By Ryan Maquiñana
“The punch that I saw live was a fair punch parried off his glove. That’s a fair punch…Those were not low blows.” –Russell Mora
I’m sorry, Mr. Mora, but that was ludicrous.
Fight fans, if you haven’t yet feasted your eyes on what supposed to be an adrenaline-pumping finale to a riveting Showtime Bantamweight Tournament, referee Russell Mora’s performance was cringe-worthy enough to make Jim Joyce’s gaffe on the diamond last summer look tolerable.
First, let’s get out of the way that I don’t have anything against new IBF titlist Abner Mares of Montebello, Calif. He deserves applause for waiting around for incumbent Joseph Agbeko when the Ghanaian postponed the bout due to a sciatic nerve injury. Also, I’ve seen Mora referee several fights ringside, namely Nonito Donaire’s February blitzing of Fernando Montiel, and he had yet to make his presence known in a negative matter from my point of view.
In addition, as far as breaking down the dynamics of the fight itself, Mares showed his splendid skills by outboxing and outslugging “King Kong” when necessary. Based on what I would theoretically be mandated to do as a result of Mora’s (in)actions, my final scorecard had Mares ahead.
"What can I say? It was me who threw the punch. If it was low, it was low. It was never my intent.” Mares
That being said, let’s get one thing straight. Agbeko didn’t deserve the silent treatment from a referee whose basic duty was to regulate any foul play, intended or not. Mares repeatedly threw punishing power shots—namely crushing left hooks—below the belt without reprimand.
OK, now here’s where conjecture takes the baton from objectivity a little bit, but these are points worth mentioning to rebut the argument in advance that Mora’s calls did not necessarily alter the complexion of the fight.
By my admission, I don’t have the number off the top of my head, but I’d like to know how many warnings it takes referees on average before they decide to penalize points via illicit shots south of the border. In this sad instance, Mora was handing warnings out like Halloween candy, while continuously admonishing Agbeko for certain behavior that I’m still scouring my recording to find.
With at least six crystal clear instances where a low blow from Mares was either ignored by Mora or waved off as a warning, one could conclude that in Mares’s mind, he was encouraged to keep hurling them at this new bull’s-eye below Agbeko’s beltline, since by Mora’s in-fight definition, they were in the legal vicinity.
“It’s part of the fight,” –Kostya Tszyu on low blows he traded with Ricky Hatton, 2005
One blow to the family jewels, sure. Two? Pushing the envelope. But what are the repercussions of a series of low blows? The answer is obvious, and Showtime color commentator Antonio Tarver discussed it at length after the fight.
“It will zap your energy,” Tarver said. “It will zap your stamina…Without these low blows, you don’t know if the outcome would’ve been different. But they happened, and they changed the outcome of this fight.”
Agbeko was absolutely drained as the fight progressed. Look, one wallop downtown would be, as newly minted Hall of Famer Tszyu opined to be, part of boxing, but the effect of a double-digit amount of hammers to the house? I’m going to guess that the liquid in Agbeko’s postfight drug test cup is as red as the gloves he wore in the ring tonight.
In other words, to play the Devil’s Advocate and argue that Mora’s inexplicable refusal to deduct points from Mares would not deter his punch location and therefore affect the complexion of a fight would come from someone either certifiably insane or one who had mortgage-type money riding on the outcome of this bout.
Hyperbole aside, take the 11th round. Just when we were all thrown a bone in the form of a blatantly observable left hook from Mares that strayed too far under the equator, Mora ensured he would etch his name in sports infamy by giving the prone Agbeko time to recover—nine seconds to be exact, unless Agbeko wanted to add insult to injury by ceding his title by retirement.
Mora’s ruling was in fact a knockdown to an incredulous boxing world—a four-point swing on each card if you felt hamstrung by the letter of the law to score it 10-8 Mares in a round that might have been Agbeko’s for the taking.
And yes, the two ledgers that ruled for Mares had him winning by four points apiece, but who’s counting?
Of course, the stage was tactically set for Mares to cruise through the 12th and final frame, having now “floored” Agbeko twice. With a desperate Agbeko now needing a knockout, the circumstances by which one could present itself became fleetingly nonexistent with a jab-jousting Mares.
