THERE’S an old boxing adage, recited all too often: ‘You have to take the fight to the champion to win the title.’ There are, of course, no special scoring allowances for champions and no requirements that challengers have to fight aggressively to win.
Those, at least, are the scoring rules, but rules can be tweaked in favour of champions, or, more to the point, in favour of A-listers. This is not usually the result of conscious bias on the part of judges and referees, but they may be influenced by the crowd, the promoter’s attention and by unconscious expectations. How often have we seen the big promoter’s golden boy getting the benefit of the doubt in a close encounter?
When an A-list fighter is also a national hero, and when the alphabet body controlling the fight is based in the same country, the likelihood of favouritism of one kind of another rises. Which brings us to the tale of two Mexican heroes. No boxer in Mexican history had the level of national adulation enjoyed by Julio Cesar Chavez – at least until the arrival of Canelo Alvarez.
Let’s start with Chavez, who won 10 in a row before fighting a journeyman Miguel Ruiz in 1981. Chavez was disqualified in the first round and that’s how the result was recorded in, for example, The Ring Record Book. But what was not known until much later was that the local boxing commission in Culiacan changed the result to a knockout win for Chavez. Why? Well, it might just have had something to do with the fact that Ramon Felix, Chavez’s manager, was a member of the Culiacan commission at the time.
Julio Cesar went on to win the WBC super-featherweight title. In his sixth defence he faced the excellent former and future WBA title holder Rocky Lockridge. It was nip and tuck the whole way and Chavez emerged with a majority decision – not a robbery but let’s just say that if Lockridge had been the A-lister it would feasibly have gone the other way.
His next bit of fortune was indirect. Chavez won the WBA lightweight title in brilliant style from Edwin Rosario and his team wanted an all-Mexican unification with WBC titlist Jose Luis Ramirez. Only problem was that Ramirez had a mandatory against Pernell Whitaker who comprehensively outboxed him. Britain’s Harry Gibb very generously gave Ramirez three of the 12 rounds, but, astonishingly, was over-ruled by the other judges. It was one of the worst decisions in boxing history, but it was very convenient for Chavez who unified.
He was 68-0 when he took on the flashy IBF light-welterweight title holder Meldrick Taylor in a unification bout in March 1990. Going into the last round Taylor was up by seven points on one card and five on another, having outlanded Chavez two-to-one while taking punishment to the body and head, but he was finally dropped near the end of the 12th.
Referee Richard Steele took up the count. Meldrick rose at five and nodded he was okay. But when asked if he’s okay, he looked towards his corner because his trainer, Lou Duva, climbed onto the ring apron. Steele, who’d heard the 10 second round-ending buzzer, stopped the fight with two seconds left. If, instead, he’d wiped Taylor’s gloves, as per usual, the bell would have sounded and Meldrick would have won without taking another punch. Steele once made the strange remark that if he’d left it continue it would have been giving Taylor an unfair advantage because if it had been earlier in the round he’d have stopped it. His job wasn’t to give advantages; it was to protect Taylor but if there was no time for Chavez to land another punch, then no protection was needed.
I don’t believe that Steele was biased because Chavez was a Don King fighter, as some have suggested, but who knows whether he was unconsciously influenced by the aggressively pro-Chavez crowd who would not have taken kindly to their hero losing?
Chavez went to 87-0 before making a bid for his fourth title in 1993, taking on Whitaker, who, by then, was WBC welterweight champion.
This time there seemed no margin of doubt – Pernell was dominant, both on the outside and the inside, consistently outlanding Chavez. I’ve watched it several times and each time score it 117-111. The American judge gave it to Pernell but somehow the other two made it a majority draw. Most of the fire was directed at Britain’s Mickey Vann, who scored one of the clearest Whitaker rounds to Chavez, explaining that he penalised Pernell a low blow the referee missed – a clear case of confusing the roles of referee and judge.
