Sunday, June 18, 2017

Opinions and Observations: Ward-Kovalev II, Rigondeaux-Flores

Saturday's Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev pay per view featured controversy in the two major fights of the telecast. Ward knocked out Kovalev in the eighth round from a series of body shots, at least one of which was an obvious low blow. In the co-feature, Guillermo Rigondeaux committed a number of fouls before landing a left hand on Moises Flores well after the bell, yet he was awarded a first-round knockout victory. Although both fights illustrated shoddy refereeing, their respective conclusions should be viewed differently: Ward-Kovalev II highlighted a bad performance from referee Tony Weeks while Rigondeaux-Flores provided yet another example of why Vic Drakulich should no longer be a professional referee. 

Let's unpack the two endings. In the eighth of the Ward-Kovalev rematch, Ward landed a huge right hand that staggered Kovalev. Sensing an opportunity to go for the finish, Ward unloaded a series of shots on Kovalev's body near the ropes. There were three blows in particular that were all borderline or illegally low. After the second shot, Kovalev bent over from the waist. Ward landed a third left hook and Kovalev dropped down even further. At this point, Kovalev wasn't throwing anything back or protecting himself in the ring. Ward had free shots, obviously a point where the referee must take decisive action. Weeks had two options: he could momentarily stop the ring action because of the low blows, whereby he could then further warn Ward or even deduct a point, or he could wave off the fight because Kovalev couldn't properly defend himself. 

Weeks did not have the option of calling a knockdown at this juncture. There aren't standing eight counts in professional boxing (in the amateurs, a ref can employ this rule to protect a hurt fighter who's still on his feet). In addition, the ropes weren't holding Kovalev up from going to the canvas (a situation where a ref could initiate a count). Weeks wound up waving the fight off, and a highly competitive match was stopped, perhaps unsatisfactorily. 

Context matters and to add additional perspective into Weeks' decision making let's also include the following: Ward had landed a handful of low blows prior to the final exchange (leading to at least one clear warning from Weeks) and Kovalev, in Weeks' estimation, was also embellishing his reactions to perceived illegal low shots. Two times in particular Weeks had determined that Kovalev's protestations of low blows were unfounded. 

And let's be frank: Ward's body shots were taking a toll on Kovalev, who was visibly shaken from them as early as the fifth round. Gradually, Ward was breaking Kovalev down (even though the fight was close entering the eighth round). 

Here's something I wrote in my preview article leading up to Ward-Kovalev II: "[I]f I'm Andre Ward, I'm ecstatic with Tony Weeks reffing Saturday's fight. Weeks is slow to break up clinches and he'll let Ward get some good work done on the inside."

One of Weeks' defining characteristics as a referee is his laissez-faire approach to officiating action in close quarters. This can be both a blessing and a curse. He was rightfully lauded for his work in the first Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo match, a fight often regarded as the best of this young century. There, Weeks lay back as the two combatants pulverized each other on the inside. 

Whenever he can, Weeks lets fighters work out of clinches and if there's a free hand in a tie-up, he'll let action continue. However, Weeks' hands-off approach marred the ending to Saturday's fight. He either was out-of-position to see Ward's low blows or reluctant to stop the action to discipline Ward. While in real time, those final three blows were tough to determine where they actually landed, at least one of the punches was obviously below the beltline. Although it can be difficult to get those split-second decisions correct, that's why there are trained professionals to make the proper judgments. 

Because Weeks didn't correctly rule on the low blows in the final exchange, he was forced to end the fight. Stopping the bout may have been the right call at that juncture but the events immediately leading up to it warranted a break in the action. 

As stated, Weeks didn't get everything right. This happens in boxing. Stoppages like Ward-Kovalev II aren't all that uncommon in boxing. A ref can miss an illegal shot that leads to a knockout. Weeks certainly didn't have a good night, but his errors somehow even seem slight compared to those made by his colleague, Vic Drakulich, in the preceding bout. 

