Three months ago, I shifted away from my usual boxing blogging about wins, losses, permutations and future match-making to focus on the side of the sport us fight fans don’t like to see crop up – the only side the anti-boxing brigade care about.
When Guillermo Jones defeated Denis Lebedev in a stunning and physical war to reaffirm himself as WBA cruiserweight champion, there was an overwhelming concern even amongst those of us who aren’t determined to see the sport shut down entirely over the well-being of the defeated Russian.
You see, even those of us who get our kicks from seeing two warriors go at it in such a brutal and thrilling battle of conditioning, tactics and physical resolve in the most testing of circumstances, hope for the long-term well-being of the combatants.
The bottom line of the original piece just after Lebedev-Jones was that boxing – as well as MMA and any other fight sport – lives or dies on whether those in charge protect the participants in the proper manner.
You can read that piece here.
The latest chapter of the never-ending ‘is boxing barbaric?’ saga came at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California, when unbeaten heavyweight Deontay Wilder took on Belarusian Siarhei Liakhovich.
Many of you will remember Wilder from his previous fight: he made his UK debut in April, snuffing out Audley Harrison’s disappointing professional career (until his retirement 180, at least) in just 70 seconds in Sheffield.
Against Liakhovich, he needed just a little longer: after one minute and 43 seconds, he dropped his foe with a devastating combo which left ‘White Wolf’ in seizures on the canvas.
Concern over Liakhovich’s well-being soon overtook Wilder’s 29th straight knockout win from 29 professional fights as the story that defined the short bout. Rightly so.
Thankfully, he came to in the ring and looks set to make a full recovery after a couple of days in hospital for precautionary checks.
So, as a fan of physical wars and spectacular finishes in the fight sport realm, one who voiced his disgust at certain aspects of the sport in certain circles after Lebedev-Jones in May, do I think there was anything wrong with the fight on Friday?
In a word, no.
In more than one word, nothing at all, in fact.
Let’s compare and contrast: Lebedev’s eyes were badly cut during his 11-round fight with Jones. Not only was his vision badly impaired – a clear danger in any sport, let alone combative – the damage to his face was potentially-disfiguring. He was then allowed to keep taking punches like this for a few more rounds before a halt was called.
Referee Stanley Christodoulou, Lebedev’s cornerman Kosta Tszyu (who, funnily enough, was happy to withdraw himself from the Ricky Hatton fight but could not protect someone else in a worse situation) and a host of officials and medical professionals at ringside all failed as a collective unit to stop that fight sooner.
They had the safety of an athlete – a proud, home hope athlete who was never going to voluntarily quit on his own, no matter how wounded – in their hands, and they almost let it slip through their figures and into tragedy.
Wilder, on the other hand, caught two clean, powerful shots in succession, 99 per cent of such sudden finishes see the guy counted out or waved off before shaking off the cobwebs and studying what they could do better in training ahead of the next bout.
This situation was different but importantly, this referee – Tom Taylor – did his job admirably.
Straight to Liakhovich’s side once he saw the seizures begin, the referee called the knockout immediately and cradled the fallen boxer’s head as he and the medical staff who rushed to the ring took every measure possible to minimise the after-effects of what was a devastating knockout.
Wilder himself was philosophical afterwards, when seeing the Belarus boxer’s reaction to his blows.
"I saw it afterwards on the replay on the big screen when I looked back and I saw it on the monitor,” he explained. “That's when my smile went into a frown, and I was concerned and I was worried, because that was a scary moment.
“That was one of those things that, when I saw that, I was like, 'Oh, man,' and I was saying prayers for him.
"They're saying that he's going to be okay, and I heard that he's going to be in the hospital for a couple of days, but that was a scary moment.
“Just to see his eyes roll into the back of his head and him going into a seizure like that, and he had a concussion as well, that was scary. Very scary."
Wilder continued: "I always tell people that I have two prayers. I have a team prayer, and I have an individual prayer.
“In my personal prayer, I also express to God that I want to knock out my opponent, but I don't want to hurt them to the point where they can't go back to their job, or they can't do what they love to do anymore where they can't provide for their families.
"I know that this is what we signed up to do, and that it's a part of the business, but I definitely don't want to be the guy who kills somebody in the ring. I wouldn't want that on my heart.
“Winning is one thing, but hurting somebody to the point where they can't support their family? I'm a father myself, I love my kids, and I want to support my kids, and if I couldn't support them no more, that would truly hurt my heart.
“So I definitely don't want to hurt nobody. But I'm definitely going to keep doing what I do, you know, because I love the knockouts."
Wilder himself sums up the nature of boxing perfectly. There is that thrill, that thirst, that drama. But nobody wants anyone to suffer serious damage.
Damage that can be found in any other sport as the result of unfortunate circumstance. A mis-timed tackle, a stray cricket ball even.
Yes, fight sports come with that seemingly-unacceptable extra layer to the ‘anti’ brigade of aiming to incapacitate an opponent. Even fencing, a much more respected sport that uses similar tactical yet combative principles, does not include successfully stabbing the opponent as an extra way to win outside of collecting points.
But fight sports continue to be done right, done safely, 99 per cent of the time. Wilder v Liakhovich was a worst-case scenario of that 99 per cent. Lebedev v Jones was an ugly surfacing of the other one per cent.
Unfortunately, instead everybody being united in trying to snuff out that 1%, we have a small (but still far too big) pocket of narrow-minded people trying to act as if that 1% is actually the full 100% of the sport in its dirty, nasty true colours.
Such generalisation is as needless as it is pathetic.
But as long as more people are looking out for each other - as everyone from Wilder to the referee to staff and officials did for Liakhovic on Friday – than are letting the rest of society down – as several people were guilty of in Moscow in May – boxing will continue to both thrive and avoid disaster.
Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter
- Sports & Recreation
- Denis Lebedev
- Guillermo Jones
- Deontay Wilder