Now in retrospect, could Team Agbeko have done a few things differently? Sure. For one, his corner could have been more adamant earlier in the fight to at least demonstrate to Mora that his inactivity would not be tolerated. Maybe Mora would have been more attentive to Agbeko’s waist if he knew he was being scrutinized on that very detail.
Also, Agbeko could’ve also resorted to the unwritten rule of returning the favor. If the proverbial “taste of his own medicine” wouldn’t convince Mares to fix his offensive inaccuracy, then at least the Ghanaian could extract some measure of Hammurabi-like vengeance on his tormentor.
Then again, one could debate that Agbeko’s reluctance to fight fire with fire was a direct result of Mora’s seemingly one-sided eyesight. The way Agbeko’s night was going, he couldn’t afford to give up any points whatsoever for long-term gain, and based on the way the cards played out, he was right.
So is there any way to explain Mora’s behavior? Well, if he sincerely gave his best effort out there, then tip your hat to him, buy him a pair of thicker glasses, and keep him a football field away from officiating a fight of relative importance in the near future.
Nonetheless, if the answer is no, then you have to raise a whole different category of questions that would be best handled by someone with more power than this writer. And as an optimist, I want to believe Mora when he insists he was merely calling it how he saw it.
But it’s hard.
“That was not right. Can any good come out of this?” –Fight fan Sergio Gonzalez
Reflecting on this fight’s long-term impact, I think if there were any heroes that came out of last night, it was the Showtime broadcasting crew, highlighted by Gus Johnson eliciting Tarver’s pugilistic perspective of low blows, Al Bernstein’s frank analysis, and the unlikeliest of champions in ringside interviewer Jim Gray, who unmercifully let Mora have it in front of the cameras.
Perhaps Gray’s delicious hatchet job was penance for his debacle at NBC when he inopportunely badgered Pete Rose at the All-Century Team presentation, or when James Toney knocked the microphone out of his hands for his coercive line of questioning after “Lights Out” stopped Evander Holyfield.
While Mora lent credence to the aforementioned line of reasoning that he merely did an incompetent job by displaying the audacious courage to answer to the public, maybe it was in his best interests to plead the Fifth and head straight for the showers, because he did himself no favors in his attempt to defend his poor decisions.
Notwithstanding the dubious result of tonight’s bout, the fan has to wonder: Was the Showtime’s objective broadcast at least an indirect result of the network’s philosophy to avoid being vulnerable to long-term contracts with certain fighters and certain promoters? Maybe, maybe not.
As far as HBO is concerned, Larry Merchant has generally asked the tough questions, and Harold Lederman’s recent tally of Erislandy Lara vs. Paul Williams was damning evidence of fairness when the outrageous “official” cards were announced moments later.
Overall, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a lot easier to give us the brutal truth and refrain from playing favorites when no conflicts of interest arise. Tonight on Showtime, we saw broadcast journalism at its finest.
Also, while they will probably be vilified six ways past Sunday for their fighter winning, I think it was admirable of Mares’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, to admit Mora’s unsatisfactory showing on Twitter. Likewise, Mares’s managing team, the perpetually classy Frank Espinoza Sr. and Jr., deserve credit for acknowledging that Agbeko deserved a rematch.
Ultimately however, the fans’ final judgment will assuredly come when pens touch paper and the two combatants contest the IBF bantamweight belt in the immediate future.
Sometimes a loss can do more for a fighter’s career than a win. Joseph Agbeko was an underrated champ before the tournament, and even had he won a close decision tonight, maybe he doesn’t endear himself to as many fans, many of whom can relate to his becoming a victim of Murphy’s Law.
In some ways, the talented Mr. Mares was victimized as well, since his first title reign will forever be remembered for the wrong reasons.
Most of all, the biggest loser is the sport's integrity. In what should have been a glorious coronation of a bantamweight champion, we fell susceptible once again to the same suspicion and scandal that has kept us trudging through quicksand.
While an immediate rematch would be a nice consolation gift for the fans, barring some major advances in science, nothing will allow us to wholly replicate the August 2011 version of Abner Mares and similarly, tonight’s edition of Joseph Agbeko.
But it’s better than nothing. Sadly, it seems like we’ve been saying a lot of that lately when it comes to boxing.
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’s a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and THE RING’s Ratings Advisory Panel. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.
Tags: Abner Mares , Joseph Agbeko , Agbeko-Mares , Agbeko vs Mares