by Cliff Rold
For regular fight followers, the decision was made long ago.
The action in the ring, the drama unfolding three minutes at a time, matters more than the possibility of incompetence or the inevitable question of whether we are watching corruption hovering about the sport since long before most readers were even born.
For those who once followed but do not any longer, those things were a reason to exit. Sports is supposed to be an escape. The reminder that someone can do things right and still be denied for reasons that don’t make sense feels too much like real life for most.
This weekend, we saw two hotly contested title fights. Reasonable people can disagree about the outcomes of those fights. There was room for debate.
There isn’t much debate that at least one card in the Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight, and two of the three in Robert Easter-Denis Shafikov, didn’t reflect the reality many thought they were watching. In highly entertaining fights, it was the least of outcomes.
Let’s go the report cards, beginning at welterweight.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Pacquiao A-; Horn B/Post: B+; B
Pre-Fight: Power – Pacquiao B+; Horn B/Post: Same
Pre-Fight: Defense – Pacquiao B+; Horn B-/Post: B; B-
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Pacquiao A; Horn B/Post: B+; B+
Count this corner among those who scored this contest for Pacquiao at 116-112, or eight rounds to four. After a solid start in the first round, it was hard to see where Horn was landing enough to win the fight through most of the rest of the first nine rounds. He won some rounds, just not enough.
One doesn’t need punch stats to see who is landing more. It was Pacquiao, and by quite a bit. Horn did a great job making the fight physical, assisted by a Pacquiao who clearly can’t do what he used to. Pacquiao throws about half of what he did in his prime and his lack of precision and sustained combination punching left him looking all of his 38 years.
Perhaps most telling is what ultimately cost Pacquiao the fight. All of the last three rounds could be classified as swing rounds. There were others spaced throughout the fight. Pacquiao had Horn ready to go in the ninth but he didn’t have the finishing touch. Whereas once he would have had the energy to close the show, now Pacquiao was fairly spent after the ninth round assault. His speed decreased as the fight progressed and his legs looked heavy.
Horn, to his great credit, showed real grit in surviving the ninth and making a case in each of the last few rounds. He showed from the opening bell that he was there to win. His youth, energy, size, and awkwardness kept him in the fight.
It probably wasn’t enough to win anywhere but his hometown. In front of 50,000 partisans, stranger things have happened. There were enough smart folks around, even if a minority, who saw it even or just shaking out for Horn. The two 115-113 scores were comprehensible. The third score, at 117-111, or nine rounds to three, was not. It cast a pall on a close fight. Coming in a unanimous decision, it at least didn’t decide the outcome.
Horn will hope Pacquiao pursues a rematch, easily the most lucrative fight for him. One wonders if Pacquiao need go on at all. If he needs the money, so be it. For fans that have admired, or cheered against, Pacquiao over the last couple decades, it’s fair to say the ride is over. Pacquiao may just have one more night of magic in him before he’s done but the fates are cruel. Younger, better men than Horn lurk all around. Imagine if that had been an Errol Spence or Terence Crawford in the ring Saturday night.
It wouldn’t have been pretty.
Pacquiao’s impressive 2016 looks like a last glimmer after Saturday night. He has had one of the great careers of any fighter who ever lived. He doesn’t appear to be a great fighter anymore. The heart was still there last weekend, and there was more talent than most still possess. That doesn’t mean he’s Manny Pacquiao anymore and that fighter will grow more distant each time he steps in the ring.
The night before Horn-Pacquiao, fans were treated to some high quality action at lightweight.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Easter A-; Shafikov B/Post: A-; B+
Pre-Fight: Power – Easter B+; Shafikov B/Post: B; B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Easter B; Shafikov C/Post: B-; B-
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Easter B+; Shafikov B+/Post: A; A
Easter-Shafikov was an excellent fight. The score from here was 115-113 for Shafikov but the same score the other way would have been perfectly fine. Easter got off to a good start, and was effective when he kept Shafikov at bay. The Russian wouldn’t stay outside the pocket and his healthy beard made him a nightmare.
While the challenger picked off a lot of incoming on his gloves, Easter caught Shafikov with some snapping uppercuts and stiff straight shots all night. Shafikov was rarely deterred, getting his head into Easter’s chest and banging at his head and body.
As noted in the pre-fight report card, Easter has the tools to win easier than he does but his temperament is to fight. He’s a scrappy guy. Both Easter and Shafikov are fighters who are welcome viewing any time.
But what is the point of looking at what happened in the ring? Two of the three judges chimed in at 120-108. That’s a shutout for Easter.
Those scores are, in the opinion of this scribe, so bad it makes any discussion of the fight worthless. There is simply no reasonable case for saying Shafikov didn’t win a round. It would be pretty ridiculous to not have him winning several more than one. It spits on the honest effort of both men and does each a disservice.
Fans who saw this fight will remember the horrendous scores in Easter’s favor and many will hold it against him. As the perceived connected fighter, he will bear the brunt of the responsibility for two pencils he wasn’t wielding. Easter busted his ass for twelve rounds. His effort didn’t merit this cloud.
For Shafikov, it was the sort of outcome that can be dispiriting going forward. Some fighters can roll through the worst of this sport’s judging but for many it erodes the will. When you lay out the effort Shafikov did, and get those scores, it has to raise the question of what the point was? To give that much of oneself and get none of what was earned is nothing short of degrading.
It stained a quality fight and a quality night for the sport.
Boxing must do better.
Report Card Picks 2017: 18-11
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]