At the end of the first round of Rigondeaux-Flores, Rigondeaux used his right glove to cuff Flores behind the head as he landed three punishing uppercuts with his left. These were all illegal blows. In shorthand it's called "holding-and-hitting," and this was a textbook example of the infraction.

Then, the bell rang and Rigondeaux kept firing. He landed a huge overhand left that sent Flores to the canvas. Flores didn't get up and at that point the fight was waved off. 

Initially while still in the ring, Drakulich indicated that the bout would result in a disqualification for Rigondeaux. In Drakulich's estimation, the final shot was an intentional one thrown after the bell. However, Drakulich insisted on waiting to talk to the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), Bob Bennett, before making an official decision. Then things got really weird. Drakulich left the ring and put on a head set at a ringside table. He watched several replays of the final exchange. Drakulich then started to indicate that a "no-contest" would be in order. After consultation with Bennett, who was also communicating with the HBO production team, Drakulich then changed his opinion a second time and stated that the fight would result in a knockout for Rigondeaux. He then returned to the ring and announced Rigondeaux as the winner.

In an interview after the fight with the HBO commentators, Bennett insisted that Rigondeaux's shot was before the bell – he also tried to unload responsibility for his determination onto the HBO production team and Drakulich. Bennett's contention was demonstrably false and to the credit of HBO broadcasters Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman, they refused to let Bennett's canard remain unchallenged. They were able to get Bennett to admit that in the aftermath of the fight, if it was clear that the blow was after the bell, that the commission would consider changing the official verdict of the fight. 

But let's return to Drakulich for a second. His initial impulse was correct. Rigondeaux's final shot was an illegal one. Drakulich then had two potential options that could be correct under the unified boxing rules: he could disqualify Rigondeaux for an intentional illegal blow or, if he believed that the concluding action was unintentionally malicious and part of a typical end-of-a-round skirmish, he could rule the fight a "no-contest." (Personally, I believed that a disqualification was in order but I can understand the no-contest line of thinking.) Instead, Drakulich eventually decided on a third option, the Rigondeaux KO win, which couldn't be allowed based on the blow happening well after the bell.

Ultimately, Drakulich went against his original judgement because he lacked the confidence of his initial beliefs. The available video evidence didn't contradict his original call yet somehow he was persuaded (or he persuaded himself) that a Rigondeaux knockout would be the best outcome for the fight. (Let's remember that Rigondeaux was the bigger name of the two fighters and a boxer affiliated with the lead promoter for the event.)

The word I used on social media to describe Drakulich's performance was "gutless." It's certainly harsh, and I'm not looking for reasons to disparage the official, but it's an apt description. A professional boxing judge's two jobs are to protect the fighters and enforce the rules. Drakulich did neither of those things on Saturday. He let Rigondeaux fire off an enormous shot well after the bell had sounded. In addition, once that infraction happened, he failed to apply the rules correctly for such an occurrence; Drakulich failed on multiple levels. 

Drakulich has been a professional referee for almost 30 years and he's now at the point where he lacks the incisive decision making needed to officiate the demands of a professional boxing match. He's mucked up countless fights over the past half-decade (the Brandon Rios-Diego Chaves fight is another recent example). 

Tellingly, the officials at the state commission know about Drakulich's shortcomings. Drakulich hasn't reffed the biggest fights in Nevada for years – those are assigned to Weeks, Robert Byrd and Kenny Bayless. Nevada currently has a shortage of professional boxing referees and the commission has hoped that its ref B-team (Drakulich, Jay Nady and Russell Mora) doesn't mess up lesser or preliminary bouts while it assigns its highest-profile matches to the A-squad mentioned above. Yes, Drakulich and Mora don't mess up every fight but their errors are too frequent and they have marred many matches due to bad decision making and the inability to enforce rules consistently. 

Saturday put the finishing touches on an embarrassing week for the NSAC. Earlier in the week, they had somehow decided to sanction a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather, who recently retired as the best fighter in the sport, and Conor McGregor, a mixed martial arts fighter, who has never participated in a sanctioned boxing match in his life. 

