Here was boxing living down to its crooked reputation again late Saturday. Here were three judges who sat ringside and watched an aged Manny Pacquiao fight someone named Jeff Horn in Australia and somehow came to the unanimous conclusion that Pacquiao had lost. Here came all the Twitter backlash, the warranted anger and three-blind-mice memes and the one-word hashtag that summarized another decision that was surprising in how unsurprising it really was.
That’s Saturday night in a nutshell. That’s Saturday night summarized. I scored the bout at home, after watching the ESPN telecast, and I had Pacquiao winning nine rounds and losing three (the first, sixth and 10th). I had friends who saw the contest 8-4 or 7-5. Fair enough. The broadcaster Teddy Atlas had spent the better part of an hour gushing over Pacquiao and perhaps his commentary nudged a close round or two in Pacquiao’s favor. Even accounting for that I can’t write up a fictional scenario in which Pacquiao had lost, let alone one in which a judge with two working eyeballs saw the fight 117-111 in favor of Horn, which actually happened on one scorecard.
This put me in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with the professional agitator Stephen A. Smith, who railed about the decision on SportsCenter. He wasn’t wrong. Nor was Atlas, who said the decision owed to incompetence or corruption. He was right. There’s simply no other explanation.
Still, I called Lou DiBella on Sunday morning for a professional opinion. DiBella is a longtime promoter, the founder of DiBella Entertainment and before that a boxing executive at HBO. He knows the sport as well anyone and had watched the bout on Saturday, and he told me that “three sixth graders who had never seen a fight before would have been more accurate.”
“There’s no way on God’s earth that a rational person who knew anything about boxing could have scored the fight for Horn,” DiBella continued. “He showed great heart but landed fewer than eight punches a round.”
It’s hard to disagree with the furor over the decision. But what that means for boxing as a sport and the casual sports fan who flipped to ESPN last night to catch Pacquiao’s first action on cable since 2005 is more nuanced and more complicated.
I agree with DiBella that those who know boxing and who follow the sport regularly were not surprised, even though I imagine everyone in that category felt that Pacquaio won. DiBella cited two other bouts from the last three days that he considered terrible scores: Robert Easter Jr.’s win at lightweight over Denis Shafikov (DiBella thought Easter won but not 120-108 like two judges had it) and Ivan Golub’s loss to Jamontay Clark at welterweight in a bout DiBella said Golub clearly won.
“Boxing fans are so used to this kind of garbage,” DiBella said. “Questionable judging on three fights in two days over one weekend reinforces the narrative that’s a major contributing factor in what turned the sport of kings into something that’s now in the ‘other sports’ column on major web sites. It’s been a long, steady decline downward and the expectations of boxing fans don’t preclude nights like last night. Boxing fans expect that decisions like that are somewhat routine.”
I agree with DiBella that the fact Horn lost even though three judges said he won should not take away from his performance. He entered the Pacquaio fight a heavy underdog and pressured Pacquiao from the opening bell to the final one, exposing Pacquiao as a champion whose prime has ended, who is no longer the powerful, dizzying, spectacular athlete who charmed the sports world en route to winning fighter of the decade (and to underscore that point, he was the fighter of the last decade, not this one). Horn met an Old Pacquiao and turned in the proverbial fight of his life. Respect. “He still lost,” DiBella said. “And it was a Rocky I-like performance. But anyone who watched Rocky-1 knows that Rocky lost.”
DiBella also scored the fight 9-3 in Pacquiao’s favor. He even watched the replay of the bout on ESPN as late Saturday turned to early Sunday. Started to watch, anyway, and turned it off after six rounds. His opinion had only hardened upon a second look. He didn’t even make it to the ninth round on his repeat viewing, which is where Pacquiao battered Horn so badly the referee told Horn that if he didn’t show anything in the 10th the ref would stop the fight.
But DiBella doesn’t think this laughable Pacquiao decision will deter fans from watching the sport in the months ahead. I agree with him that it won’t deter boxing fans and I agreed when he told me that “those fans hold low expectations for boxing in regard to the veracity of what they’re going to see” and added that “last night was just another night at the office.” But I think the casual sports fan, someone who rarely watches boxing but paid for Mayweather-Pacquiao two years ago and plans to watch the spectacle that will pit welterweight king Floyd Mayweather against MMA star Conor McGregor this August, will see boxing less as a worthy option for big bouts and more as a joke. That hurts the sport in ways that will continue to push it toward irrelevance, whether two million curious suckers pay $100 to watch Mayweather-McGregor or not. That makes boxing less sustainable than it already is, especially outside of its hardcore fanbase.
“The flip side of that,” DiBella said, “is people are talking about this, about how Manny Pacquiao got robbed. The problem is they’re also saying, oh, there goes boxing again.”
What’s sad about what happened Saturday isn’t that that a victory was stolen from Pacquiao, even though it was. That happened to Pacquiao before, when he beat Tim Bradley in obvious win in 2012. What sucks about what happened Saturday is that Bradley, commentating ringside for ESPN, called the controversy before it happened on the broadcast. He saw the insanity before it became insanity, same as I did and same as so many others who watched the fight.
Boxing has a had a bounce-back year in 2016. Optimism still abounds. I’m still excited to watch several bouts upcoming. But Saturday is one example of why the sport will never return to its heyday, why it will never be a mainstream staple again in the U.S.
Saturday was #boxing more or less.