How Low Can You Really Go in Boxing?
Usyk-Dubois Bout Raises the Question of What Actually Counts for a Low Blow and/or Who Determines as Much
This past Saturday, unified heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk retained his titles with a ninth-round knockout of the Daniel (Dynamite) Dubois in Wroclaw, Poland. Prior to Usyk’s knockdowns of Dubois in the eighth and ninth rounds, however, an appreciable amount of in-person and on-screen observers thought that Dubois may have scored a knockdown and/or knockout of his own with a shot to Usyk’s beltline in the fifth round. The blow which caused the knockdown, however, was deemed a low blow by the referee. Accordingly, rather than being counted out, Usyk was given time to recover and resume participation in the bout. In wake of the subject (or suspect, depending what side of the debate you are on) low blow, the question is begged as to what kind of guidance is provided for in the various athletic commissions’ rules and regulations to determine what actually counts for a low blow and who determines as much. To the extent that the athletic commissions for the states in which I practice law can assist in this addressing this issue, a quick analysis follows.
In New York, referees are provided a whole host of enumerated powers, including “the exclusive authority to decide whether or not a boxer is knocked down during the course of a round,” the “exclusive authority in the event of injury to a participant, to interrupt the progress of a round” and allow for “an unscheduled rest period” if “the injury involved shall have resulted from a foul action by the opposing participant[,]” and the enforcement of “the rules of boxing, as set forth by the Commission, as well as those rules generally recognized in the sport under the traditional title of Marquis of Queensbury Rules, as modified to current date by usage and written authority[,]” each of which can potentially be linked to a more unspoken power to determine what is, or is not, a low blow.
In the event that Usyk-Dubois had taken place at Madison Square Garden, the above-excerpted language would have allowed for the referee alone to determine whether or not Usyk was legitimately knocked down by Dubois’s beltline shot, whether progress should have been interrupted if Usyk was deemed injured as a result of said shot, and based on the “usage” of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules in the current day whether, in fact, the beltline shot should have been deemed a low blow. The “usage” language would appear to cover a Marquis of Queensbury/Long Prize Ring Rules-inspired boxing norm where the referee points out where on a boxer’s trunks a punch would be considered low at ring center before the opening bell and then declares whether a given punch is low or not thereafter accordingly. In the instance of Usyk, it should be noted that his trunks were somewhat high, as his belly button was not visible at the time of the subject punch. Accordingly, if a New York referee told Usyk and Dubois at ring center that anything below the belt line on Usyk, no matter how high the trunks were, would be deemed a low blow, that referee would have been well within his or her discretion to consider the subject beltline shot low if the fight took place in New York.
New Jersey has a litany of different regulations which, when read together, suggests who can declare a punch a low blow. As an initial matter, “[a] boxer shall be considered by the referee to be knocked down when any part of his body other than his feet is on the ring floor, or if he is helplessly on the ropes as a result of a legal blow as ruled by the referee.”
Further, “[i]t shall be the referee’s duty absolutely to forbid fouls” and “[i]n the case of a foul when the referee does not determine that the boxer responsible shall be disqualified, the referee shall determine if the boxer who has been fouled can continue or not. If his chances have not been seriously jeopardized as a result of the foul, the referee may order the bout to continue after an interval of not more than five minutes.” Moreover, “[w]henever the referee shall observe a blow delivered below the belt, he shall, as a means of notice to the fans and the offender, step between the boxers and with his free hand make a sweeping motion upwards from the floor as a warning to the offender to raise his punches and to refrain from delivering any other blows.” If a referee is considered to have bungled a call in New Jersey, “[t]he Commissioner may in his discretion change a referee’s decision if in his judgment a palpable and self-evident error has been committed.”
Under the above-excerpted regulations, if Usyk and Dubois had fought at Boardwalk Hall, the referee in charge of the contest could have determined whether Usyk had been dropped by a legal body shot, given him time to recover, and deemed/communicated Dubois’s body shot to be a low blow by employing the above-summarized “sweeping motion.” However, if the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s Commissioner later deemed that the call of a low blow, “in his judgment,” constituted a “palpable and self-evident error” he could have changed the referee’s decision. In sum, while New Jersey clearly gives the referee the discretion to initially label a punch low or not, it gives the Commissioner the final say.
Connecticut provides that “[h]itting an opponent below the navel” constitutes a boxing foul that does not “meet the standard of a fair blow or conduct of a boxer. A Connecticut referee expressly has the ability to determine whether a foul is “intentional” or “accidental” and may allow an accidentally fouled boxer up to five (5) minutes to recover before “the boxer shall lose the bout.” Moreover, “[a] boxer who falls or causes any part of the boxer’s body other than the boxer’s feet to touch the ring floor and who claims a foul which has not been ruled a foul by the referee may be counted out in the same manner as a knockdown.”
Based on the above-excerpted provisions, if Dubois and Usyk had fought at the Gampel Pavilion, it tacitly appears that the referee, given where Usyk’s trunks were at the time of the body shot, would have had at least some discretion to determine whether or not he had, in fact, been hit “below the navel” for the purposes of calling Dubois’s shot a foul/low blow. In any event, if it were deemed accidental, Usyk could have been declared the loser if he had not recovered within five (5) minutes. Alternatively, had the referee started counting as if it were a knockdown, Usyk could have been counted out even if he/his corner had disagreed with the call. Parenthetically, the five (5) minute rule articulated in Connecticut and elsewhere is consistent with the Association of Boxing Commissions’ Unified Rules of Boxing, which provides that “[a] fighter who is hit with an accidental low blow must continue after a reasonable amount of time but no more than five (5) minutes, or he/she will lose the fight.”
While the above-summarized regulations differ in some ways, what is clear is that the referee, as the primary arbiter of what goes on inside of the ring, is largely responsible for deeming where a punch may be considered a low blow and then deciding, after providing notice to the boxers at the start of a match of the same, whether a given body shot can be deemed low during the course of a match. There is thus a good amount of discretion, subject to the prospect of a low blow call being overturned by a commission, to determine what is, or is not, a low blow. And as to the matter of the waistband shot taken by Usyk, the referee simply utilized that discretion and deemed it low, just as referees in the New York tri-state area and elsewhere are empowered to do. Daniel Dubois is not the unified heavyweight champion now accordingly.
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