Ho-hum. Another night (or afternoon) of boxing, another slew of controversies that serve to sully the sport’s credibility at a critical juncture when most signs were pointing toward an upswing in popularity and the quality of the product itself. It’s like the reverse of a familiar saying: every silver lining has a dark cloud.
As stickups go, the unanimous decision for Australia’s Jeff Horn, who lifted Manny Pacquiao’s WBO welterweight championship on a unanimous decision Saturday night (U.S. time) or Sunday afternoon (local time Down Under) in Horn’s hometown of Brisbane, wasn’t a pugilistic re-creation of the Brink’s Job. Nor was it an epic upset to rival Buster Douglas’ stunner over Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. It was more like a heist at your neighborhood convenience store, another aberration of justice by three befuddled judges wielding pencils instead of Saturday Night Specials, but it was hardly the crime of the century. At 38, faded legend Manny Pacquiao seemingly had done enough to merit his 60th career victory, but he was noticeably slower than the fantastic phenom imbedded in our memories, and he was more fully extended than even a diminished version of himself should have been against an eager and spunky kid (29) who likely wouldn’t have lasted three rounds against, say, the elite likes of Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman or Terence Crawford.
On a night (or afternoon, pick your reality) when fight fans, at least those in America, should have been celebrating the return of kind-of-big-time boxing on ESPN, freeing the huddled masses from the financial tyranny of pay-per-view, an event which might have provided some measure of clarity in certain areas instead generated more questions than answers. As a public service, please allow your humble correspondent to attempt to separate fact from fiction.
Winners: Al Bernstein and Teddy Atlas. Loser: Stephen A. Smith.
Remember when Bernstein commendably served as color analyst for the entire 18-year run of the Top Rank Boxing series on ESPN? The man obviously knows his stuff, as evidenced by his 2012 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and winning of the Sam Taub Award for excellence in broadcast journalism from the Boxing Writers Association of America in 1988. The main event hadn’t even begun when Bernstein, who was back home in Las Vegas and not a part of the ESPN telecast, scored major points with a Facebook post about one of the studio commentators for the show, the always-excitable Stephen A. Smith. Smith had made disparaging comments about the quality of several of Horn’s opponents, which seemingly reflected a lack of research on his part. Bernstein’s post read in part:
I seldom criticize sportscasting colleagues, BUT I cringe when announcers who don’t really follow boxing denigrate fighters for no reason. Perhaps before Stephen A. Smith said that Horn opponents Randall Bailey and Ali Funeka “give new meaning to the term no names” he might have done 5 minutes of research and realized that Bailey only 5 years ago was a world champion and as recently as 6 years ago Funeka fought twice for a world title. Are they household names to all sports or boxing fans … no. Were they aging fighters that Horn could build his name with … yes. But within the sport they are not no names. It is awful to read their names and a few others in a mocking tone and suggest they’re some kind of bums. These two men had excellent careers.
Nor was Smith – whose primary area of expertise is the NBA — just dismissive of some of the guys Horn had defeated. He took a shot at Horn himself, which would have been all right had he deigned to learn more than he did, which was almost nothing, about the man who would be in the opposite corner from Pacquiao. Wrote Bernstein:
When asked “what do you have on Jeff Horn?” Smith said, “gotta admit don’t have much on this dude.” Really? How could you admit that on National TV when you are paid to cover this “dude.” Then he denigrated Horn’s opponents without knowing anything about them … When I have covered other sports beyond boxing I make it my business to NOT overreach and make statements on no knowledge. Instead I actually prepare, so that I can stay in my lane, be factual, and do the job I’m being paid for.
Full disclosure: Stephen A. Smith was a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was on the sports staff at the Philadelphia Daily News. We aren’t exactly tight, but we’ve always had a reasonably cordial relationship on those occasions when we’ve been around one another. So, like Bernstein, I am always hesitant to be critical of other media members because I don’t profess to know all there is about every sport. But when you are thrust into a situation where you’re in over your head, you’d best try to do whatever you can to get up to speed. Once I was assigned to cover the 1995 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Providence, R.I. So I did everything I could to learn more about Nicole Bobek, Nancy Kwan and Todd Eldredge, and after they skated their way to medals, I tape-recorded their responses to questions posed by reporters who were actually familiar with double toe-loops and triple axels. Basically, I faked my way through a couple of stories that, I’m relieved to say, read as if they were written by someone who had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the sport and the principals.
Given that ESPN will soon televise fight cards headlined by such major stars as Vasyl Lomachenko (who will defend his WBO super featherweight title against Miguel Marriaga on Aug. 5 in Los Angeles) and Terence Crawford (in a super lightweight unification bout with Julius Indongo on Aug. 19 in Lincoln, Neb.), my advice to ESPN honchos would be to have someone give pop-quizzes to Stephen A. – who I honestly believe likes boxing — before he goes back on camera, to make sure he doesn’t again appear to be clutching at straws. Possible alternatives would be to replace him with ESPN boxing writers Dan Rafael (who doesn’t cut a particularly dashing figure on TV, but then neither do I) or Nigel Collins, or maybe with Al Bernstein if he can be hired on loan from Showtime.
