By Terence Dooley
Scotland’s John Simpson has every right to feel aggrieved after losing his British featherweight title to Stephen Smith on a majority decision at Liverpool’s Olympia venue on Wednesday night. Simpson is a tough operator, he came to Smith’s backyard seeking to avenge his September reverse to ‘Swifty’ only to lose his British belt by the most narrow of margins.
Indeed, the scorecards of Howard Foster and Dave Parris, 115-114 and 114-114 respectively, reflected the hard fought nature of the contest, the third man, Terry O’Connor, showed either almighty clarity or a dose of judging ineptitude when turning over a 112-118 scorecard in favour of the challenger.
Certainly, debate over the result would have raged regardless given that Smith started brightly, Simpson got into it and the final third saw both have moments of ascendency, O’Connor’s card poured fuel onto the post-fight analysis, and not for the first time. The former pro caused uproar when adjudging Tyson Fury to have beaten John McDermott by 98-92 after their close English title fight, one of the last to have a ref as the sole arbiter.
Again, the decisions were both close, it is the margins that caused uproar. Terry would had to have given Fury a 10-7 for his funky ring walk and completed the Simpson-Smith card in Crayon in order for the scores to make even an ounce of sense. The alternative is that the official is a good ref but needs a strong recap when it comes to judging after another high profile scoring error.
In mitigation, judges do not always sing from the same hymn sheet. Sugar Ray Leonard’s 118-110, 115-113, 113-115 win over Marvin Hagler had one glaring card. Ironically, top Scottish official Victor Loughlin was the odd man out when Choi Tseveenpurev beat Abdu Tebazalwa on a split decision, scoring it 113-114 for the visitor to Paul Thomas and Phil Edward’s 119-110, 118-110 tallies.
Loughlin is an expert judge; he explained that he had seen things differently from his position, that Abdu’s jab and movement had been impressive. Perhaps this is what is needed, for the judges to come out and explain cards like this or for refs to give analysis of their decisions more often.
However, given that enquiries to interview refs need to go through the BBBoC and you can only get an official sentence or two when speaking to them on fight night it is unlikely that we will see decisions like this adequately explained on a regular basis. This is a shame as our best officials are knowledgeable gurus of the game.
If the board loosened the reigns a little then we could at least see situations like this one explained and defused on the night rather than blown up across forums and left for us to sift over for days on end like so much Sunday morning debris.
Billy Nelson, trainer of Simpson, explained that O’Connor scorecard was not a fair reflection of the contest when I caught up with him earlier today. “It was a shocking card from Terry. But it was a close fight,” admitted Nelson.
“I thought that John won by two or three rounds but people will just say that’s my biased view and they can think that. I think it was the champion’s fight. John is really disappointed.”
Simpson, now 22-8 (9), has been here before, losing by a single point to Dazzo Williams in a British title fight back in 2004. The 27-year-old expressed his disappointment during the last night’s post-fight interview. Many wondered if he would find it hard to come back for another title push.
“John’s fighting in July”, revealed Nelson, “and I believe he will step down to super-bantamweight. Well, he’s been the British and Commonwealth champion and, in his opinion, been robbed twice of both them belts so what is the purpose of staying up there? John has weighed in under the limit for his title fights so if he was bashing up featherweights like Andy Morris, Paul Truscott and Martin Lindsay then what’s he going to be able to do at super-bantamweight after giving all the top featherweights trouble?”
Simpson’s never going to be mistaken for Sugar Ray Robinson, the Greenock-based fighter has underrated skills and excels when dragging boxers into his type of gruelling inside contest. Nelson opined that his charge was denied the right to fight up-close by Smith’s holding tactics.
He said, “It is hard to explain, you know, because I thought the refereeing from Phil Edwards was poor in the respect that Stephen was holding on consistently from round four – 24 minutes of persistent holding. That is all he did, basically. As good a fighter as he is he was like a crab, holding and leaning on along the ropes. John couldn’t get his shots off and the ref still wouldn’t pull Smith away.
“Stephen did really well in the first round. But I don’t think he was strong in the middle rounds. He came on later in the fight then lost the eleventh and twelfth. Numerous people have contacted me saying they had Smith losing.
“John doesn’t mix his words. He respects Stephen. Smith’s a good fighter, don’t get me wrong, but I thought he was better in the first fight than the second. It was messy, aye, but they said they were working on a game plan, what was that, throw a jab and then hold on?”
It was a tense encounter. Smith boxed like a man who felt he had it in the bag during the final session, electing to preserve his lead rather than go back into the trenches. Nelson feels that his opposite number, Joe Gallagher, did not share the Liverpudlian’s confidence going into the final straight.
