Controversial ref was subject of prefight concern

LAS VEGAS – Boxing promoter Don King said Sunday he received a phone call several weeks ago urging him to have Russell Mora removed as referee for Saturday’s bantamweight title fight between Joseph Agbeko and Abner Mares. The caller, whom King declined to name, said Mora was a “Golden Boy referee.”

King, who did not travel to Las Vegas for the fight because he is suffering from a bad back, said Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, denied a subsequent request by King’s organization.

Mora was the focus of controversy throughout the fight for a series of calls, and non-calls, in the International Boxing Federation bantamweight title bout between the King-promoted Agbeko and the Golden Boy-promoted Mares at the Hard Rock Casino.

Helped immeasurably by a knockdown call by Mora on what replays showed was clearly an illegal low blow in the 11th round, Mares won a majority decision and lifted the title from Agbeko. Although Mares landed numerous low blows throughout the fight, Mora never deducted a point from him. There was also controversy surrounding Mora’s ruling of a knockdown by Mares in the first, when the new champ stepped on Agbeko’s foot.

“It is unreal and really gives a black eye to the State of Nevada, which I love so dearly,” said King, who has a home in Las Vegas but resides in Florida. “Nevada is No. 1 in the world for the sport of boxing, but you have to realize it’s also No. 1 as the state of gaming. You need to maintain a reputation as a place with impeccable integrity and honesty in both boxing and gaming.

Promoter Don King (above) tried to get referee Russell Mora removed from the Mares-Agbeko fight.

“What I saw [Saturday] night was either total incompetence or corruption. Choose whichever you’d like. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never witnessed anything like that. It’s so outrageous. The last one, Mares hit him directly in the [groin] and he was down, writhing in pain on his knees, and the referee called it a knockdown. It was so outrageous and makes you question everything you hold holy.”

Kizer said Sunday he believes Mora is one of the best up-and-coming referees in the sport, which is why he did not remove him from the fight as requested by Dana Jamison, the vice president of boxing operations for Don King Productions. Kizer said Jamison gave no legitimate objection that would have caused him to remove Mora. He said the request was made entirely on the basis of the caller who told King that Mora is a “Golden Boy referee.”

“What does that even mean, that he’s a Golden Boy referee?” Kizer asked. “I get a lot of complaints about referees. Some people say this guy allows too much holding. Some people complain that a particular referee breaks them up too quickly and doesn’t allow them to fight on the inside, or that a referee allows too much roughhousing. But I’ve never heard anyone say a referee is a ‘Golden Boy referee’ or a ‘Top Rank referee.’ Honestly, I don’t even know what that means.”

Kizer, unhappy with Mora’s performance, had a lengthy discussion with him on Sunday after Mora watched the Showtime replay.

Mora conceded that the knockdown in the 11th round should have been ruled a low blow and that Mares should have been penalized, Kizer said. He said Mora “is displeased with himself.”

He said he would not suspend Mora, though he made it clear that Mora may be on the sidelines for a while and will have to work his way up to regain main event status.

“In a situation like this, the referee needs to get with me and also with some of the senior referees here in Nevada, which I’m encouraging, to learn from this performance and improve in the future,” Kizer said. “He’ll need to take his time coming back and build himself back up. I have a very high confidence he’ll be able to do so.”

Kizer said he plans to talk to Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez about a message Gomez posted on Twitter minutes after the fight. Gomez wrote, “I love Russell Mora,” which did not escape King’s notice.

King was angry about that and said it was more evidence of possible malfeasance.

“He loves Russell Mora? He loves him? Can you believe that?” King said. “Is that why Russell Mora looked the other way the 49 times when Mares hit [Agbeko] with a low blow? He loves him? I can’t believe that.”

Gomez is very close to Mares and was responsible for signing him to a Golden Boy contract when he turned professional following the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Mares became the first fighter to sign with Golden Boy out of the amateurs who went on to win a world title.

Gomez, who said he planned to call Kizer to apologize, explained that he was just exuberant. He said he deleted the message after it received a lot of negative attention.

“It was a joke and I didn’t think it would be such a big deal,” Gomez said. “I was excited for Abner and I wrote that in the heat of the moment, when I was so happy. For Don to say that Mora is a Golden Boy referee, that’s crazy. I barely knew who he was and I don’t remember him doing any of our major fights.

“Don is trying to hang his hat on anything. I was so excited. I matched every one of this guy’s fights, with the exception of maybe one. Finally, he became a world champion and I was caught up in the celebration. If I offended anybody, Mr. King or anybody else, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything bad by it and I was excited to get the win. I’ve known Abner since he was 14 and I scouted him in the amateurs and that was a big win for him, for Golden Boy and to me personally.”

Saturday’s card was the first major main event of a Golden Boy-promoted show that Mora officiated. Prior to that, the most high-profile Golden Boy fight that Mora worked was the April 9 lightweight title match between Robert Guerrero and Michael Katsidis. That fight ended without incident or controversy surrounding the referee.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 14, 2011