Bad decisions keep hurting boxing

Atlas Reacts To Close Decision (1:07)

ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas expresses his disgust for the scoring in Tyson Cave's split-decision loss Oscar Escandon. (1:07)

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."
--Marcus Aurelius

The rage emanating from the 16,019 customers packed into the Philadelphia Spectrum was quickly rising to the torch-and-pitchfork level. Local hero Tyrone Everett had just lost an outrageous split decision to defending junior lightweight titleholder Alfredo Escalera, and it seems that the anger would erupt into violence at any moment.

Then a graying, dumpy man in a rumpled suit ducked between the ropes, took the microphone and addressed the enraged gathering. He said he was suspending the decision, pending a full-scale investigation. It was pure baloney, of course, but the misleading ray of hope was enough to pacify the crowd and prevent the situation from spinning out of control.

The man in the rumpled suit was Howard McCall, head of the Pennsylvania boxing commission -- the same man who had appointed Lou Tress, the lone hometown judge, whose swing vote for Escalera came seemingly out of the blue.

There was no suspended decision and no investigation. Not only had McCall helped prevent fans from running amok, he had also bought enough time for the miscarriage of justice to morph into the what-are-you-gonna-do category -- just another in a never-ending chain of dubious verdicts that have plagued boxing since the end of the fight-to-the-finish era.

The Escalera-Everett decision was especially egregious because all indications were that it was bought and paid for by underworld characters left over from the 1940s and '50s, when the International Boxing Club controlled much of the sport. The IBC had ties to New York's Lucchese family via Frankie Carbo, a former gunman for Murder Inc. who became boxing's de facto czar.

The feds caught up with Carbo in 1961, and he was convicted on conspiracy and extortion charges and sentenced to 25 years behind bars. He eventually obtained an early release due to poor health and died in November 1976, the same month as the Escalera-Everett fight.

Unfortunately, Carbo henchman Frank "Blinky" Palermo, also an ex-con, and his associate "Honest" Bill Daly were still lurking in boxing's darkest crevices. Both spent fight week in Philly.

J. Russell Peltz, who promoted Escalera-Everett, encountered Palermo a few days after the fight and asked him if he thought it was fixed. Blinky replied: "You can buy Lou Tress for a cup of coffee." (Note: This quote originally appeared in Tom Cushman's book, "Muhammad Ali and the Greatest Heavyweight Generation" and was confirmed by Peltz specifically for this column.)

No charges were ever brought against anybody suspected in the Escalera-Everett rip-off, which is virtually always the case in that sort of situation. It's one of the main reasons horrible decisions continue to plague the sport. Without accountability, nothing changes, which was painfully obvious last week, when a trio of questionable decisions became as big a story as the fights themselves.

It wasn't the best timing. With Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya making goo-goo eyes at each other and the proverbial Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. pot being stirred yet again, boxing seemed poised for an slight uptick. Then a trio of closely-bunched divisive decisions reminded us that getting the sport's two greatest stars in the same ring isn't boxing's only problem.

The fun started during last Thursday's special edition of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights," when Oscar Escandon was awarded an exceedingly questionable split decision over Tyson Cave. Judges Raul Caiz Jr. and Tony Crebs scored it for Escandon, 117-111 and 115-113, respectively, while Max DeLuca disagreed, giving the fight to Cave by a 115-113 margin.

How bad was it? Bad enough for ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas to unleash arguably the most rabid of his celebrated rants. He called the decision a "crime" and the two judges who scored it for Escandon "a bunch of cowards ringside who never took a punch in their lives."

Even though Cave outworked Escandon in most rounds (I scored it 117-111 in the Canadian's favor), it's easy to understand why a sizable number of fans hate Cave's highly unorthodox style. He scampered around the ring, constantly on the move -- ducking and dodging this way and that, stopping just long enough to unload a combination and then escape out the backdoor.

Fan-friendly exchanges were not a big part of Cave's fight plan, and a lot of folks resent him for it. After all, it's human nature to favor one thing over another. Do you think fight judges are any different?

Don't believe anybody, including media members, who tells you they don't have favorites. We all have favorites: you, me, everybody. We can't help ourselves. Nobody is immune -- not judges, not journalists. But judges and journalists have a sacred responsibility to conquer their prejudice to the best of their ability and be as impartial as humanly possible.

Some do a better job than others.

Fixed fights are not one-size-fits-all transgressions, and not all bad decisions are fixed fights. But the two are so intertwined and the line between them so blurred, it's impossible to discuss one without the other.

Maybe Escandon-Cave verdict was a misguided but honest decision, at worst subconsciously influenced by the common disdain for a "runner." That doesn't make it right, but it helps explains more than a few dicey verdicts.

Another wrinkle in the judging game is the tendency to favor the promoter's fighter. It always been part of boxing, but suspected incidents have become commonplace, just part of what Atlas labeled a "corrupt" sport.