“Joe Gallagher is a very good trainer, he got Stephen into great condition to get a second wind like that because John is a horrible fighter to fight, I call him the wee rash, but I was looking at Joe’s demeanor from across the ring and from the seventh onwards and he knew his man was getting beat. Whether he’ll admit that is a different thing. I know what I saw, they knew he was getting beat,” he declared.
Nelson has every reason to feel unhappy, he does not hold a grudge against Smith or the officials, merely a different opinion as to how the fight was scored by O’Connor, handled by Phil Edwards and perceived by the Sky team.
“I do wish Stephen all the best, cracking guy and a cracking fighter, so we’ll agree to disagree on who won the fight,” say Nelson. “But it for happen to one individual (Simpson) so many times is not right. I like big Terry O’Connor as an individual but the whole population saw he got it wrong in his scoring there.
“Even the commentating from Sky, Richie Woodhall was unbelievably biased towards Stephen. Boxing is about scoring points, hitting the guy and trying to overpower him, John landed much better, cleaner punches than Smith did – uppercuts, body shots and jabs that mustn’t have been scored. Three English judges and a referee have robbed John of his title and that isn’t even the worst of the decisions that there’s been, the worst was when he lost to Dazzo Williams when last night’s ref (Edwards) scored it for Williams.
“Phil is a competent ref but come on, John won the Williams fight and he won this one. John will bounce back. He’s back in the gym a week on Monday. I’m sure there will be good fights down there for him. Kiko Martinez for the European super-bantamweight title would be a good one.”
Gallagher’s view of the fight differs somewhat, the trainer set a personal milestone by moving to 47-0 – he feels that his first fight with the 25-year-old fighter showcased glimpses of things to come.
“Stephen was coming off inactivity and was fighting the best in Britain at the weight. John is in the prime of his life, coming from his best ever performance. Stephen is a pup as a pro, he won the Commonwealth after only eleven fights and is now the British champion,” insisted Gallagher.
“There’s been a lot made of James DeGale’s ascendency but I think what Smith has achieved is as good as what James has done. The plan was to put it on him in round one to let him know he was in a fight and we weren’t intimidated. John came back into it, you expect that because he’s a tough man, and did some good body work on Stephen. Stephen came on at the end, I told him at the end of round nine that champions win those rounds and that is what he did.
“People talked about Simpson being stronger down the straight but it was Smith who was pushing him on his back foot late on in the fight. John started to boss things in the middle of the fight so the idea was to take it to him, smother him and get inside of his punches to pick pocket him with Ste’s own punches to get the decision.”
The two fights are reminiscent of the brace of contests between Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor. Taylor started brightly in fight once but ceded ground and rounds as the contest progressed. Scores of 113-115, twice, and 116-112 led to outrage, a rematch and an equally bitty rerun. Jermain dug in late in the return to post a trio of 115-113s, moving on despite the sense of unfinished business. Gallagher believes Smith has earned the right to move on from Simpson after 24 testy stanzas.
He said, “I’m not going to say it wasn’t a close fight. It was hard to score because Smith won the first half of every round and Simpson came on strong late. Do you score the first part of the round or the second? People shouldn’t forget that early work and what he did until the middle rounds. It is a terrific achievement.
“I had it level going into the ninth. Stephen still has that bit of the amateur scoring system in him of getting caught and trying to get one back straight away, which can lead to you going in a bit blind, but he showed great determination at the end of the fight when I asked him for a bit extra. I asked for two of the last three and we got them to win the fight.”
Claims that Smith held too much, smothered his work and failed to get his boxing going surfaced again in the wake of last night’s win. Gallagher feels that it is impossible to judge the 12-0 (6) stylist based on two fights against a guy who tends to derail prospects.
“Listen, it was my first fight with Smith. Just like I said with Anthony Crolla, give the kid some time to adapt and you’ll see the results. People were shocked last night with how good Stephen looked early, it was fantastic – we just have to get that going over twelve rounds,” mused Gallagher when asked if there is more to come.
As for O’Connor’s card, the trainer believes that talk should focus on the fight itself, rather than one errant total. “It is not my job to comment on judges’ scorecards,” he said when asked for his opinion of the wide margin.
“We had three experienced officials last night, they’ve done big title fights and two of them had it close. A lot depends on where you sit and how you see the fight. People still talk about Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler – it is all down to what you are looking for and the decision landed on Stephen’s side last night.”
Smith took some big shots himself, especially to the body, promoting Gallagher to tick the ‘toughness’ box on his post-fight report card. Saying, “I don’t think he took too big a shot but that is the nature of the beast with Smith, you would have to nail him to the canvas to win and he got caught with a good overhand right that took him to the ropes. He dug in well when a lot of fighters would have felt sorry for themselves.”
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