Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Anyone looking for a nuanced argument into the repositioning of ringside judges, a reclarification and standardisation of scoring criteria and the assimilation of all events, promotions, contracts and fights under the governance of one regulatory body, this piece isn’t that (although those measures would likely help). No, this is a cameo, a rant…a personal exorcism.
Over the past two weekends, the boxing community has been treated to two headline bouts which have thrilled and intrigued in a myriad of ways. Last Saturday, Scottish bantamweights Lee McGregor and Kash Farooq entertained a packed Emirates Arena in Glasgow with 12 breathless rounds that conflated dogged obstinance, desire, ambition, resilience, tenacity and - in specific appreciation of Farooq’s clairvoyant reflexes, movement and ability to preempt, slip and slide punches - exquisite boxing skill.
The overwhelming consensus from those ringside, as well as those watching either upon BBC Scotland or via IFL TV, and sat either within McGregor’s home city of Edinburgh or Farooq’s in Glasgow, had Farooq prevailing, and most by a round or two. Indeed, for what it’s worth, I scored the bout 115-112 in Kash’s favour. This is despite McGregor’s renaissance during the championships rounds, but a score which is bolstered by the chastening and deserved point deduction he received in the 10th round. As the scorecards were read out - 113-114, 114-113 and 115-112 - fans, pundits and all but team McGregor were left bewildered and aghast at yet another clear, erroneous decision made, some suggest, in due support of the fighter with currently the better managerial backing.
And that leads us into Saturday. Callum Smith vs John Ryder for the WBA super-middleweight title. Smith was the heavy favourite going in to this fight, with the majority of the boxing public considering it a gross mismatch which would be over prior to the 6th round. What we were instead treated to was a breakthrough performance of tactical excellence and implementation from John Ryder and Tony Sims, which should have seen John hearing the words ‘and the new…’. Unlike the landslide of opinion acknowledging that Farooq beat McGregor, Saturday’s decision was unanimously viewed as criminal by nearly all those outside of the Merseyside area and mostly correct by those within it (despite the fans in the arena audibly meeting it with a chorus of booing).
Since then, there have been numerous disingenuous arguments in favour of the decision, the most patronising being ‘Ryder can’t be scored to be winning just because he performed better than expected.’ No, but he can be for consistently landing more punches, regularly backing Callum up into the ropes and dominating him on the inside. Oh, and did I say he landed more punches? There was even the risible suggestion that Callum will perform better when the opponent is a bigger, better name, citing his victory over a weary and deteriorated George Groves as evidence of this. In truth, that victory looks far better in the collective imagination of the Smith fanbase than it does to any objective boxing fan, but Callum will probably get the undeserved chance to test that theory again in a larger, possibly unification, bout next year. But what of Ryder and Farooq? What of their futures and career projections? And what about the future of boxing in general?
Farooq will likely sign with Matchroom, which will be a positive forward step in his career. Despite being robbed of the chance to be the incumbent Commonwealth and British bantamweight champion, he’s young and fledgeling and he will again have ample opportunity to rebuild and relaunch renewed title challenges across varying levels. But Ryder was in a contest for the peak accolade of his chosen vocation. He has put in the work; he had climbed the mountain; he went on a run of four successive victories against opponents he wasn’t expected to beat and he has ultimately been denied the realisation of his life’s ambition by a subjective and unconscionable decision made by those above any meaningful reproach. And this outcome lies at the questionable heart of boxing and its comparatively unfulfilling, low-ceilinged future.
We live in a boom time. Never before has boxing been so readily accessible. Swerving the ethical argument of whether it is scrupulous or beneficial for the sport to be aligned with and marketing pay-per-view bouts between Youtube personalities, or whether additional pay-per-view events should even exist upon networks which subscribers already pay to view, the fact still remains that one is able to watch live boxing pretty much every weekend, beamed in real-time from locations all over the world. With increased promotional investment from BT Sport, Sky, DAZN, MTK and IFL, the sport has thus transcended the smoky, small hall and is now readily exposed to new markets. Why then, are we still accepting gross cultural anachronisms and the corrupting hangover of yesteryear’s venal attitudes?
Other sports have introduced measures to guard against human bias and officiating error, but these inaccuracies thrive in boxing. Our misdeeds and dishonesty do not have the decency to even attempt concealment in plain sight. Sentiments such as ‘the home fighter always gets the decision’, ‘you have to wrestle the belt away from a champion’, rather than win it fairly in a close fight, and ‘he sells more tickets and this is his promoter’s show’ as external reasons why a fighter should get a favourable decision to pervade and continue to corrupt the very essence of what boxing should mean to everyone, not just the naive.
Boxing should be about two fighters contesting in a bout from an accepted position of fairness irrespective of where they are. Records, previous accolades or the promise of future riches in successive defences should be considerations that are rendered obsolete once both men, or women, are present in the ring and the bell has sounded. Or else, frankly, what’s the point? Crooked judging and the infrequency that the best fight the best is the constant turn-off complaint from those newly experiencing boxing. It’s still a regular complaint from those of us who can’t help but love it, despite its glaring faults, but both issues continue to harm the sport’s possibility of future growth and its ability to be taken, or indeed to take itself, seriously.
I suppose we as consumers - or given the masochistic love/hate relationship that many of us articulate, maybe addicts is a more appropriate collective noun - also have to accept responsibility, as by continuing to purchase and thus uphold and support the final discouraging product, we don’t exactly energise any demand for the kind of meaningful change that many of us seek and that all of us would certainly benefit from.