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The Long Count in Boxing History

The night of December 1, 2018, saw heavyweight boxing finally return to pay-per-view in America, after more than a decade in the wilderness of the Klitschko era and Tyson Fury's subsequent near three-year hiatus from competition. After two comeback fights, that were little more than glorified exhibitions against disappointing opponents; Fury's first showdown with the undefeated WBC heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder, was the Lineal champ's real return to the sport and the night did not disappoint fight fans.

The first fight between the two undefeated heavyweight champions, produced one of the most exciting rounds in recent history. Behind on points, according to longtime pound for pound king, Floyd Mayweather, the 'Bronze Bomber' seemed on the brink of defeat. As the bell rang to conclude the eleventh round, the British and Irish fans packing the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, exploded in applause in anticipation of the Gypsy King's impending victory. But a comeback mirroring the achievements of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, or even 'Iron' Mike Tyson, who all reclaimed the title after a long hiatus away from the ring, was not to be that night.

The bell rang for the twelfth and final round, and 35 seconds in, Wilder finally connected clean with the knock out power that had, at that time, secured his championship reign through seven successive title defenses. Ironically, if the fight had taken place in a British venue, the fight would have likely been waived off by the referee as soon as Fury's unconscious body had hit the ring canvas.

Instead, while Wilder and the American fans began to celibate, Referee Jack Reiss, seeing that Fury was down but conscious began to count. One, two, three...nothing...four, five...still nothing. Then at the count of six, Fury somehow began to move his arms and legs, and by the count of nine was on his feet, moving left to right as instructed by the referee, and ready to continue the fight. Rushing in, exhausted Wilder attempted to save his championship, desperately going for another knock out, but Fury came back, almost knocking out the knockout artist before the final bell. It was the kind of excitement that makes the heavyweight division so special, everything can change in the blink of an eye.

The moment Fury rose to his feet from an unconscious state, perfectly reflecting the former five-belt world champion's own battle with suicidal depression, weight-gain and addiction problems, that had almost ended his career for good. In a video accompanied by the iconic don of the WWE legend The Undertaker's music, Fury's rise off the canvass went viral on the internet, transcending boxing.  

Sadly, the controversial split decision draw that secured that Wilder's reign as champion would continue, as well as the excuses that followed from Wilder's side, tainted what was a rare proud moment for boxing on both sides of the Atlantic. Everything including a broken hand, was suggested as the reason for Wilder's failure to secure the knockout; but the most audacious claim made by the Wilder camp was that WBC champ had really won in the twelfth round and that Fury was deliberately saved by a slow count from the referee.  A second video went viral on the internet, this one added a digital clock starting at zero as Fury hit the ring canvas. The digital clock clearly proved that Fury did take ten seconds to reach his feet after his knock down in the twelfth round and that Wilder was the rightful winner.

In the months that followed Wilder implied that the referee deliberately gave Fury a long count: "The referee, he got emotional. See that's why you can't get emotional. When referees get emotional, they start picking sides. He got emotional because of the story, you want a man to win. I'm in America, I understand. We're all about forgiveness."

Unfortunately for Wilder, this is not the first time a fighter has tried to use an alleged long count to rewrite boxing history. Back in 1990, James 'Buster' Douglas stopped the then undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion, 'Iron' Mike Tyson in what is perhaps the greatest upset in all sports, not just in boxing, at the Tokyo Dome. 'Iron' Mike was stopped in the tenth round by the grieving Douglas who had recently lost his mother to cancer. Only two rounds earlier, it looked like the youngest heavyweight champion in history, might escape Japan with his title still intact when he knocked an over confident Douglas down in round eight. But in scenes that were echoed 18-years later in California, Douglas somehow beat the count and continued.

Desperate to protect his cash cow, Mike Tyson's then promoter Don King brazingly declared that his fighter  had won the fight in round eight, and that he would appeal to have the decision reversed on grounds that Douglas took longer than ten seconds to get to his feet, and survived because of a long count from the referee. Sanity prevailed, and the decision remained in place.

Had the decision been changed, then it would call into question a century of fight results. Put simply referees are not digital clocks, and consequently ten counts that take longer than ten seconds are a common occurrence in boxing. Fighters are supposed to follow the referees count, and get up before the count of ten, regardless of however many actual seconds have elapsed in that time. As long as the referee in the event of a knockdown gives both fighters approximately the approximately same opportunity to continue, then there is no grounds for result to be changed.

The best historic example of an alleged "long count" is the 1927 heavyweight contest between the then reigning champion Gene Tunney and the former champion Jack Dempsey. This fight is infamous for introducing a new rule concerning knockdowns. In the event of a knockdown, the ten count for the fallen fighter would begin only after his opponent had gone to a neutral corner.

In the seventh round, the 104,943 crowd witnessed one of the most controversial moments in heavyweight boxing history. Tunney trapped against the ropes, was floored by the brawler Dempsey. In the excitement of being perhaps moments away from being the first man in to ever regain the heavyweight championship, Dempsey seemingly forgot about the new rule. Dempsey ignored the referees calls for him to move to a neutral corner, giving the fallen champion precious seconds to recover before the ten count began. Tunney got up at the count of nine and continued the fight.

Dempsey would not regain the title. Tunney now staying off the ropes and boxing from a distance, would knock Dempsey out in the next round. Seemingly also confused about the new rule, the referee began the count before Tunney went to a neutral corner.

The result of what has become known as "Long Count Fight" is still in debate today, while Tunney most likely would have been able to beat the count; had the referee started the count before Dempsey had gone to a neutral corner, it is plausible that Tunney would have not survived the remainder of the seventh round without Dempsey putting him down again.

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