ONCE again the performance of a boxer at world level was overshadowed by the less-than-world-class performance of supposedly competent judges, as Arthur Abraham took a wide, unanimous points decision over British challenger Paul Smith after an absorbing battle of wits at the Sparkassen Arena.
I had no issue with Abraham retaining his title in a relatively close fight, in which Smith, who was given little or no chance by the majority of analysts, played a competitive part from first bell to last.
I scored 114-114 on the night and, when I watched it back on (silent) TV, I had it 115-113 for the economical, deceptively clever but lazy and perhaps now perennially weight-affected champion.
Smith kept his jab working, his chin down and the pressure on, reducing as much as he could the time Abraham bought for himself to take his customary breaks during the three minutes when action is expected. Smith went in with a game plan for his first fight at this level, and had the intelligence and experience to stick to it most of the way.
Abraham is a good operator, with a hard jab when he uses it, a solid right hand and impressive bursts when he decides to put his punches together. However, there has always been a bit of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about him: he seems to do more than he actually does and in the past as well as here, it has seemed to me that he occasionally gets points, just as with Chris Eubank a generation ago, for appearing to work when in fact he’s spending whole minutes in damage-limitation mode – in his case tucked up behind a high guard.
That makes things tricky but from where I was sitting, although Abraham was blocking a lot of punches on his arms and gloves, he wasn’t blocking everything and the traditional method of interpretation says that when there is little or nothing to choose between fighters on punches landed, then the man who makes the fight should get the round. On this basis, I felt Smith shaded or won enough to make the fight close. He won the seventh clearly on my card, and had arguments for five or six others, while Abraham was sharper and more accurate early and particularly dominant in the fifth and again, when I felt he needed to be, the 12th. Round eight was the quietest. Neither man was shaken, hurt seriously, cut or put down, both spent the 12 rounds deep in concentration, boxing mostly at distance, with referee Robert Byrd able to leave them to do their jobs.
The worst I could give Smith was four rounds, so at the absolute extreme can see a 116-112 scoreline for Abraham. Therefore, after an initial reaction of ‘that’s too harsh’ to the announced scores of 117-111 from judges Waleska Roldan and Zoltan Enyedi, the 119-109 verdict handed down by Fernando Laguna was just plain depressing: it was, to my mind, illogical, unfair, unreflective of what I had just witnessed. The round Laguna gave Smith was the seventh, Roldan gave him rounds two, 10 and 11, Enyedi three, seven and 10.
Scoring is, of course, a serious issue. Careers, livelihoods, dreams and ambitions are laid out in front of referees and judges who are, in turn, expected to give both men full recognition for their efforts and achievements for the duration of the contest.
When that appears not to be the case, which is too often, it leaves a nasty taste. And to those who would suggest a judge marks based on what he or she sees every time without bias, please tell me on how many occasions, in what is generally perceived as a close fight, the imported challenger gets the decision over the ‘house’ champion by margins of 117-111 twice, 119-109.
When this one was announced Abraham smiled, not in relief, because he genuinely believed he had won, while Smith, who had thrown his fist in the air at the final bell and who had been carried on trainer Joe Gallagher’s shoulders around the ring, shook his head in dismay. Smith’s Liverpool fans let forth with chants of “Cheat, cheat, cheat.”
Afterwards in his Sky interview, Smith called the scoring disgusting and said “That’s what I hate most about boxing… it happens right through the sport. They just shattered my world here.”
He believed he had won.
Abraham, whose English is extremely limited, said through translation: “It was a tough fight. Paul Smith was by no means an easy opponent and he made me work hard for the win.” He said he was pleased with his performance, and felt he had proved to himself, his coach Ulli Wegner and his fans that he was not in decline at the age of 34 and in his 19th world title fight in two weight divisions.
Abraham said he would box Smith again but would also like to fight the winner of the Felix Sturm-Robert Stieglitz fight, which would be a huge draw in Germany. As all three judges scored it wide, it is unlikely that the WBO would be interested in examining the fight with a view to ordering a return.
Smith has at least put behind him the stoppage defeats by James DeGale and George Groves (who was ringside), that had, in some eyes, confined his reputation to that of a British-title-class fighter. He still holds the national championship and needs one more win to earn a Lonsdale Belt to keep, but he can now also focus on further opportunities at world level with the knowledge that he has proved he belongs there.
Abraham, who struggled for years to make middleweight before moving up to 168lbs, now appears to have to work hard to make super-middle. It is possible the years of making weight are now affecting the Armenian-born, Berliner’s power: this was his fifth consecutive championship fight to have gone the full 12 rounds. How much is left? We don’t know, but men like Sturm, Stieglitz, new European champion Groves, DeGale and the veteran Mikael Kessler, would no doubt jump at the chance to be next in line.