Sunday, July 24, 2011

:boxing: The Breaking Point

What happens when you numerically out-land your opponent across every category? When your connect rate doubles (and sometimes triples) your opponent's in every single round? When you land nearly 50% of your power punches (more than double his own, at 21%)? Where your lowest round percentage of 34% still tops his best by 5% (and was the only time, besides a 38% in another round, that you went below 40% in the entire fight--and you still connected more than him both times!) and your highest was 68% (with two other trips above 60%--spending half of the fight landing at least 45% of your power punches)? How about when you out-jab and, in total, out-land your opponent by a 2:1 margin, snapping back his head with each successive shot, displaying the greater ring generalship, and having people question the health of your opponent more than your own, as you don a massive knot on the side of your head? And what happens when the crowd, analysts, the press, and other ringside observers--including your opponent's corner during the match--have you winning the fight?

Why, you lose the fight!

That is exactly what happened to Erislandy Lara earlier this month on Saturday, July 9th. The Cuban defector dominated much of the match, out-landing Paul Williams from the outside and dodging his punches with slick ease, losing--at most--two rounds in the 4th and 5th, when he strayed from his gameplan and got caught up fighting on the inside, which benefited Williams' style of fighting. Such was Williams absorption of continually flush, head-bobbing power shots that even Roy Jones, Jr., of all people, cringed and feared for his health and safety (and after Jones' string of disturbing KO losses, including less than two months earlier, hopefully it meant that he was finally coming to terms with his own health and well-being). While the fight was closely contended and Williams showed great tenacity, most observers had Lara winning by a clear margin. However, the largely-inexperienced three judges gave the bout to Williams via majority decision (one had it a draw, the other two had him up by one to two rounds--meaning he was awarded more rounds than Lara).

To myself and others, the results were asinine at best and boxing at its worst. Even in close bouts you are bound to find some that lean to the side of controversy, but such folk were few and far between here who had Paul Williams as the victor (mostly his promoter, Dan Goossen, and some die-hard fans of the fighter). Yet, in the face of a near-shutout in statistics in favor of Erislandy Lara, who landed the cleaner, more effective shots, with a greater demonstration of ring generalship and prowess, just how could anyone have had Williams winning? Perhaps the answer lied in the one category that Lara did not best Williams in: "Punches Thrown." Where Williams failed to connect at half the percentage Lara did, he also threw nearly double the amount he did (1037 to 530). Moreover, Williams landed within reasonable proximity of Lara's total (only -24 from his 224), including by round. It has been said that sitting live or at ringside for a fight can differ greatly from sitting in front of a TV screen, and even more so for a judge, who must score a winner for each round. In certain circumstances, the fighter who threw more or showed greater aggression was given the nod over the one who may have not thrown as many punches but did connect at a higher rate as visually, the former was perceived to be the busier of the two. However, that was not quite the case with Williams-Lara, nor was it an Olympic boxing match.

While Williams was missing wildly with his punches (only 19% (200)  of his 1037 made contact), Lara was more exacting and pinpoint with his shots (42% (224) of 530), ducking and evading a good number of Williams' to stick his own (hence the "cleaner and more effective" punch criteria that is supposed to go into a judge's reasoning of who wins a round and who does not). Both fighters were aggressive and fought a good portion of the bout in close quarters, where it can be more difficult to score and where Williams tends to have the advantage, but Lara held his own in there and did well rattling the majority of his power punches from the outside, which were more clear-cut to see and had a greater effect on Williams than Williams' phone-booth barrages had on Lara. Though Williams applied his signature pressure, the Cuban did not succumb to it and even pushed him hard off himself despite their disparity in size. Perhaps the visual of the larger fighter trying to impose their will on the smaller fighter had some effect on the judges' perception of the fight, not to mention Lara's inability to score a knockdown or put Williams in truly dire straights. However, Williams himself was unsuccessful in truly hurting Lara, nor was he effective in landing his blows, either.