Obviously that decision was a money grab by the commission and it's a clear demonstration of their priorities. Mayweather-McGregor stands to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Nevada businesses and millions for the state's coffers. Bob Bennett and company decided that the revenue was far more important than the safety of a fighter. Remove the names for a second. If a 49-0 elite fighter wanted to face a boxer making his debut, do you think that the NSAC would sanction that bout under normal circumstances? Consider me highly skeptical. 

The NSAC has been a poorly performing organization for a long time. Their strict residency requirements limit outside referees from working in the state (there have been occasional exceptions). That policy is workable when their local referees are competent. However I'd rate 50% of its current roster as "below average." And although Nevada is instituting a program to train new referees, this initiative has been far too delayed to have its desired impact. Drakulich shouldn't be reffing anymore. Mora should have been fired after his performances in Donaire-Montiel and Mares-Agbeko I back in 2011. The lack of quality referees in Nevada has been a problem for over half a decade and yet only now is the NSAC starting to address the issue. Bennett is a political appointee and he is secure in his role as long as his masters in Carson City see fit. However, with a few more nights like Saturday, he might not be long for his current position. 


Let me conclude with a couple of notes about Ward-Kovalev II. To me, the effectiveness of Ward's right hand was a startling difference in Saturday's rematch. During Ward's lengthy hiatus from 2013-15, Ward had a series of procedures and surgeries on his right shoulder. Since returning to the ring, he often appeared to be a one-handed fighter. The right hand lacked power and he didn't believe in it as a weapon. He'd throw it as part of a sequence or to set up other shots but the right hand wasn't part of his Plan A or B to defeat opponents. However, on Saturday, Ward's right was blistering. He landed several big ones early in the fight and his shot in the eighth eventually led to Kovalev's demise. 

It's true that Ward isn't the athlete he once was. He surely isn't as quick as he used to be and his reflexes, especially on defense, have slowed somewhat. However, for the first time in years, it appeared to me that Ward was a two-handed fighter again. He had finally regained confidence in his right shoulder. The power in Ward's right surprised Kovalev, who wasn't hurt by Ward's right to any similar degree in their first bout. 

Overall, Ward-Kovalev II was a strange fight to score. Kovalev, the supposed power puncher, had his best success as a jabber while Ward's shots, including those to the body, were more impactful. Kovalev was essentially a two-punch fighter with the jab and the right hand. His left hooks routinely sailed over Ward's head and he might not have landed three uppercuts. Ward's jab was an intermittent weapon but he certainly didn't have the best jab in the fight. As in the first fight, most of the rounds were close and difficult to score.  

Kovalev's body language was bad in the final rounds of Saturday's contest and yet he was ahead on most cards on social media prior to the eighth. I had him up by one point. Several boxing observers whom I respect had him in front more significantly. Kovalev was essentially beating Ward with his jab and punch volume, but his right hand didn't have nearly the same impact that it did in their first meeting. 

Kovalev had changed strength-and-conditioning coaches prior to Saturday's fight yet his stamina appeared far worse in the rematch than it did in November. Kovalev didn't respond well to Ward's body shots and he often looked to the referee in hopes of getting a break in the action. Unfortunately, Kovalev may have fallen victim to the "boy who cried wolf." He was complaining so much about Ward's low blows (many of which were legal or borderline) that when the time came for the referee to assert himself, Tony Weeks had already been numbed by Kovalev's demonstrations. 

As for Ward, Saturday's performance will be remembered as another highpoint in his Hall of Fame career. Ward has one of the premier resumes of his generation, having beaten excellent titleholders such as Kovalev, Chad Dawson, Carl Froch and Mikkel Kessler. He also has several notable wins over tough guys like Arthur Abraham, Sakio Bika and Edwin Rodriguez. Ward might not be everyone's cup of tea. His personality rubs many the wrong way. His fights certainly are not aesthetic marvels. Superstardom and its commensurate spoils of big money and adulation might not be in his cards. However, there's no denying his talent, resume or determination in the ring. Ward may not have provided boxing fans with much in the way of glamour but he will be remembered and respected for his ruthless effectiveness.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder/head writer of
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.   

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