By Jake Donovan
It’s only fitting that in a fight where the winner was guaranteed next against a protected titlist, the end result proves largely inconclusive.
A wicked headbutt seconds into the ninth round cut short a sanctioned super welterweight eliminator between Vanes Martirosyan and Erislandy Lara at Wynn Resort in Las Vegas. The winner was to be granted a title shot at unbeaten beltholder Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, only there was no declared victor Saturday evening as the bout ended in a technical split decision draw.
Lara weighed in at 153½ lb, while Martirosyan was slightly lighter at 153 lb. during Friday’s weigh-in, which saw both fighters trade barbs and light shoves ahead of their HBO-televised main event.
The fight proved to be a marathon rather than a race. Both fighters fought a steady pace early on, with Martirosyan serving as the aggressor in pursuit of the matador-like Lara. The strategy of each fighter proved to be effective, though also made for a scoring nightmare for the ringside officials.
The ugliness from Friday’s weigh-in spilled over into the ring in round three, when the first of several fouls occurred – accidentally or otherwise. Lara was warned for a low blow that forced Martirosyan to his knees while hunched over in a corner.
Lara enjoyed his best round of the fight in the fourth, though also flirted with disaster as he was issued a final warning after yet another power punch strayed south of the border. Once again, Martirosyan was left to recover from the debilitating blow, while Lara caught lip service from referee Jay Nady during the fight and his opponent’s ire afterward.
“He’s a pretty dirty fighter,” Martirosyan said of Lara. “The low blows, coming in with his head - he’s pretty good at stuff like that.”
Despite the foul, Lara enjoyed a momentum shift at this point in the fight. Martirosyan remained the more active fighter, but suddenly struggled to defend against Lara’s overhand lefts.
Martirosyan bounced back in round six, though what Lara lacked in offensive output during the round was balanced out with brilliant defense. The scoring in the end suggested that Lara’s subtle ring generalship didn’t go completely recognized by the ringside panel, who instead seemed to favor Martirosyan’s more aggressive style.
There was no struggle to score the seventh round, a big round for Lara as his overhand left caused major problems for Martirosyan. While no knockdowns were scored in the fight, it was the first time in the evening in which the threat of a stoppage began to surface. Martirosyan was never in trouble to that degree, but the lingering effects of repeatedly eating power shots were though to eventually take its toll.
A reprieve came in round eight, when Martirosyan heeded the advice of his Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach and managed to punch his way out of trouble.
“Freddie was telling me to keep pressing the action, keep putting pressure on him,” Martirosyan revealed of the mid-fight strategy. “You know, (Lara) was running and it was pretty tough to catch him. That scores points in the amateurs, but this is the professionals.”
Lara looked every bit the professional in landing the cleaner and more telling blows, though the judges were once again in dispute over who was the more effective fighter in the round.
The fight was very much on the table for both fighters heading into what should have been the deciding final four rounds. A headbutt dramatically changed the course of the bout, catching Martirosyan over his left eye as both fighters were attempting to land. Martirosyan had his right hand cocked back while Lara lunged in to close the gap and attempt to sneak in a left.
Neither fighter would get off a punch in that sequence, or for the rest of the evening. Martirosyan dropped down in pain, at which point time was called. The referee surveyed the damage before ordering the fight to be stopped and for the judges to score the round, despite only 26 seconds having elapsed.
The scoring of judges Richardo Ocasio (87-84 Lara) and Jerry Roth (86-85 Martirosyan) suggested they managed to find a winner in the aborted ninth round. The 86-86 verdict turned in by judge Dave Moretti indicates an even round scored, which was probably the fairest call since such little took place in the frame.
Given their respective styles, a split decision was expected. It’s tough to take issue with any of the three scorecards turned in, despite the three round swing between Ocasio and Roth.
Naturally, both fighters found a way to take offense to being forced to settle for a tie.
“It was a close fight, but he ran all night,” said Martirosyan, whose record moves to 32-0-1 (20KO). “It’s not the amateurs, it’s the professionals.”
Lara not only believed that he won the fight, but also that his opponent sought the easy way out.
“Vanes is a good fighter. But I hit him with every punch I wanted to and I know I won this fight,” said Lara, whose record is now 17-1-2 (11KO). “But I believe he doesn’t have heart.”
Early returns on social media outlets suggest that the “visiting” fighter was once again hosed by the judges. The show was presented by Top Rank, whom promotes Martirosyan, a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic boxing squad in his first-ever fight against a legitimate Top 10 opponent.
Lara has now faced two Top 10 opponents and was believed to win both. Instead, his record stands at 0-1-1 against such competition, landing on the wrong end of a horribly scored split decision against Paul Williams last summer.
“This is a Top Rank card. I am a Golden Boy fighter on their card. But there is no question that I won this fight. The bad luck in those fights is that they came on another promoters show. They say it’s a draw (against Martirosyan) or they claim that I lost (to Paul Williams, on a Goossen-Tutor promoted show last summer).”
What neither fighter now has is a guaranteed title fight. The winner was supposed to face Alvarez, but will now most likely be ordered to do it all again.
While they disagreed on the outcome, both fighters shared similar thoughts on a rematch.
“I feel great. Our plan was to come on late because he gets tired. As soon as the stitches come out I want a rematch,” Martirosyan insisted.
Lara agreed that a sequel needs to happen, the sooner the better.
“I want a rematch, no question. If we could continue, I’d go right now. In the final rounds, I was going up, he was going down.”
For now, they both stay even – and for the next few months, out of the crosshairs of a young champion who gets to continue to nibble around the edges without repercussion.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox