LAS VEGAS — Abner Mares’ majority decision over Joseph Agbeko should have been a proud moment for the young bantamweight standout to share with hardcore fight fans around the world.
However, thanks to Russell Mora, who refereed the 12-round IBF title bout Saturday at the Hard Rock Hotel, the hotly contested final to Showtime’s bantamweight tournament became just another controversial fight that turns fans away from the sport.
Instead of talking about the 12 rounds of world-class action the bantamweights delivered, the hard, quality punches they traded all night, and the numerous shifts in momentum during the fight, fans will complain about Mora’s numerous bad calls:
The knockdown against Agbeko in the first round, which replays clearly showed was a slip. The knockdown of Agbeko in the 11th-round that was the result of a low blow. Mora’s failure to penalize Mares for repeated low blows despite numerous warnings throughout the fight.
Mora wasn’t fair to Agbeko. He wasn’t fair to Mares, either.
Fans and members of the boxing media will say Mares needed Mora‘s help to win. They will write that he was given his first major title. The 25-year-old Southern Californian probably lost some fans thanks to Mora’s bad night.
Even before the official scores of 113-113, 115-111 and 115-111 were announced, some fans among the crowd inside The Joint booed Mares when he was hoisted onto the shoulders of his cornermen.
It shouldn’t have been that way. The crowd should have been on its feet cheering for both fighters, regardless of who won.
The focus should not be on the referee. But it is, and nobody can blame Agbeko (28-3, 22 knockouts) for feeling like it was two against one during the fight.
“This is not the way to win a world title,” Agbeko said at the post-fight press conference. “The referee’s job is to make sure it is a fair fight, not steal the title for one fighter. In the first round I missed a punch and slipped into the ropes. I missed my step and went off balance and I fell. It was not a knockdown.
“In the 11th-round, I got a serious low blow. It caused serious damage. I didn’t even want to continue with the fight because it hurt so much, but the referee was going to count me out. So I had to get up because I did not want to lose, and I wanted the fight to continue for the fans.
“I was getting a lot of low blows, and the referee was not doing anything about it.”
Mora said most of Mares’ questionable body shots became borderline low blows when Agbeko repeatedly pushed the challenger’s head down whenever he got in close.
“Those punches were on the belt line,” Mora told Showtime's Jim Gray in a post-fight interview. “[The knockdown punch in the 11th-round] was a fair punch. I have to call it fair. It would be unfair to give the other guy the advantage just because he says that it's low. I saw the punch, it was on the belt line, and I have to call it low.”
Mora was shown a replay of the low blow landed by Mares but still wasn't convinced that he made a bad call.
“It has a different viewpoint from looking at it here in slow motion,” he said. “When I saw it live, I saw that it was a fair punch above the belt line and that was my call.”
Agbeko is not convinced that Mora didn’t have it out for him.
“The punches were low, they were below my belt line,” he said. “The punch wasn’t a mistake. It was intentional. [Mora’s call] was intentional. He saw what happened with his naked eye. He cheated me.”
Agbeko demanded an immediate rematch, which his promoter, Don King, will vigorously pursue with the IBF, according to Allan Hooper of Don King Productions.
“I talked to Don after the fight," Hopper said, "and he said ‘I love Keith Kizer [Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission], I love the Commission, but they need to make this right.’ There will be protests filed everywhere that protests can be filed.”
Agbeko said the decision should not come from the IBF or a boxing commission. It should come from the fighter who benefited from the bad calls and poor officiating.
“Mares has to fight me again because this was not the way to become a champion, no way,” Agbeko said. “If he fights me again, that will prove that he has the heart to be a real champion.”
Mares (22-0-1, 13 KOs) believes he does have the heart of a champion and that he proved it against Agbeko on Saturday.
“I didn’t fight just anyone tonight, he was the world champion,” Mares said. “I had to fight my heart out to win and now I’m the champion.
“If Joseph wants a rematch, we can do it. I’m open for anything. If they want to redo the whole tournament again, let’s do it.”
Not so fast, said the executives from Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Mares. The 2004 Mexican Olympian is the first fighter the Los Angeles-based company singed out of the amateurs to win a major belt. They don’t want to commit to another life-and-death affair with Agbeko just yet.
“Our obligation is to do what our fighter wants us to do,” said David Iskowitch, Golden Boy‘s COO. “I’m not saying that a rematch isn’t in the cards. We have to sit down and discuss what’s next. I can’t sit here five minutes after the fight and say we’re going to do an immediate rematch. I know a lot of people are upset with the officiating, but let’s not take it out on the fighters. The kid fought his heart out, and Agbeko fought his heart out. They have no control over what the referee, and the judges do. I don’t want this to turn into a witch hunt for Mares, and I don’t want agree to an immediate rematch because people are mad about the officiating.
“We’re not saying yes, we’re not saying no. We have to see what all of his options are.”
Eric Gomez, chief matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, told RingTV.com that his company will look for a fall or early winter date for Mares, probably on Showtime.
Given Mares and Agbeko’s history with Showtime — both fighters have engaged in memorable 12-round fights against Vic Darchinyan and Yonnhy Perez on the network in recent years — a rematch seems natural.
“We can certainly talk about the rematch,” Gomez said. “Agbeko’s a great champion and he deserves it. Abner’s willing to fight anybody. We’ll talk about it.”
Meanwhile fans will talk about Mora and how his poor officiating ruined what should have been a good night for the sport.
Photo / Tom Hogan-Golden Boy Promotions
Doug Fischer can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org