Chavez’s unbeaten record finally ended in his 91st bout when he was dropped and outboxed by Frankie Randall in 1994, and even then it was only on a split decision, but the return saw his next bit of luck. Going into the eighth the judges had it all-even. A clash of heads opened a cut above Chavez’s eye. The referee, Mills Lane, examined it and allowed the fight to continue, but Chavez refused to box on. Lane tried to persuade him, but he continued to say no. The correct result would have been a technical knockout for Randall but instead Lane went against his own judgement and acceded to Chavez’s will. The fight went to the cards, and a point was deducted from Randall, as per WBC rules, because his head had caused the cut, making Chavez a split decision winner. One can speculate whether Lane would have taken the same decision if the roles were reversed.
Chavez had one more piece of fortune. In 1998 he fought for the vacant WBC title against Miguel Angel Gonzalez. Larry O’Connell made Gonzalez a two-point winner, Terry Smith went Chavez’s way by one point and the American Chuck Hassett’s score was announced as a draw, which was the official result. Boxing News reported at the time that an error was discovered in Hassett’s addition, and he’d actually made Gonzalez the winner, but for some reason the result was never changed.
Taken individually, some of these six bits of luck were judgement calls (particularly the Taylor and Lockridge results) but taken together, they suggest a pattern.
Now let’s look at the next (and current) Mexican superstar, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The pattern starts in 2011 when Canelo felt ready for his first title. His people chose welterweight and the WBC gift packaged him the 41-4-2 Matthew Hatton who was not among the world’s top ten. What made it more ridiculous was that Canelo decided he could no longer make welterweight so they instead fought for the vacant WBC super-welterweight title at catchweight of 152lbs. Hatton did well to survive the distance.
Canelo gradually upped the level of competition, which included a close points win over former champion Austin Trout (though not so close on the cards). After six defences he felt ready for the much smaller, 36-year-old Floyd Mayweather but was comprehensively outboxed – and yet the decision wasn’t unanimous because one judge, CJ Ross, made it a draw, seemingly unable to cast a score against an emerging icon.
Two fights on he took on another elusive boxer, Erislandy Lara, and came away with a split decision win. The fight was certainly close but Lara landed more clean punches (107 to 97 according to CompuBox) and many felt he edged it. Perhaps a draw would have been best (only 34 of the 89 media members canvassed gave the fight to Canelo).
He won the WBC middleweight title in 2015 (at catchweight of 155lbs) by beating Miguel Cotto on points, again with the scores in his favour wider than the action suggested but what followed was a rare moment of anomie between the WBC and a Mexican icon. The WBC made the WBA and IBF title holder Gennady Golovkin their mandatory and called for purse bids. Alvarez, whose people felt he was not ready for Golovkin, dumped the WBC belt, returned to 154lbs and knocked out Liam Smith for the WBO title.
The WBC duly made up with Canelo and were behind him again when he felt ready for Golovkin in 2017. Most ringsiders felt the Khazak was a clear winner (I made it 116-112) but the official result was a draw, with Adalaide Byrd’s 118-110 for Canelo’s raising eyebrows.
The return was delayed when Canelo twice tested positive for taking performance-enhancing drugs. But his excuse of eating contaminated meat was swallowed and after a light wrist slap suspension, got his return, which was certainly a closer fight (I gave it to Golovkin by two points) – but Alvarez emerged with a majority decision.
Two fights on he won a close unanimous decision against Daniel Jacobs, and although some felt the American edged it, I gave it to Canelo by two points. His last outing was an 11th knockout win over 36-year-old Sergey Kovalev but here again the scoring was curious. Kovalev seemed clearly ahead after 10 rounds and yet two judges had Canelo up.
Canelo has not been around long enough to have the sustained favour from referees, judges and officials that Chavez enjoyed, but he’s well on his way. Following the Lara and Golovkin fights in particular, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that if it’s reasonably close, he’ll get it.
But really, it’s nothing new. Take the heavyweights: Late in Muhammad Ali’s career he got gift decisions against Ken Norton and Jimmy Young. Joe Louis got a gift in his first fight against Jersey Joe Walcott. Rocky Marciano was the beneficiary of what most of the press called a miscarriage of justice in winning a split decision against Roland LaStarza in 1950, perhaps helped by the fact that his manager, Al Weil, was the matchmaker.
So, to come back to the ‘you have to take the fight to the champion to win the title’ adage, it perhaps should be tweaked: If you’re up against an A-lister, particularly if he’s a national icon, you have to win big – and even then you may only get a draw.