Local officials favoring a home fighter over a foreign opponent isn't a new phenomenon in boxing, or one that is particularly rare. In fact, it's often baked into the calculus of who will win a given fight. We all know that the home fighter often gets preferential treatment on the judges' scorecards. We've frequently witnessed the "opponent" denied an opportunity to continue to fight after getting hurt, even when the home fighter has been given a chance to keep going under similar circumstances.
However, just because the sport tolerates an acceptable level of bias for the home fighter, that doesn't make it just. And when an egregious example of railroading an "away" opponent occurs, the institutional forces that help govern and control the sport are far too eager to ignore it.
After years and years of watching home officials deprive or attempt to deprive these opponents of a fair fight, it's easy to become numb to this conduct, throw up our hands and say "that's boxing." But we should remember that fighters' careers are at stake. Moreover, this conduct hurts boxing as a whole, poking additional holes in its veneer of legitimacy.
In Saturday's heavyweight fight between Daniel Dubois (England) and Kevin Lerena (South Africa), which took place in London, Lerena was denied a fair shake by both a house timekeeper and a homer referee. In the first round of the fight, Lerena dropped the popular Dubois three times. The initial blow was from a short hook that landed on the top of Dubois' head. Dubois appeared to injure his ankle or knee as a result of the punch. He went down shortly after. The subsequent two knockdowns were of Dubois' own accord. He took a knee both times without absorbing further punishment. He clearly couldn't put his weight on his injured leg.
|Referee Howard Foster after Dubois is dropped in the 1st|
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams
In many fights if a boxer is knocked down three times in a round, the bout is stopped. There used to be a universal Three Knockdown Rule, where a fight would be automatically stopped if that happened. Although most jurisdictions no longer have that rule in effect, unofficially it is still practiced often. (Interesting, the WBA, which sanctioned the Dubois-Lerena fight, does have a Three Knockdown Rule in its prescribed rules on its website; however, the British Boxing Board of Control's [BBBofC] rules were in effect for the fight, and the BBBofC doesn't mandate the Three Knockdown Rule.)
Irrespective of whether English referee Howard Foster should have stopped the fight in the first round, Dubois was in bad shape. And lo and behold, the friendly British timekeeper decided to stop the round nine seconds early, allowing Dubois to return to his corner without facing any additional adversity.
While Foster's conduct in the first round was acceptable, the timekeeper's certainly wasn't. Far too often we've seen games like this play out in the sport, where an official tries to play with time, either by shortening or elongating a round to help the home fighter – and this incident wasn't even the worst example of manipulating time during Saturday's fight.
After the shortened first round, Dubois returned to his corner and the minute between rounds helped him recover. By the third round he was on the offensive. A big puncher, Dubois dropped Lerena during the round with a hard power punch. Lerena beat the count, but he was legitimately hurt. Towards the end of the round, Dubois cornered Lerena along the ropes and unloaded stinging power punches. The bell rang to end of the round, but Dubois kept throwing. He then connected with a huge shot that made Lerena collapse into the ropes for a brief moment. Keep in mind: this was an illegal punch because it was after the bell.
Now, even though Lerena is staggered from an illegal punch, referee Foster treats this as a legitimate knockdown. Lerena is hurt, but he makes it back to his feet without any issue. However, Foster decides that he has seen enough and calls the fight off. This was a railroading job of the first degree.
Was Lerena given the same chance to recover that Dubois was? Of course he wasn't. Did it matter to Foster that the concluding blow was thrown after the bell, and thus shouldn't have been deemed a legitimate punch? Of course it didn't. Did the representatives on site from the BBBofC intervene immediately after the third round because its rules were not applied properly (counting an illegal punch as legitimate)? Of course they didn't. After the fight was there an official statement by the BBBofC in reference to the conduct of their officials? Of course there wasn't.
Lerena's team will file an appeal with the BBBofC or the WBA to overturn the
official verdict, which is a maneuver that hardly ever succeeds. At best, a
rematch will be ordered, but I wouldn't bet on the likelihood of that either. And even if a rematch is ordered, it doesn't erase the
shit sandwich unjust treatment that Lerena just experienced. Not only did he lose by an illegal shot, but it was a damaging blow by a huge puncher. In addition, there's no guarantee that he gets another crack at Dubois or a meaningful heavyweight opponent any time soon. It could potentially be several fights (years even!) before he is back in a similar position as to where he was on Saturday.
Lerena lost the fight because a home country referee played fast and loose with the rules. If Foster rightly concluded that the final Dubois punch landed after the bell and Lerena was allowed to continue, he would have entered the fourth still with a lead in the fight. After all, he had a 10-6 round in the first and only would have lost the third by a 10-8 round. Lerena's either up 28-25 or 27-26 going into the fourth. And that's important, especially since Dubois was trying to overcome an injury.
But he was not allowed to continue. He was offered an early night back to Johannesburg. He was not supposed to win the fight and the officials (ref and timekeeper) helped turn that conventional wisdom into reality. And even if Lerena is granted a rematch, there's no guarantee that he will ever be able to duplicate his early success against Dubois. Saturday was his moment, his opportunity, and he was denied by biased officials.
|Dubois after his victory|
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams
The story of Dubois-Lerena is not necessarily a unique one, but it was a high-profile example of a common occurrence in boxing. An opponent often has to fight not just the guy in the ring, but the judges, a referee, and even the commission. On Friday during the ProBox card from Florida, I watched an "opponent," Luis Sanchez, get disqualified in the second round by referee Dennis DeBon for holding. There was absolutely nothing in Sanchez's performance that was out of the ordinary, except a referee determined to railroad him out of the ring. It was gross misconduct from DeBon, but few will be crying tears for Sanchez; it was a small club fight that lacked wider scrutiny.
Perhaps Lerena will get more consideration and/or sympathy from the institutional powers that be (sanctioning bodies, commissions, etc.), but I wouldn't count on it. Although Lerena was a victim and was perpetrated against, he's also "Kevin Lerena." This didn't happen to Deontay Wilder or Wladimir Klitschko in England; this happened to Kevin Lerena. Maybe the WBA won't drop him too far in their rankings as a "goodwill" gesture to Lerena's promoter, longtime South African fight figure Rodney Berman. That might be the best Lerena gets.
Ultimately, the show will go on. Not a regulatory eyebrow will be raised. There will be no disciplinary proceedings initiated against Foster or the timekeeper. This is what home cooking tastes like in boxing. And if you're coming from another part of the world, it tastes rotten.