If you think referees get it in the neck often in football, try being a boxing fan. Not a card goes by that an official isn’t harangued for stopping a fight too soon, too late, for not stopping it at all or for missing an illegal blow. Even more than team sports, where a mass of bodies can draw the focus, a boxing referee’s status as one of three people in the ring means there is nowhere to hide.
While the job of a referee is often an impossible one, sometimes the criticism officials receive is utterly warranted. This Saturday there were two examples on separate cards of fights marred by the nature of their stoppages. One bout was stopped egregiously early. The other saw a knockout incorrectly awarded when the finishing shot was an illegal one. It was a night where boxing hardly covered itself in glory.
First, the early stoppage. That arrived in a bout between Rolando Romero and Ismael Barroso for the vacant WBA super lightweight championship. It was a strange fight to begin with. The WBA had stripped lineal 140lb king Josh Taylor of the belt in order to put it on the line in this bout.
Taylor is undefeated and the true champion at the weight having held the undisputed belt before industry politics got in the way. Meanwhile, ‘Rolly’ Romero was coming off a sixth-round stoppage loss to Gervonta Davis. His opponent, 40-year-old ring veteran Barroso, hadn’t fought a world class opponent since Anthony Crolla beat the brakes off him in seven rounds back in 2016. As world title fights go, it was one of the strangest match-ups in recent memory. But if it looked weird on paper, the way it played out was on another planet.
Referee Tony Weeks called for the bell during a sequence in which Barroso landed a full-blooded hook, before slipping or avoiding every punch that came his way in return. Barroso’s back was on the ropes but none of Romero’s shots landed with any force, all either glancing him or missing him entirely. It was one of the most bizarre finishes we have seen, with Barroso entirely comfortable and simply putting on a fine defensive display to get himself out of trouble.
Ismael Barroso with strong feelings on the stoppage.
The issue appears to have been Weeks’ positioning, in which he failed to give himself a clear view of the action. Rather than adjust his body to get a proper view of the blows being thrown, the official erred on the side of caution and waved off the fight. While referees should always put fighter safety first, they should at least ascertain whether the boxers are in any danger before acting.
The weekend’s other controversial close to a fight arrived in what was technically an exhibition fight. KSI faced off with Joe Fournier on the latest Misfits Boxing extravaganza from the OVO Arena in Wembley. The bout ended when KSI, real name Olajide Olatunji, appear to knock out Fournier with his forearm rather than a scoring punch. While hot-headed social media users have been quick to accuse KSI of all sorts, in his defence it did look like a missed punch thrown by a clumsy non-pro rather than an attempt to incapacitate Fournier.
Still, the referee should have picked up on which part of KSI’s body made the connection. Unlike in the Romero-Barroso fight, the official in this fight was well-placed to make the call. Fournier himself is not alone in alleging that KSI being the owner of Misfits Boxing might have had something to do with the result.
Two stoppages that occurred without a punch landing. Whether it was a stray forearm or thin air that ended these fights, both were brought to a wrongful conclusion. Neither fight was Ali-Frazier to begin with. One featured two men who should be nowhere near a world title. The other featured two who should be nowhere near a boxing ring. But that’s not the point. If these events are going to be staged, then they should be properly officiated. Fighter safety is paramount but it is not the only consideration. Competitive fairness enters into the equation too. Barroso and Fournier were each denied a level playing field, whether knowingly or though negligence. After the events of Saturday, the only meaningful blow landed was yet another crushing one right across the bridge of boxing’s nose.
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