By Tris Dixon
IT is a well-worn story.
You take a fighter on the road, you run the rick of them getting screwed. Their career can take a jagged downturn or even be ended.
A bad decision, a controversial call. They happen all the time. In boxing.
It’s par for the course. We should not accept it, though it has become common knowledge and commonplace, a weird monotony that is often justified by interpretation.
If you go into a fighter’s hometown to win you better leave him on the canvas and not leave anything down to the officials.
This is not a controversial statement. This is boxing terminology. The norm. We know it happens. We have seen it. Year in. Year out.
Fans have been left heartbroken and despondent. Fighters’ careers have been ruined, their families not afforded the lives they wanted to give them. It happens because men in suits at some level screw around with the basics.
“It’s really not rocket science,” said Colin Nathan, South Africa’s leading trainer and manager this week.
The WBC has recently voted Colin onto a trainers’ committee and in February he was named South Africa’s trainer of the year. As well as owning the Hot Box Gym, and having studied under Freddie Roach in Los Angeles, he is an expert analyst on TV in his home country.
“People are swayed by the crowd and it’s called hometown advantage,” he continued. “I think a lot of these judges are also old, to be honest.”
Nathan was again recently on the wrong end of a controversy on his travels. On February 17, his super-middleweight contender Ryno Liebenberg was boxing well in Germany against German Vincent Feigenbutz. Liebenberg was cut on his forehead but not in any bother when referee Massimilliano Bianco waved the contest off.
It was a curious ending. Bizarre, really.
“I’m not saying he’s not qualified to look at the cut,” Nathan explained of the referee. “I’m saying there’s a reason why you have ringside physicians. Get an opinion. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t make a ruling. You know my guy is coming on. Why stop it? He wasn’t buckled, hurt, pawing at his eye or knocked down. He was in the fight.”
Feigenbutz was euphoric – “relieved” was Nathan’s descriptive choice. The South Africans left empty handed. But for Nathan, it was déjà vu.
The date was September 16 and the Groundhog Day was only last year.
His light-flyweight Hekkie Budler was boxing in the Philippines, against Filipino Milan Melindo for the IBF light-flyweight title.
Melindo was badly cut by the right eye and when the 11th started his wound was not healed, so his corner summoned him back and treated it some more – even though the round had started. A one-minute break turned into two minutes recovery for the Filipino. A similar thing happened in round 12 before the action resumed, too.
Some of the things you see… Is it just dubious? Is it incompetence? Do the officials not understand the rules of engagement? Is it worse than that? Is it more sinister?
“It just sucks,” Nathan continued of being on the receiving end. “It’s heart-breaking. It’s happened to me before, it happened when Hekkie fought Melindo and now with Ryno against Feigenbutz. Hekkie caused the second cut in that fight with a punch and the trainer was still allowed in the corner, to get in the actual ring, and the doctor was called and then what happened was instead of taking him to neutral corner they administered more adrenaline when the 60 seconds was up and they did this in rounds 11 and 12 with that cut – so they took away six minutes of us inflicting enough damage to warrant a TKO. And, in fact, the cuts were so bad they should have stopped it. So that was just as bad to be honest.”
There is a worn out nature to Nathan’s narrative. He’s tired of it. Of Liebenberg-Feginbutz, he’s written to Darryl Peoples at the IBF – as have Ryno’s promoters Golden Gloves – to try to get his charge a rematch. He is hopeful. But the chances are it would be in Germany.
“I thought the first round was competitive, I thought we lost one decisive round, with round four being debatable,” he said. “Ryno was getting into his groove, and if you notice Feigenbutz… The pace was starting to get to him and he was starting to breathe heavily. I think he was feeling the accumulation of those body shots. I really do. Ryno was getting into his groove, he’s a very fit guy, and I think that Feigenbutz just couldn’t keep him off.”
Then, with the referee’s examination of the cut – nothing like as bad as Melindo’s against Budler, for what it’s worth, which was long and over the eyelid – the fight was over.
“I tell my guys that boxing has parallels to life and sometimes life is not fair,” Nathan shrugged, when asked how he sympathises with his forlorn fighters. “But it doesn’t give them what they are looking for. You get bad officiating in other sports but boxing is the one sport in the world where when there’s a bad call, it’s different to a team sport, because a loss on a professional fighter’s record is devastating.
“When Hekkie lost his undisputed championship to Byron Rojas on all three scorecards [in South Africa] it was seven rounds to five and it was really close. But we lost that fight. Anywhere else in the world it would have been a draw and they would have given it [the title] to Hekkie. The point I’m trying to make is, have bad decisions happened in South Africa? Absolutely. But it just seems that you need some luck, you know.
“[In Germany] They’re known for their bad decisions. And at the press conference if you saw in the build-up we said the only way we could win was to go for a stoppage. We knew we couldn’t win a decision there. Once in a blue moon they give it to a fighter who deserves to win, but there have been so many cases over the years where they haven’t.
“Ryno’s still very angry, but in the dressing room he was teary. He’d been cut way worse [in the past]. And the thing was, the blood wasn’t running into his eye. It was a vertical cut. He wasn’t pawing at it. He wasn’t panicking. He was shattered [by the verdict].
“With Ryno, if he lost the fight he was going to retire. But he looked so good he wants to get a rematch with the guy, fight him and beat him. It’s getting to the point when you have to ask, “How much more do I want this?”
Budler has another big fight on the horizon in May, when he travels to face Ryoichi Taguchi for the IBF, WBA and Ring magazine junior-flyweight titles.
“You look at the ratings, you look at the opportunity and see what championship it is and then you assess,” Nathan said of weighing up whether it is worth his fighters getting the short-end.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” he concluded. “The problem is people think South Africa is a third world country so “we will treat them like shit.”
The hometown decision is a curse of boxing. Travelling fighters and their teams are ripped off continuously and nothing is done about it. Some verdicts are atrocious and worse than others but that does not make any of them right.
It is time that those who make these potentially life-changing decisions are held accountable and forced to explain their actions rather than hide behind the sport’s subjectivity.