After the confusion surrounding the finishing time of Shakur Stevenson’s comeback victory last week, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston analyses incidents that have influenced a fight’s outcome from a betting perspective.

Boxing slowly got under way again this past week with two Top Rank shows in Las Vegas, a promotion in Poland and another in Germany. Fight fans seemed to have been waiting forever. Three months felt like an eternity. Even more so for members of the sporting persuasion who like to bet on the fights.

And the past week’s fights in our new normal — boxing without crowds, industrial-strength sterilisation procedures, face masks for corner crews and Covid-19 medical checks — vividly illustrated the frustration that can exist for the wagering fraternity.

First, take the Top Rank show at the MGM Grand’s conference center in Las Vegas on Tuesday (June 9). Everyone knew that undefeated featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson would beat his Puerto Rican opponent, Felix Caballero, in a 10-round non-title bout. But how would he win? Points? More likely inside the distance. How many rounds would the fight last?

The oddsmaker set a rounds total of 5.5 rounds. This was obviously going to be a close call. Stevenson isn’t known for explosive power although he can certainly hurt opponents and break them down. Caballero was little known, but he looked strong and he was on a modest winning run. He gave the impression of a man who knew he was outclassed skill-wise but would give it all he had. 

Stevenson won in the sixth round, of course, but the timing was crucial for bettors (or players, if you prefer). The official stoppage time was announced as coming after one minute, 32 seconds of the sixth. This meant that the over 5.5 rounds proposition had won by two seconds,

Hold on a minute, though. The on-screen clock showed that referee Tony Weeks had waved off the bout with one minute, 32 seconds remaining in the round. If the on-screen clock was correct, this meant that the actual stoppage came after one minute, 28 seconds of the sixth.

Just a couple of seconds. No big deal either way, you might think. But a very big deal for players who had invested in the fight going under 5.5 rounds. 

There was also much wailing and gnashing of teeth for players who had wagered on Jessie Magdaleno winning by decision against Yenifel Vicente on the Thursday Top Rank show at the MGM.

After nine rounds, the players who had invested in Magdaleno by decision at odds of -225 in US odds (4/9 in UK numbers) could have been forgiven for starting to breathe easily.

Vicente had been down twice and he had been docked three points for low blows. But, as the bell went for the last round, the worst seemed to be over for players who needed Magdaleno to win by decision. Vicente still looked strong and he was still trying to land an unlikely haymaker. All the savvy Magdaleno had to do was play it safe and keep out of trouble for three minutes to have his hands raised and keep his high ranking in the featherweight division.

Magdaleno (right) beat Vicente via disqualification last week, but the manner of his victory
was a source of frustration for some gamblers. Photo: Mikey Williams, Top Rank.

In boxing, however, anything can happen. Vicente, perhaps frustrated at constantly being made to miss, winged in yet another right-hander below the belt. Yes, the fight was nearly over — but what is a referee to do? Vicente had been given enough warnings. So, referee Robert Byrd told the judges to take yet another point from Vicente and then waved the fight over. Magdaleno was the winner by disqualification. There were just 22 seconds remaining. Twenty-two seconds from a win for the players who needed Magdaleno by decision.

Yet it cuts both ways. In the Stevenson vs Caballero bout, the bettors who needed the bout to go over 5.5 rounds got a break. And anyone who invested in Magdaleno to win inside the distance — or the bout not to go the full 10 rounds — had an unexpected 11th-hour windfall when all looked lost.

One player’s bad break is another’s good break. That has always been the way since London Prize Ring days.

Way back in the 1920s, believers in Jack Dempsey must have been dying a thousand deaths when the Manassa Mauler failed to go to a neutral corner immediately after knocking down Gene Tunney in their rematch. Precious seconds lost and a window of opportunity closed all too quickly for the Dempsey faction.

Then, of course, there are disputed decisions. Seasoned players know better than to count their winnings until the scorecards have been announced.

A high roller of my acquaintance in Las Vegas swore he would never bet on boxing again after Timothy Bradley got the decision over Manny Pacquiao in the first of their three meetings. He had been watching at home on TV and HBO’s unofficial judge Harold Lederman had Pacquiao winning by a near-shutout score of 119-109. But all three judges saw a close fight, with a 115-113 score from one judge in favour of Pacquiao while the other two judges had it 115-113 in Bradley’s favour.

Pacquiao-Bradley I – the disputed decision hit some Vegas high rollers in the pocket.

The great trainer and HBO expert analyst Emanuel Steward exclaimed, “I’m dumbfounded” after the verdict was announced. The colour commentator Jim Lampley went even stronger in his words of condemnation. “A terrible, bogus decision,” Lampley intoned.

Yet that didn’t help the high roller who had plunged 10 grand on Pacquiao.

Pacquiao started strongly, sweeping to an early lead on the scorecards. But Pacquiao seemed to ease off in the second half of the contest and Bradley began to peg back Manny’s early advantage. While Pacquiao looked dominant, Bradley did some nice scoring, getting in quick punches, making the later rounds much more competitive than the earlier ones. Bradley, if you like, was giving the judges a reason to give him rounds.

If Pacquiao had closed strongly in the last round he would have got out of Dodge with a draw, and under Nevada betting rules a draw is considered what they call a push — no winner, no loser, so all bets voided and stakes refunded. But it was Bradley who made the more determined effort in the last round, sweeping the 12th on all three judges’ cards for a narrow and surely fortunate win.

And here’s the thing. You never know how the judges are seeing a fight. If a boxer is doing enough at least to make rounds open for debate, the decision is going to be in the laps of the gods.

Something else to consider. I have long maintained that, in a fight where the scoring could be in doubt, it is very important for a boxer to finish strongly, to leave it all in the ring as the trainers say. Many close — and questionable — decisions have been decided on the scoring of the final round. 

Pacquiao probably thought he was safely ahead coming out for the last round against Bradley. He thought wrongly. Players who took a shot with Bradley at odds of +325 (or 13/4 in British odds) got a break. But, as this past week’s bouts reminded us, there are good breaks and bad breaks in this business and, as the famous quote also reminds us, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”