In 1963, British heavyweight champion Brian London and the American fighter Tom Neely fought in England. Neely was notoriously dirty in the ring and the first three rounds were a free for all.
By the start of the fourth, London’s face was already heavily marked, mainly from a series of headbutts by the American. Midway through the round. When Neely again launched his head at London, the Englishman lost his cool and roared at referee Harry Gibbs “ Harry! He’s butting me, are you going to do something about it?” Harry waited till the round was over and as Brian made his way back to his corner, he whispered to him “ Butt him back son.” Boxing, you see, is not netball.
A legendary referee, Harry once said “any honest decision is a good one. A referee must always be cool and self-possessed, and ready to handle anything that might come up. Next to honesty, aloofness is the quality a good ref needs.” If Harry had been available in Manchester last Saturday night, we would have had a fight. As it was, we had nothing at all. The criteria for stopping a fight because of a cut or swelling is simple: “Is the fighter’s vision impaired?” If the answer to that question is yes, then the second question is “ Is it impaired to the extent that it is too dangerous for him to continue?” In this case, the answer to both questions was no. The medical evidence speaks for itself.
The atmosphere at the venue was one of bewilderment. At the opening bell, we had braced ourselves for the blitzkreig, but it turned out we had no need. Amir certainly threw a lot of punches and killed a heck of a lot of midges. But Paul was untroubled. He occupied the centre of the ring from the off and pushed Khan onto the retreat, keeping his face under the Englishman’s chin at all times. On his back foot, Khan had no purchase in his shots. I remembered that Paul had said to me in the weeks leading up to the fight that “he doesn’t like going backwards.”
“He’s a brave little b.......d” said one of Khan’s entourage sitting in the row in front of me. “He’s fookin hard to hit” replied the man beside him as leather whooshed through thin air. And so he was. As the fight advanced, Khan’s supporters became quieter and quieter. By the sixth, Paul was as fresh faced as he’d been at the first bell, Khan looking for all the world like a man trying to hit an apple bobbing on the water. I felt Paul should have thrown more leather but as Kieran McKeever said to me the next morning, this was his first taste of world level. After all, sounding his man out early on before ratcheting it up later was the game plan. The frustration in the Roche corner was palpable. In the McCloskey corner, it was unfolding according to their script. It is no secret that Amir tends to tire badly in the later rounds, most recently against Marcos Maidana. It is also no secret that Paul is a slow starter, whose best work comes in the second half of the fight. In the arena, anticipation was mounting. Then came the butt.
It all seemed pretty routine at that point. I could see that there was a slight trickle of blood down the nose, but was relaxed about it since there was no seepage into the eye. The ref called the doctor in to have a look. It seemed excessively cautious to me, but no big deal. The doctor would see the eye was clear and visibility was fine. If he had any doubts, he would bring the fighter to his corner and let his cut-man get a look. The cut-man would wipe the trickle away, then inspect. The referee would check the fighter was happy to continue and the action would resume. Instead, the fight was waved off without consultation. The crowd was stunned. I assumed I had missed something. Had Khan been disqualified for butting?
McCloskey’s cut man shouted something towards the referee and doctor. It was too late. Barry Hearn was in the ring in seconds, shoving Paul’s face into Oscar de la Hoya’s to show him the cut.
What should have happened? Well, what always does in boxing. The previous weekend, Erik Morales and Marcos Maidana had fought in the same weight division at the MGM Grand in Vegas. After 40 seconds, Morales right eye was badly injured. As he walked to his corner at the end of the first, the eye was swollen shut. The referee came to the corner and inspected it. Eric was able to say how many fingers he was holding up, so either he had a millimetre of vision or the answer was being tapped on his back in morse code. The ref checked with Team Morales he was happy to continue. He was and a cliff-hanging 12 round war ensued. Afterwards, having lost by split decision, Morales told HBO that if he had “two working eyes” he would have stopped Maidana in the seventh or eighth. If the fight had been stopped, there would have been a riot.
In Manchester, Paul and his followers were treated with utter disdain. There was an unmistakeable feeling that the WBA and Khan’s people thought the fight was a big mistake and wanted it over and done with as quickly as possible. Why take on such a difficult opponent for such modest financial reward, on the verge of a multi-million dollar fight between Khan and Bradley? Khan’s weird crowing and gloating afterwards (including the non-evidence based assertion that “I was about to knock him out anyway”) only increased the stench.
In 1994, when George Foreman was 45, he challenged the young Michael Moorer for the world heavyweight championship. By the start of the tenth, he trailed by a point landslide. At the bell, his corner man Angelo Dundee said “You gotta go get him baby”. With a minute left in the round, George delved deep into his past and produced a very short right hand (it was estimated the punch travelled a mere six inches.) the champion didn’t even see. Moorer toppled over and slept like a baby on the canvas until the doctors woke him up. At the press conference afterwards, a reporter asked George if the fight had been fixed. “Sure it was fixed,” said George, “ I fixed it with my right hand.”
Paul never got the chance.