[In the wake of the controversial end to this weekend’s bout between Andre Dirrell and Jose Uzcategui, a repost of an article which I originally posted on September 19, 2011 on 8 Count News.com following Mayweather-Ortiz]

Is Boxing’s Oldest Adage Under Fire Following Floyd Mayweather’s Controversial and Crushing KO of Victor Ortiz?

This past Saturday night, following a seemingly intentional head-butt to his mouth and conciliatory kiss and hug by “Vicious” Victor Ortiz, Floyd (Money) Mayweather, Jr. scored a spectacular fourth round knockout which will have a permanent home in boxing infamy.  While Mayweather was ripped by fans and boxing cognoscenti alike for his facially unsportsmanlike conduct, there is no real consensus as to who of the three individuals in the ring should truly bear the brunt of the post-fight firestorm.  Did Ortiz get what he deserved for setting off Mayweather, who has a history of forcefully laying waste to boxers such as Diego (Chico) Corrales, Phillip (The Time Bomb) N’Dou, Ricky (Hitman) Hatton, and Arturo (Thunder) Gatti when he is facing an actively dangerous opponent?  Should Mayweather be deemed the epitome of a bad sportsman for landing the two worst-intentioned punches in his career when Ortiz tried to apologize again after touching gloves? Should referee Joe Cortez have been looking away during a volatile moment in the bout?  More important perhaps than any of these questions, however, is the question of whether boxing’s oldest adage, protect yourself at all times, survives a bout such as Mayweather-Ortiz and is truly the exclusive responsibility of the boxer himself anymore and not a referee.  A quick analysis follows.

In Support of the Idea of a Referee Protecting the Boxer at All Times

Raise your hand if you believe that former linear light heavyweight champion Dariusz (Tiger) Michalczewski was never knocked out during his lengthy title reign. Wrong.  Michalczewski was coldcocked after he and Graciano Rocchigiani were ordered to break by referee Joe O’Neill during an August 10, 1996 WBO Light Heavyweight Championship bout.  The result, however, was officially a disqualification win for Michalczewski, reflecting that O’Neill felt that Michalczewski’s demise was the result of a flagrant foul by Rocchigiani.  Raise your hand again if you believe that former heavyweight champion James (Buster) Douglas was the victim of only one first round knockout in his career, the one scored by Lou Savarese.  Wrong again. While it officially went down as a disqualification, Douglas was crushed by journeyman Louis Monaco after the bell rang to end round one in their May 13, 1997 bout.  The wrinkle is that the referee adjudged Monaco’s knockout punch to have come after the bell.  In both instances, and in more notorious ones, such as Roy Jones, Jr.’s combination to Montell Griffin’s chin when he was on his knee, Riddick Bowe’s similar treatment of Buster Mathis, Jr., or Arthur Abraham’s hammering of a flopping Andre Dirrell, it was the referee alone who ultimately took charge of the boxer’s well-being and made a ruling regardless of whether the aggrieved boxers should have been protecting themselves or not.  True, Mayweather’s purported indiscretion was more marginal in nature than the examples provided as it came after he and Ortiz had touched gloves, but they all reflect that the referee can, and perhaps should, commandeer the role of protecting the boxers throughout a bout, and not just when they are knocked down, cut, or are otherwise being pummeled by their opponent during the course of a given round.  Indeed, the first enumerated duty of a referee under New York law is that he or she “shall exercise immediate authority, direction and control over contests and exhibitions to which he or she has been appointed.”  Part of maintaining “authority, direction and control” is theoretically to make sure that the boxers are protected from any unanticipated attacks by their opponent after breaks, the touching of gloves, or at the end of rounds no matter what the old adage says.

In Opposition to the Idea of the Referee Protecting the Boxer at All Times

The idea that the boxer should only rely on himself for protection at all times during a given bout was epitomized during the forgotten, but bizarre, ending to the foul-filled September 9, 2000 WBA Featherweight Championship bout between Freddie Norwood and Derrick (Smoke) Gainer.  In that bout, Gainer was awarded an eleventh round TKO victory after Norwood dropped to the canvas in agony after being hit with a flagrant low blow while being restrained by referee Paul Sita.  While it was plain as day that Norwood was not in a position to protect himself from either legitimate or illegitimate punches at that point, the outcome remains undisturbed in the record books.    Norwood had both Gainer and Sita against him in that final round.  The moral of the story? The boxer and the boxer alone must protect himself at all times.  Sita might have been more actively involved in Norwood’s demise than Cortez was with Ortiz’s, but it is fair to argue that the moral of Mayweather-Ortiz is the same.

Is There a Present Day Regulatory Foundation for the Adage?

Under New York law, “the referee shall have the exclusive authority to stop a contest or exhibition at any stage if he or she believes that one or both participants are failing to perform according to due standards of effort, ability or conduct[.]”   It can be inferred from New York’s granting of this authority to referees that a boxer may fail to act in accordance with “due standards of effort, ability or conduct” if he fails to protect himself at all times.  Indeed, it can be argued that protecting one’s self at all times is exactly what a boxer needs to do to establish that he is competing with “due standards of effort, ability, or conduct” in the eyes of a referee.  While Ortiz was still able to defend himself all things equal, he nonetheless failed to do so after touching gloves with Mayweather, and thus effectively failed to act in accordance with “due standards of effort, ability or conduct.”

To put it more bluntly, one can simply argue that Ortiz was knocked out after showing humanity at a time when he needed to only show professionalism and defensive prowess.  Whoever one directs their anger to following Mayweather-Ortiz, therefore, it appears that boxing’s oldest adage survives the fallout.  Cortez might be fair, and he might be firm, but he was not in the ring that night to make sure Ortiz stayed in the zone to keep from being knocked out after fouling an irate and deadly accurate Mayweather only a few moments earlier.   Moments of potential incompetence or unsportsmanlike conduct aside, Ortiz lost because he failed to heed the adage.

Please do not hesitate to contact the Law Offices of Paul S. Haberman LLC with questions on any legal, regulatory, or contractual issues that you may encounter in the combat sports world.