Abner Mares needed a wheelman last night to make a clean getaway in Las Vegas, and he found one in referee Russell Mora, who sped Mares to the Showtime bantamweight tournament championship by burning rubber across poor Joseph Agbeko, thereby making Mares, at least for the moment, the boxing equivalent of Willie Sutton.
Mares notched a majority decision over Agbeko at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino by the scores 115-111, 115-111, and 113-113, but the real winner here appeared to be Mora, who seemed to meet a strange objective of his own devising. Incompetence is usually the answer for most—but not all—of the riddles in boxing, but Russell Mora was a quantum leap removed from mere ineptitude.
In fact, Mora was clearly biased in favor of Mares and, worse than that, seemed to enter the ring with a predetermined notion of what he was going to do. In the first two rounds alone, Mora warned Mares three times for shots below the belt. But he never bothered to deduct a point from Mares over the last 10 rounds of the fight even though Mares fouled repeatedly and with gusto.
Boxing history is full of unscrupulous referees. Perhaps most notoriously, Ad Wolgast was helped up to his feet by his own personal referee, Jack Welsh, in 1912 after a double-knockdown scenario against Mexican Joe Rivers precipitated, ironically, by a low blow from Wolgast. More recently, the disgraceful actions of Isidro Rodriguez on behalf of Juan Coggi–including a long count–in 1993 have to be seen to be believed. But Mora was less obvious than the rascals of the past and seemed to be at the ready to play insurance for Mares if the opportunity arose. And Mora made sure to descend to the occasion once he saw his chance.
It was a shame to see Agbeko lose in such an undignified way. Now 28-3 (22), Agbeko showed remarkable resiliency in going 12 hard rounds despite the number of debilitating shots he took below the belt.
As for Mares, 22-0-1 (13), this is his third inconclusive bout in a row, and it should be pointed out that even with two faux knockdowns, carte blanche to whack Agbeko below the belt as often as he wanted from the opening bell, and a referee playing out some sort of “Touched By An Angel” fantasy on his behalf, he still managed only to scrape by Agbeko. Even in this age of hyperbole, when one or two decent performances makes a fighter an instant “P-4-P’ entrant, this streak is decidedly unimpressive. Instead of Ruben Olivares or Lupe Pintor, Mares is starting to resemble Paulie Ayala or “The Clay Pigeon,” Legs Diamond, whose skill at surviving assassination attempts finally gave out in a cheap boarding room in Albany, New York, in 1931.
The fight began with Mares, Norfolk, California, starting faster than usual, aware that a junkball artist like Agbeko cannot be allowed to sit on the perimeter looking for openings. Pressing behind his jab, Mares, 117 1/2, took the fight to Agbeko and peppered him with hard combinations. Late in the first, Agbeko seemed to slip and hit the canvas awkwardly, but Mora ruled it a knockdown. At the time, the knockdown looked questionable. Retrospect, of course, casts the mandatory eight count Mora administered in a more sinister light.
A focused Mares scored well and looked solid until the fourth round, when Agbeko, 118, rocked him with a blistering counter right. Both fighters had their moments during the middle rounds, exchanging hard shots, with Mares, 25, throwing more and landing more often. Among these punches were probably a dozen that strayed low. Mares, who suffered a nick from a butt in the sixth, began to fade as the rounds went by, with Agbeko, 31, mixing in rights with more regularity and mauling inside with some success. In the early rounds, Agbeko, the Bronx via Ghana, relied primarily on his left hook and an accurate jab.
The eighth, ninth, and tenth rounds saw Agbeko gaining an edge, despite several more low blows from Mares, including a humdinger in the 10th. But Mora ignored most of these punches with a stoicism that might have impressed Epictetus.
By the 11th, Mares appeared to be wilting and he wound up with a hard shot that ricocheted with a thud off the cup of Agbeko. It was a blatant foul from Mares, whose goody-goody image may have suffered irreparable damage after this fight. Agbeko collapsed, Mora sent Mares to a neutral corner, the crowd groaned, Al Bernstein nearly went haywire at ringside, and then…then the real madness began. Mora approached an agonized Agbeko and, incredibly, began to count. At that moment, the idea that this bout was being held in the spirit of competition—admittedly a shaky premise for the preceding 10 rounds—simply vanished, and the sad truth was revealed: that Agbeko, on his knees and in pain and whose living is based on hurting and being hurt—according to ritualized notions of fair play—never had a chance. He dragged his battered body from the canvas and finished out the fight, perhaps aware that talent, dedication, and hard work—the cornerstones of successful fighters and many unsuccessful fighters as well—were no match for the shadowy forces of boxing.
In musty gyms all over America you can find the husks of men who have sacrificed more than can be imagined to pursue a glory most would find unfathomable. But they chase it anyway, despite the dangers, the pain, and the cutthroat nature of the sport for which they bleed. Yes, in boxing, dreams die hard, but the truth is, nightmares die even harder.