After the botched call that cost Israil Madrimov a knockout victory, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at other refereeing controversies, where sometimes the third man got it horribly wrong.
Every now and again we have a refereeing controversy in boxing. Sometimes it leaves the aficionado shaking his head in despair. The latest was referee Gary Ritter totally missing a knockout blow landed by Israil Madrimov in his WBA 154lbs title eliminator with Eric Walker in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this month.
For those who may have missed it, Madrimov absolutely flattened Walker with a left hook in the ninth round. It was like one of Floyd Patterson’s famous “leaping left hooks”. The DAZN commentary referred to it as a left hook similar to the one Joe Frazier launched when he dropped Muhammad Ali in the 15th round.
Here’s the problem. Madrimov put so much into the punch that he actually fell into Walker. The left hook had knocked Walker out. No question about that. But Madrimov’s body made contact with Walker’s. And referee Ritter ruled that Walker had been knocked down by Madrimov’s shoulder. One could have been forgiven for calling this a case of boxing insanity.
Walker seemed to be concussed. The referee gave him five minutes to recover from being knocked out. To his credit, Walker fought on to the bitter end, although he was dropped in the last round and looked just about finished when the final bell sounded.
But, my oh my, that ninth round! “That was a knockdown!” ex-champ, now ringside analyst, Sergio Mora exclaimed. “Colour” commentator Todd Grisham was even more emphatic: “Oh! That was a massive left hand. That should be a knockout!”
During the five-minute timeout, referee Ritter, perhaps not realising his microphone was on, offered an explanation to a reporter at ringside. “If he hadn’t hit him with his shoulder he probably wouldn’t have gone down,” Ritter suggested.
Did my ears deceive me?
Todd Grisham was having none of it. “The referee botched it; there’s no other way to say it,” Grisham informed viewers. He even referenced an alternate-reality comic strip: “This was Bizarro-world in downtown Tulsa.”
Yes, it was that surreal.
But refereeing controversies are nothing new. I’m not talking so much about, say, whether a fight may have been stopped too soon. These are judgement calls. But, sometimes, refereeing calls looked flat-out wrong.
One that always sticks in my mind is referee Joe Cortez disqualifying Humberto Soto in the fourth round of the Mexican fighter’s WBC 130lbs title bout against Francisco Lorenzo in Las Vegas in June 2008.
Soto had taken complete command of the contest. Lorenzo looked on the brink of being stopped.
“Even now, as the fight recedes into the distance of life’s rear-view mirror, I cannot shake off the images of a thoroughly beaten, bloodied and battered fighter somehow being declared winner by disqualification,” I wrote in Boxing Monthly at the time. (I must still have been feeling livid about the result because I let two typos slip into the column; where’s a proof-reader when you need one?)
Lorenzo went down twice in the fourth round, the second time seemingly of his own volition. He was cut over the right eye. His nose was bent and bloodied. But, when Lorenzo dropped to the canvas for the second time in the fourth round, Soto threw a left hook that seemed to graze the back of Lorenzo’s head. It did not look an intentionally illegal blow. However, with Lorenzo bobbing like a cork on the ocean, maybe Soto thought his opponent was not all the way down.
Confusion reigned as referee Cortez called a time out. HBO’s Jim Lampley thought Cortez might be about to DQ Soto for landing a punch to the back of the head. HBO’s “unofficial judge” Harold Lederman felt that the alleged offence was that Lorenzo got hit while he was down. “How can you tell when his knee is on the floor?” ringside analyst Emanuel Steward asked. “He was continually going up and down all the time.”
Steward was getting heated in his comments. So was Lederman. “This is a clear TKO victory for Humberto Soto — that’s all there is to it,” Lederman exclaimed.
Back to Steward. “It should have been stopped a few seconds before. The fighter gave the impression he was finished then.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo was now stretched out on the canvas. The referee, his hand covering his clip-on microphone, was leaning over the ropes conferring with the then-Nevada commissioner, Keith Kizer. This was not looking good for Soto or his backers. Boos rained down. Then, after several minutes of uncertainty, came the announcement that Soto has been disqualified for an “intentional” blow while his opponent was down.
What made the whole thing worse was that referee had seemed to be stepping in to stop the bout moments before Soto dropped to his knees, even pulling Soto away before stepping back out.
The whole episode was so unsatisfactory that the WBC declined to recognise Lorenzo as champion. Who could blame them? We had a literally beaten fighter somehow declared the winner. It was madness.
There have been many disputed endings to fights, of course. Some are grey-area situations. One that comes to mind is referee Bill Clancy disqualifying Venezuela’s Jose Uzcategui for what was deemed a punch landed intentionally after the bell against Andre Dirrell in a fight for the IBF interim 168lbs title at Oxon Hill, Maryland in May 2017.