Now, on to Atlas. With his thick Staten Island accent, Teddy, who’s no less passionate in his approach than Stephen A. Smith, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, hey, he’s knowledgeable, unflinchingly honest and viewers always know exactly where he’s coming from. Scoring the bout 116-111 for Pacquiao, Atlas didn’t hedge or haw on his take as to the assessments of judges Waleska Roldan, Chris Flores and Ramon Cerdan, who scored the fight for Horn by respective margins of 117-111 (outrageous), 115-113 and 115-113.
“I don’t care how much heart (Horn) showed, how much resilience he showed, how great the fans (a pro-Horn crowd of 51,052 in Suncorp Stadium),” Atlas said. “Pacquiao won that fight. He landed the cleaner punches for the most part of the fight, almost knocked him out in the ninth round. This was hometown – home country – scoring, and I think again, for me at least, one of the problems with this great sport.”
Opinions will differ, of course, and British writer Steve Bunce, an ESPN contributor, served up a viewpoint diametrically opposed to Atlas’. His story read in part:
On Sunday afternoon in Brisbane (Pacquiao) was pushed, hit, cut and made to look old, predictable and slow at times by an Australian called Jeff Horn … at the final bell Pacquiao looked like a beaten man and he was: one crazy score of 117-111 for Horn was way off, but the other two judges delivered identical but correct scores of 115-113. Horn had beaten the legend, won the belt and somehow found himself in the very centre of a spectacular debate about the scoring. The outrage from people in the boxing business who should know better was close to pantomime at times … Horn deserved his two-round win, Pacquiao looked utterly dreadful for six rounds and hopefully the Australian will get the recognition he deserves – after everybody stops screaming hysterics about a robbery.
Not that punch statistics are the end-all, be-all of any boxing debate, but chew on these numbers: Pacquiao landed 182 of 573 (32 percent) to 92 of 625 (15 percent) for Horn. Bunce is correct, this version of Manny Pacquiao bears little resemblance to the force of nature that blew away Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton, but he still did enough to retain his title.
Winners: Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor. Losers: Fringe or non-boxing fans who will be taken to the PPV cleaners on Aug. 26.
So the “legitimate” boxing match involving a living legend, while entertaining and competitive, ends in still another mystifying decision and bruised feelings? That can only serve to steer more of the fringe and non-boxing set toward the freak show that is Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. UFC star Conor McGregor. That fraudulent production will surely generate huge PPV numbers, after which the suckers who spent a not-insignificant part of their disposable income on an eminently disposable attraction will come away saying, “Huh? Is that all there is?” Real boxing will take a hit it won’t deserve, and the M&M boys will be laughing all the way to the bank.
Losers: Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn.
Manny deserved a better outcome, but let’s face it: the days of his commanding global attention, and correspondingly fat purses, are over. Even if “Pac Man” gets a rematch with Horn and wins it, his dream of a do-over with Mayweather is as far gone as the era when wooly mammoths roamed the earth. He still has name value, but no longer carries the kind of hammer that makes him a must-see attraction to the public or TV executives. Hey, it happens to all the greats who stay too long at the fair. Muhammad Ali lost to Trevor Berbick and Bernard Hopkins to Joe Smith Jr. Does anyone really want to see Manny hang on for ever-decreasing paydays, as was the case when Sugar Ray Robinson played out the string in towns like Steubenville, Ohio, and Johnstown, Pa.?
Now, back to Horn. Congratulations, young man. You didn’t actually deserve to beat the grand old man, but you got the decision and you now have a shiny championship belt. You also appear to harboring the illusion that you’re now ready to move on to Floyd Mayweather Jr., another golden oldie who has a lot more gas left in his tank than Manny does, or maybe unification bouts with Spence or Thurman, both of whom would beat you lopsided. You’re a tough kid, hardly chopped liver and you deserve to enjoy your moment in the sun. But somewhere down the road cold reality awaits, and with it the sobering understanding that you are not and never shall be the second coming of Jeff Fenech. Jeff Harding, maybe, and that ain’t all bad when you stop and think about it.
Losers: Waleska Roldan and WBO president Francisco Valcarcel.
I believe there’s a nice two-for-one sale at Visionworks, Ms. Roldan. More than likely, there’s a branch office near you in New York City. Also, congratulations on being forever linked with C.J. Ross. You and she apparently have much in common, being boxing judges with impaired eyesight and dubious judgment. Oh, and don’t forget to send Mr. Valcarcel a thank-you note for that all-expenses-paid trip to Australia. Hope you enjoyed the sights and weren’t too distracted by all that boxing nonsense.
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