HBO analyst Max Kellerman talked about the same thing after Mauricio Herrera lost a unanimous but problematic decision to Jose Benavidez last Saturday.

"Ninety-nine times out of a 100, throughout history, you know which guy is going to win the bad decision," said Kellerman, referring to the fact that Top Rank, the company that promoted the show, also promotes Benavidez.

Benavidez-Herrera was closer to a controversial decision than a robbery, but there's no denying popular opinion, including mine, was squarely in Herrera's corner. Regardless, it was a crushing disappointment for Herrera, the sort of boxer who should be admired for accomplishing as much as he has without an abundance of natural talent or physical prowess. Instead of being unfairly penalized.

"I wasn't angry; I was just numb," Herrera told journalist Bob Newman in an interview posted on FightNews.com. "I've been there like three times in my career -- three robberies -- I was just shocked ... I can beat everyone else, but I can't beat the judges."

In certain sports, officials occasionally give what are know as "make-up calls," which are arbitrarily granted to athletes or teams who have been unintentionally wronged. It is not a rule, not even an unwritten one, but it happens. Not so much in boxing, however, where the best the fighter on the wrong end of a rotten decision can expect is a rematch.

It's unlikely that Timothy Bradley Jr. will demand a rematch with Diego Chaves, who somehow salvaged a split draw in their 12-round welterweight bout on the same card as Benavidez-Herrera. The match was supposed to be Bradley's get-well fight following his decision loss to Pacquiao, but it ultimately fell victim to the vagaries of prizefight judging.

This time, however, you couldn't blame it on the house fighter getting preferable treatment. Bradley was the house fighter!

Some have even ventured that it could have been payback for the gift decision Bradley received in the first Pacquiao fight -- a leveling of pugilism's karmic field, so to speak. I'd like to think such things were possible, but when it comes to boxing, it's best not to count on miracles. It's far safer to presume the worst and hope you're wrong.

Besides, there's no denying Bradley looked bit jaded. He could very well be feeling the effects of a career studded with demanding fights. Bradley absorbed a lot of punches in both Pacquiao bouts and suffered a concussion in his war with Ruslan Provodnikov. Despite his bulging muscles and bright-eyed smile, Bradley is not a superhero and is as vulnerable to the wear and tear of the ring as everybody else.

After an auspicious start against Chaves, Bradley faded in the latter part of the fight, the left side of his face alarmingly swollen, a result of early head clashes and follow-up punches from Chaves. Whether Tim's grotesque appearance influenced the judges is impossible to know, but we've all heard the term "scoring the blood." Scoring the hematoma is just as likely.

Even so, Bradley and most observers were taken by surprise when normally reliable judge Julie Lederman scored the fight 116-112 in Chaves' favor. Judge Burt Clements' 115-113 for Bradley seemed more in line with what had taken place inside the ring, but when Michael Buffer announced that judge Craig Metcalfe had the fight even at 114-114, Bradley merely cocked his head to one side and gave a small shrug.

"I though the decision was horrible and thought I clearly won the fight," said Bradley, who sounded more resigned than crestfallen. "But, hey, the judges saw it different, and there's nothing you can do about it."

This sort of passive acceptance of injustice is the most disturbing thing about boxing's chronically appalling officiating. It has become the norm. It doesn't matter how infuriated the fans and media become or how many fighters get shafted, things quickly revert to business as usual.

Not as many of today's tortuous verdicts are the results of outright payoffs or threats, as was the case when organized crime figures such as Carbo and Palermo called the shots. All the same, money and lavish gifts still play a role.

The deeper you stare into boxing's bottomless pit of vice, the more you realize how complex it is. Old assumptions are challenged and fall by the wayside.

Thankfully, there are plenty of good people involved in boxing, including judges who would never dream of compromising their integrity. The problem is that those with fewer scruples frequently overshadow the good guys.

True, on occasion a bad score is the result of incompetence, but I fear they are the minority. More often than not, something more disturbing than ignorance is at work.

A lot of folks think a federal boxing commission would be a savior, but I have serious doubts. The United States government barely functions as it is, and the last thing boxing needs is political hacks running the show.

I get as infuriated as anybody when a fighter gets shafted, and spend a lot of time screaming at the television, a form of primal therapy that makes me feel better but does absolutely nothing to help the state of boxing.

I've come to the sad conclusion that it's an unsolvable problem. We're going to be stuck with bad decisions and the fixed fights for as long as the sport survives. It's part of the price we pay for falling in love with such a wicked mistress.

It's good to make a righteous noise and shine a spotlight on boxing's ills; it keeps it from becoming the WWE. But there is no light without darkness, and we would do well to remember that everything that is wrong with boxing is the fertilizer from which its magic spouts.