyline that would spotlight a crusading Pacquiao, dishing out justice one punch at a time.
There’s something absent in even that small, happy thought, though, and it’s not just promoter Top Rank’s estimation that interest in a rematch is low. Boxing IS a business, absolutely. Yet those who think of it as only that miss what draws in the casual fans. Boxing is a business BECAUSE it is a sport. When it no longer resembles one, some fans who enjoy sports will no longer pay money to watch it. Boxing’s business failings over the past few decades have many fathers: the public’s waning interest in such direct violence, the move from the big networks to premium channels and pay-per-view, and much more. Antics like this weekend’s are another. If one of the ideas of a sport is competition to determine a winner, how is it that a fight where there is universal agreement that Pacquiao deserved the decision end with the judges seeing it the opposite? And one potential answer to that question for viewers feeds into one of the stigmas that rendered boxing a niche sport: That unseen forces manipulate what actually happens in the ring, and that it’s all just a charade. If boxing is only a business, not a sport, then judges’ decisions shouldn’t matter at all — just let two men duke it out in some entertaining fashion, and at the end of 12 rounds, everyone walks off without any thought to who won.
Yet these things clearly does matter: Twitter’s top trending topic after the fight was #ripboxing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not that the fight was fixed (and there is zero evidence that it was); it doesn’t matter that boxing has not and never will die. Its perception is its reality. There are fans who will walk away from the sport after incidents like this. On the whole, Saturday evening was not a win for boxing, whatever short-term gains might be in the offing.
And whoever the official winner was or deserved to be, there were no true victors.
Bradley can’t be blamed for what happened. He gave a good account of himself in a fight where he was a big underdog with gamblers. But boxers who leave the ring with the spoils of a bad decision often take fire for it as though they were responsible. Bradley gets the biggest win of his career, but no one will respect it. And because he fought through two injured legs, one a fractured foot, he isn’t getting credit for bravery in a loss he might otherwise. And: Because the controversy about the decision is overshadowing everything, no one has made much of a deal out of him fighting in an appealing style, with the bout totally unmarred by the head butts that have ruined many a Bradley fight.
I rescored the fight Sunday because there was a sliver of the boxing world that had it close or even a Bradley victory, and concluded this: Bradley only clearly won one round, the 10th. Of the remainder, I could only find four more than one could conceivably score for Bradley: The 1st, 8th, 11th and 12th. Some other rounds were competitive, but I felt very comfortable with those as Pacquiao rounds. Scoring it live, I gave the 1st and 8th to Bradley, but upon rewatching made that the 8th and 12th instead. Punch statistics aren’t always conclusive, but CompuBox had Pacquiao outlanding Bradley 253-159, and his punches were always the more effective, damaging ones. Judges Duane Ford and C.J. Ross don’t come out of this sterling, to say the least, but at least we heard from Ford: He said Bradley gave Pacquiao “a boxing lesson,” and noted that Pacquiao missed a lot of punches. Guess Ford himself missed a lot of punches, with his eyes. HBO’s team was too gung-ho about Pacquiao’s work and not Bradley’s, but that doesn’t change what was actually happening in the ring, and that was Pacquiao winning.
Pacquiao might be getting some credit for looking something like his old self, but no one is much talking about that. Physically and technically, Pacquiao seemed to be “back.” He was quick and powerful, and the skillful defense he had shown for a several-year stretch had returned. That he has acknowledged relaxing in the late rounds, however, is certainly a knock against him. If people had questions before this fight about how devoted Pacquiao was to boxing these days, with all his political and religious distractions, that late-round coasting isn’t a good sign. Would the old Pacquiao have eased up on the throttle? What made him so enthralling in the ring was that he was a maniac in there, all kinetic all the time. This was still a good, solid fight, but if Pacquiao had maintained his commitment to destruction, it might’ve been even better. Of everyone, maybe he still comes out of this less dinged up than the rest — even, perhaps, a sympathetic character again after losing some fans with his remarks about gay marriage last month.
Then there’s Top Rank’s Bob Arum. He, too, was trending on Twitter Saturday night. Arum has his slavishly devoted fans and writers, and on the other end his irrational detractors. I’ve always had divided feelings about him. As one of boxing’s top two promoters for decade after decade, he is undeniably the art’s most gifted practitioner. But as one of boxing’s top two promoters for decade after decade, his reign has coincided with a sharp decline in the sport, something that’s hard to ignore, with his petty grudges and some shady incidents accounting for some of what’s gone wrong for boxing over that time. The optics of Arum grinning a huge grin while congratulating Bradley, followed by Arum going on a moral rampage about how bad the decision was… it didn’t look right to people, especially with Bradley’s manager Cameron Dunkin ferociously denying what Arum said Dunkin told him, which was that he scored the fight 116-112 for Pacquiao. Some folk who usually defend Arum at all costs were silent or even critical Saturday night. I am not saying Arum is behind any conspiracy here to ease out an aging Pacquiao and use his name to build up Bradley as the next big thing, but when Teddy Atlas is hinting on Sportscenter that Arum more or less rigged this, Arum doesn’t come out of this a winner either, no matter how much money he might make off the whole affair.
The last two Pacquiao fights — one of the few occasions when casual or non-fans tune into boxing — have both been soiled by controversial scorecards, after last year when Juan Manuel Marquez losing a decision most thought he deserved to win. We diehards are resigned to this kind of thing happening every few months. But even some of us move on after a while, sick of it all. This website’s traffic accounts for only a portion of the boxing world, but I’ve seen devoted commenters say “I’m done with this sport,” never to return. It is always a trickle, hardly ever a deluge, whereby boxing loses fans. For this to have happened on such a grand stage feels like one of those landmark occasions where the trickle could turn into at a storm.