Boxing is no stranger to bad decisions and controversies, unfortunately, but this particular incident has reverberated more profoundly than any other in recent memory. Perhaps it is due to the brazenness of the results and what flew in the face of common sense, but the decision also seemed to encapsulate the current spirit and malaise presiding over this era of boxing: the questionable television deals that prop up uninteresting or shallow-skilled pugilists, who are often fed journeymen and less-than-caliber opposition to pad their records, fighter pays that seem as disparate as some of the match-ups, the cheapening of championship belts with multiple champions carrying unnecessarily-varying distinctions at the same weight class recognized by the same sanctioning body (i.e. "interim," "super," "diamond," "champion emeritus," etc.), bogus rankings, an emphasis of broadcasting "safe", unspectacular fights tailor-made to making a particular boxer look good over  challenging match-ups pitting the best against the best (though benefiting promoters and fighters alike share some of the blame for perpetuating it), among others. Poor decisions, of course, have also reared their ugly heads, and while not endemic, they tend to happen from time to time, including in major bouts.

Williams-Lara may not have included every single one of the above points, nor can it be blamed for all of boxing's ills, it did, in a way, represent something of a "breaking point" for the boxing community. If not that, then at least a very major crack in its collective patience, among numerous other cracks and fissures formed from many missteps and controversies over the past years that have seen the sport's popularity fall from its lofty position from the 80s back and its condition decline into one that could be best described as a "mess". No one is stranger to a bad decision, but this latest act of foolishness struck a raw nerve. The incident may not be destructive enough to kill the sport on its own, but a repeat offense(s) in the coming months or a lack of follow-through from boxing authorities can certainly act as a slow poison, continually sapping the sport of its livelihood and credibility. If it is not now, unchecked, then it will come later, as it is not always the "big" things that triggers the break as it is the "small" things (arguably, one bad outcome is not on the same scale as, say, corruption or steroid use). But at least in times like these, high-profile controversy can spawn positive action and reform to avoid that true "breaking point"--maybe with a little help from the occasional bright spot.

In the following days, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board reviewed the fight with the three judges and expressed "concern" over the decision and their reasonings behind it. As a result, they were handed indefinite suspensions and order to undergo additional training. However, because no corruption or bias could be linked to their decision-making--as per the commission's investigation--the results could not be nullified, as they were considered a matter of "subjective judgement". As Williams-Lara dredged up memories of Chavez-Whitaker, Lewis-Holyfield I, De La Hoya-Trinidad, as well as enhanced mumblings of the shortcomings of the business throughout the week, fight fans were treated by to an outstanding contest that Friday between Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez in New York City. To avoid a repeat case on their side of the Hudson, NY's state commission assigned veteran judge Julie Lederman as one of the three judges. As the Gatti-Ward -esque "Fight of the Year" candidate drew to a close, many had it a draw (though either man could be justified as a razor-thin winner by decision, it didn't seem right for either to lose, either), and the judges saw it the same, with a majority draw verdict. No problems. No controversy. Just the excited clamor for a rematch.

Where one event represented the worst in boxing, another represented the best in it. Just the match alone was enough to take people's minds off what had occurred nearly a week before (and perhaps the week before that following David Haye's high-profile limp outing in a loss to Wladamir Klitschko), placing the focus on two men giving it all they had to win a fight. It was the essence of what makes the sport so great, of why the fans continue to flock to it despite its confluence of issues. At the same time, what occurred with the Williams-Lara fight should not be forgotten or allowed to filter into the background like so many other mucky happenings in the sport's past. After this, it should be of great impetus that judges with more experience be assigned to major bouts, not ones in lacking or with questionable track records. In addition, judges should be held accountable more often for particularly questionable decisions (i.e. when the other judge(s) and/or punch tracking contradicts their scoring and a commission review and inquiry comes to a like conclusion), especially if a pattern of odd discretion is present. First-time offenders could be retrained and second-time offenders can be suspended or have their licenses revoked.

One fighter unjustly received their first loss and the other received an undeserved win, and that should not have been. The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board was on the right track with their reprimanding of the three judges in question but, unfortunately, they were also correct in not nullifying the decision their rendering, as it would have created too easy of a "slippery slope" for any fight with the whiff of an odd decision to be reversed (barring something more seedy underneath, of course). Overall, it was a step in the right direction, but at the same time, let us hope that enough is done to ensure that something of this magnitude does not happen again--and that does not even speak of the other layers of problems that require attention in boxing.

After all, you can have only so many cracks before something breaks…

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