Uzcategui was coming on strongly in the eighth round. Dirrell was clearly fading. Then, with victory seemingly within his grasp, Uzcategui threw a three-punch combination right at the end of the eighth round: left hook, right hand, then a final left hook that landed, it appeared, a fraction of a second after the bell. Dirrell went down face first.
True, referee Clancy had ordered the fighter “Stop at the bell” just before Uzcategui’s final sequence of punches. But as Showtime ringside analyst Paulie Malignaggi observed: “A warning is not going to make a difference when Uzcategui doesn’t understand English.”
In a sense, Uzcategui was the architect of his own downfall. He pushed a jab into Dirrell’s face at the end of the second round and was sternly cautioned by referee Clancy. So, in the referee’s mind, Uzcategui had “history” for punching after the bell. (And a word of caution here for all fighters: Do not do anything that might annoy a referee.)
It seemed to me that Uzcategui’s punches were in motion as the bell sounded to end the eighth round. I don’t think he meant to land an illegal blow. With Dirrell unable or unwilling to continue — I could have sworn I heard Dirrell’s corner calling “Stay down!” — it seemed to me that the correct outcome would have been for the fight to have gone to the scorecards on an “accidental foul” ruling.
In this scenario, Uzcategui would have been the winner: he was in front on two judges’ cards while third judge had the fight level.
So, it just seemed unjust for Uzcategui to be ruled a loser in a fight he was winning. But, after the warning at the conclusion of the second round, Uzcategui had put himself in the position where any further transgression of the rules was going to be costly.
Bill Clancy was involved in another controversy when he disqualified Danny Green in the fifth round of the Australian fighter’s WBC 168lbs championship bid against Markus Beyer in Germany in August 2003. Again, a fighter who was winning ended up losing. The heavy-handed Green knocked down Beyer in each of the first two rounds. Beyer suffered a cut over the right eye from a clash of heads in the second round and Green had a point deducted under the WBC’s “accidental butt” rule.
However, the German southpaw began to box his way into the fight. He was having his best round in the fifth when a seemingly frustrated Green brought up his head in a clinch, bang on Beyer’s right eyebrow — and now the German boxer had a second cut over the right eye. Referee Clancy told the judges to take two points from Green’s score. As the doctor ruled that Beyer was cut too badly to continue, the referee really had no choice but to DQ Green.
The Australian contingent was unhappy — as I recall, Green’s manager and trainer, Jeff Fenech, approached the referee in a highly confrontational way after the DQ ruling.
However, Green had only himself to blame.
And I must mention a bizarre piece of refereeing from Ron Cunningham in a scheduled 10-rounder between future heavyweight champ Ruslan Chagaev, having his sixth pro bout, and Rob Calloway in Detroit in 2002. The southpaw from Uzbekistan simply beat up Missourian Calloway, no doubt about it, but had to settle for a three-round technical draw under Michigan commission rules.
Here is what happened.
Calloway suffered a cut over the left eye — actually on the forehead — from a clash of heads in the second round. Chagaev was now teeing off with the left hand from his southpaw stance. It looked as if Calloway was saved by by the bell.
The ringside doctor checked on the damage when Calloway returned to his corner at the end of the second round and advised the referee that the boxer could continue, while advising Cunningham to keep an eye on Calloway’s cut.
It was all Chagaev in the third. Left hand after left hand slammed home. Yet another left hand sent Calloway into the ropes. At this stage, the fight obviously should have been stopped and Chagaev should have been declared the winner. Calloway was done. His body seemed to go limp after that final, full-on left-hand blast from Chagaev.
Yet instead of stopping the fight, referee Cunningham gave Calloway a standing eight count (perhaps because he felt that only ropes were keeping Calloway on his feet). Calloway was bloodied and he was out of it. He had the look of a fighter who didn’t know where the in the world he was. Yet, instead of waving the finish, referee Cunningham called a time out and asked the doctor to check on Calloway’s cut. Unsurprisingly, the doctor ruled that the fight should be stopped.
“So Ruslan Chagaev now goes to 6-0 with five knockouts, scores a third-round TKO” commentator Steve Albert intoned in the Showtime broadcast. Not so fast, Steve. This is boxing. Under Michigan rules, as four rounds had not been completed the fight was ruled a technical draw, Calloway’s fight-stopping cut having come from a head clash. But Calloway was “gone” when the bout ended.
The crowd chanted “Bullshit! Bullshit!” The crowd knew, everyone watching knew, this should have been a TKO win for Chagaev. It was so obvious. But not to the referee. “In our heads and in our hearts, it will always be remembered as a technical knockout,” Steve Albert noted.
As refereeing missteps go, this was surely one of the very worst.
Main image: Andre Dirrell stays down against Jose Uzcategui and is declared the winner. Photo: Tom Casino/Showtime.