By Cliff Rold
Referee Russell Mora ruined what was otherwise one hell of a fight, providing the entertaining “Showtime Bantamweight Tournament” with a controversial end and one of the worst, most distracting, refereeing performances in recent memory.
A rematch is in order, and immediately.
It is not to say the end result would ultimately be any different. A 2004 Mexican Olympian, 25-year old Abner Mares (22-0-1, 13 KO) of Montebello, California, got off to a great start and, while now former IBF Bantamweight titlist Joseph Agbeko (28-3, 22 KO), 31, of Accra, Ghana, rallied strong down the stretch he was working from behind as much because of the things Mares did right than the wrongs that went unpunished.
But there were wrongs, a torrent of low shots throughout the fight that went unpunished, some of them influenced by the holding of Agbeko but plenty more not. In the end, a majority decision for Mares was awarded but point deductions that might have been and a terrible knockdown call in the eleventh weighed heavily in Agbeko losing his crown at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Saturday night in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Agbeko missed the division limit of 118 lbs. on his first two attempts on Friday before shaving crucial ounces to land on the necessary mark. Mares got it right the first time, scaling 117 ½ lbs.
Agbeko, dressed in gold with a matching golden trim bleached in the front of his hair, began the fight slipping left jabs from the instantly pressing Mares. Mares, his trunks a shade of purple, was immediately to the body; Agbeko responded in kind. A big right hand from Mares as Agbeko lingered against the ropes got a pop from the crowd. Moments later, a Mares blow strayed below the belt and Agbeko bent over in pain, Mares receiving a warning from Mora.
Agbeko would be in a lot more pain before the frame ended.
A slip of foot, short left landing to the temple, and then a quick shot to the body rattled Agbeko. A last, grazing bit of leather connected as Agbeko’s balance left him just before the thirty-second mark. Sprawling to the floor, the Ghanaian was clearly wobbled even as he rose quickly and attempted to rush back into the fray. Mares pressed as Agbeko moved away, lobbing the occasional blow to keep the younger man honest and getting back to the corner.
Low shots were an issue early in the second round. Agbeko was warned not to pull down the head of Mares but, even when he did not, Mora didn’t seem ready yet to make himself part of the affair beyond quick warnings. Agbeko, alert after the rough first round, worked on looping lefts and stiff jabs while Mares came forward. By the final minute, Agbeko was finding a home for his right hand as well, both men having had moments in a close round.
Mora continued to warn Agbeko for pulling down the head of Agbeko in the third, but was lax in warning Mares for low blows that landed without the pulls. It was the least of Agbeko’s problems in a strong round for Mares. The challenger kept his volume and accuracy up, sharp shots adding up with Agbeko answering only in response.
Agbeko found the right response, literally, in round four. Inside the final minute of a close frame, a right hand bomb from Agbeko visibly shook Mares, his knees buckling but his backside refusing to hit the canvas. Agbeko, perhaps too patient, didn’t press the issue as hard as he could have, leaving one to wonder if he’d let an opportunity pass him by.
Mares appeared to keep his odd rounds edge, but Agbeko was far closer than he’d been in the first or third. Mora broke the fighters and issued a firm warning to Mares in the final minute after yet another hard Mares low blow. Head clashes entered the game in round six, a nasty cut opened over the left eye of Mares.
In the seventh, Mares was again a picture of precision early and stayed active enough late to keep a step ahead of an Agbeko whose right hand was landing hard but not frequently enough. The eighth round was closer, competitive throughout, but Mares was showing a solid beard and Agbeko was at a point where he could lose no further rounds if he had a prayer.
Short of a knockout, or at least some knockdowns, Agbeko could only win rounds and looked to have done so in the ninth. Mora, as had been the case all night, continued to focus warnings more on Agbeko than Mares but took no points from either. Agbeko used his right hand to attempt to score points with the eyes of the judges as Mares showed some hints of fatigue.
The questionable officiating of Mora continued in round ten. Agbeko, having one of his best rounds of the fight, was nailed with an echoing cup shot at the 45-second mark. Mora checked on Agbeko and cautioned him again not to pull the head of Mares down before warning Mares to keep them up. The problem with that was that, while Agbeko’s left did stray to the neck of Mares, the low hook was already in flight. A point deduction was in order and had been for rounds.
It didn’t come.
It didn’t come in the eleventh either and Mora’s failure in the round likely will lead to serious questions about his competency and assignment in future big fights. A blatant left to the groin of Agbeko sent the African titlist to his knees in pain and Mora ruled a knockdown in a round Agbeko looked like he might be winning. It was the second notable low shot in the round, as Mares had appeared to go low after a stunning right hand early in the round. Agbeko, in the midst of a rally, went to his corner arguing with Mora at the bell and his cornerman had to be restrained.
Agbeko was long overdue to take matters in his own hands but competed honorably and won the twelfth while Mares largely backed away, logically assuming a lead. Mora had one last grazing shot below the belt line in the final thirty seconds.
Mora, of course, had nothing to say. After the final bell, Agbeko defiantly raised his arms and, while waiting for the scores to be tallied, had to be restrained from heading towards Mora. The final scores came in at an even 113-113 and matching scores of 115-111.
Agbeko, who was the victim of dubious judging in his first defeat against Wladimir Sidorenko in 2004, wore a mask of disgust in his corner. Mora, interviewed on the air after the fight, insisted that he didn’t feel the foul shots that looked to be landing in the fight were foul after all. “If it was a low blow, you would be 100% correct but those are not low blows. They are on the beltline.” As to the shot in the eleventh round, Mora stood behind the call and said it looked different in live motion.
Showtime’s Jim Gray looked Mora in the face at the end of the interview and told him he was way off.
Mares defended himself and stated he felt the shots were belt line as well. He also remembered that there had been more to the contest than just the foul issue. “I felt that I was doing good. Whenever I wanted to let go, I let go.” Mares, after being asked if he would take a rematch with Agbeko, didn’t say no and fairly asked, “Don’t ruin my moment right now.” As he enjoyed the feel of a belt over his shoulder for the first time, it was clear that request wasn’t going to go far.
Agbeko was dignified but justifiably angry in his post-fight comments. “First of all, I want to tell the world I’m a true champion. I don’t know why, especially boxers from Africa, I don’t know why this happens to them every time. When I fought Vic Darchinyan, I was fighting the referee and Vic…when I was fighting Yonnhy Perez, I had a headbutt and still the referee contacts me. I’m fighting Abner Mares and still the same thing is happening to me. I got…over 20 low punches…and it’s like I’m fighting the referee.”
Agbeko asked for what is only fair. “The referee stole my title from me to give it to him and I demand an immediate rematch.”
Time will tell if Agbeko gets what he deserves. The Showtime Tournament, which also featured Darchinyan and Perez, may be headed for an epilogue.
The card was televised in the U.S. on Showtime as part of its “Championship Boxing” series, promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and Don King Productions.
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]