As a casual observer of unbeaten featherweight contender Rances Barthelemy's unanimous decision victory over Arash Usmanee on last week's season opener of "Friday Night Fights," I was left with a reaction similar to that of most watching at home: outrage.
Admittedly, I hadn't scored the fight, but my conclusion rested upon watching the hungrier Usmanee (20-1, 10 KOs) outwork an underwhelming Barthelemy (18-0, 11 KOs), who didn't just give away his height and reach advantages but also appeared to give away the fight through prolonged periods of inactivity. Watching an exhausted Barthelemy on the verge of being stopped to close out the 12th round only confirmed my assumptions.
The scorecards, of course, told a different story, with all three (116-112, 116-112 and 115-113) in favor of Barthelemy, who collapsed to the canvas upon hearing the result, seemingly as surprised as most of us watching on TV.
For the first nationally televised fight of 2013 -- an entertaining one at that -- to be stained by incompetency (if not blatant corruption) wasn't just a bad omen to start the new year; it was another example of boxing's insistence on shooting itself in the foot -- the same tired song and dance a wayward sport that always finds a way to break your heart moments after capturing it.
I'm sure you felt the same way last Friday night, correct? Well, turns out we were both wrong.
Responding to quotes in a press release from Barthelemy's co-promoter, Leon Margules, urging doubters to watch the fight again before calling it a robbery, I accepted the challenge.
What I found was a much closer fight on the scorecards than I'd initially witnessed with the naked eye. Although it was clear to me that Usmanee rode his unrelenting motor to definitively win at least five rounds -- including three (Rounds 7, 9 and 12) by a dominant margin -- Barthelemy did a noble job of picking off the majority of shots with his high guard and countering with the cleaner, heavier shots in the other rounds.
Usmanee had everything going for him to create the illusion that he had won going away: He won rounds by a wider margin, came on late to seize momentum and closed the fight on the verge of a knockout. Usmanee, who owns an inspiring backstory of overcoming adversity, was also the smaller and less talented fighter, one who seemed to push Barthelemy to the bring of an upset through sheer desire.
But boxing is scored round by round, with each three-minute stanza independent of those around it and not subject to the influence of the crowd or a fight's momentum. Just because Barthelemy, a former standout Cuban amateur, put forth a performance not reflective of his talent level -- falling into traps that played into his opponent's strengths -- doesn't mean he was out of the fight.
Usmanee was clearly the aggressor and dominated the middle rounds (I awarded him four straight rounds, starting with the sixth). But the majority of the close rounds in the fight would evoke the age-old debate of ring generalship versus clean and hard punching: Did you prefer Usmanee's flurries of activity or reward Barthelemy for his defense and well-timed, flush counter shots?
After multiple viewings of the fight, I ended up scoring it the same way each time: a draw. It's not only a fight I'd like to see again, but it produced an inspired effort from Usmanee, who performed up to the definition of a TV-friendly fighter. Would I begrudge anyone who scored the fight for Usmanee, even by two rounds? Absolutely not. But I also wouldn't object to anyone who believed Barthelemy had done just enough to eke out a 115-113 decision. Although I believe the 116-112 cards submitted by two judges were a bit much, it wasn't outrageous enough to call for their heads -- especially considering their ringside seats afforded better views.
There are a lot of problematic issues in boxing, with judging often being one of them. But there's a distinct line that can be drawn between a close fight and a robbery, and the line gets blurred each time a contentious decision produces a call for a witch hunt.
Last week we saw a close fight -- just as we saw one a couple weeks earlier in the Tomasz Adamek-Steve Cunningham rematch. But neither fight demanded a police report or was anywhere nearly as head-scratching as, say, the recent Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley Jr. or Brandon Rios-Richard Abril results.
By nature, scoring fights is a subjective, gray-area endeavor that includes judges who have a predisposed tendency to favor a specific scoring criteria above all else.
Could boxing benefit from an influx of younger judges and more accountability from each state in employing the cream of its respective crop for major fights? Definitely. And it's unfortunate that we're seemingly always a Pacquiao-Bradley decision away from seeing the sport take another step backwards in the court of public opinion.
That's the unpredictable nature of what happens when a fighter's fortune is left in the hands of subjectivity. It's not an exact science, and sometimes it isn't pretty. But that's precisely why we need to be careful not to turn the aftermath of the next close fight into a crime scene before launching our own thorough investigation.