By Jason Keidel
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Most sports fans who aren’t hardwired into boxing think that the sport knocked itself out years ago, because of corruption and poor ringside decisions.
The answer is more layered than that. But it’s hard to make any other argument after seeing the fight and subsequent decision Sunday in Australia (Saturday night locally) between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn.
Maybe the cast of “Mad Max” was running the show. Maybe the three ringside stooges were threatened with 12 more rounds inside the Thunderdome. We can only hope there’s some explanation worthy of cinema or science fiction, because there’s no way that fight should have ended with anyone’s hand raised except that of Pacquiao, who pounded and bloodied Horn’s face for much of the night, particularly in the ninth round, when the referee appeared close to ending Horn’s night.
One judge — who was either drunk, blind or had a gun to his head — scored the bout 117-111 in favor of Horn. The other two scorers were not as egregious, but still had Horn winning, 115-113. The scores had all the accuracy and objectivity of East German gymnastic judges.
Renowned trainer, announcer and overall character, Teddy Atlas, erupted after the bout, spouting off about corruption and robberies and all manner of malfeasance that only belongs inside and just outside a boxing ring. Nights and fights like this must incense a boxing lifer such as Atlas, who not only makes his living from the sport, but also remembers its halcyon years of the great heavyweights, the Four Kings of the ’80s, and even the bottomless talent pool of the ’90s. It’s hard to think of a time when Teddy’s hoarse voice was at a higher or more indignant pitch.
It’s hard to claim any moral or aesthetic high ground when your sport has, at times, been run by Blinky Palermo and then Don King. Add corrupt bureaucrats like former WBC boss Jose Sulaiman and you had a sport that was often leased out to the highest or shadiest bidder. But in the post-King era, it seemed that boxing, while nowhere near its 1970s heyday, had survived its recent nadir, making it a nice, niche sport that could still bang out big events like no other.
While it’s tough to brand a boxer unlucky when he’s made over $100 million during his career — and Pacquiao made that in one night against Floyd Mayweather Jr. — the Filipino fighter has had more than his share of controversial decisions, which is the modern euphemism for lousy and inept decisions. You may recall that Pacquiao beat the tar out of Timothy Bradley five years ago, only to lose that one as well.
Many figured — or at least hoped — that Pacquiao, 38, would hang up his leather gloves after that soporific performance against Mayweather in 2015, a fight that generated way more action in the casino than in the ring. Fighters, particularly the great ones, like Pac Man, are not prone to excuses, yet that’s exactly what he offered after losing a unanimous decision to Mayweather, citing a shoulder problem that required surgery.
It’s clear that Pacquiao can still box, that he’s not yet reached the age and stage of his career like so many former icons in repose, who are either addicted to the cash or cachet that comes with a big bout. No sport drains the adrenal gland like a Saturday night between two great fighters in their respective primes.
There’s still an occasional night like those old days, when the fighters strolled toward the ring to a haunting tune, peeled off their robes while the spellbound crowd clapped for their glistening gladiators. There is a unique aura to fight night, a mystery and mastery of violence, a proximity to greatness and danger that humans still find quite exciting (just look at the rise of MMA).
Despite all its efforts to commit corporate and cultural suicide, boxing can’t erase itself. Lord knows, it has tried. It tried again Saturday night. If nothing else, maybe it was a message that Pacquiao should hang up his gloves while he can, while the sport still cares about him. There’s an entire world outside of boxing, a sport that left the real world a long time ago.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel