LAS VEGAS – Abner Mares walked out of the ring in The Joint at the Hard Rock Casino on Saturday with a world title belt strapped around his waist.
A cynic might say he won the tag team championship with referee Russell Mora.
Refereeing a professional boxing match is hardly a simple matter. There's a little more to the job than counting to 10 and knowing how to tie a bow tie.
Mora, though, made the job look more difficult than splitting an atom, tainting a stellar International Boxing Federation bantamweight title bout between Mares and Joseph Agbeko in a nationally televised bout on Showtime.
Mares and Agbeko fought a brilliant match, with Mares pulling out a majority decision victory to claim the IBF belt as well as the championship of Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament. Judge C.J. Ross scored it 113-113 but was overruled by Oren Shellenberger and Adalaide Byrd, who each had it 115-111 for Mares.
Yahoo! Sports scored the bout 114-112 for Mares.
It wasn't the judges who were at the center of the controversy this time, however. Rather, it was Mora, the Las Vegas-based referee who repeatedly warned Agbeko for pushing Mares' head down but failed to see several dozen low blows landed by Mares.
The postfight news conference was a circus with nearly all of the focus not on the men who poured their hearts out in the ring but rather on a man who wouldn't admit he made a mistake even after being confronted with a televised replay.
The fight was up for grabs after 10 rounds but was sealed by Mora's bad call in the 11th. Mares ripped an uppercut to the midsection – his body work above the belt line Saturday was masterful, and a key in the victory – that landed squarely on the groin.
Agbeko winced in pain and went down in a heap, as the crowd gasped. But rather than taking a point from Mares for a low blow, Mora ruled it a knockdown and began counting.
"This was a very big fight tonight and I am a champion, and I don't know why I have to fight two people in the ring all the time," a disappointed Agbeko said. "The referee came into our dressing room [before the fight] and gave us instructions and warned us not to do low blows. But the referee wasn't doing anything about it when he was hitting me very hard with very low punches."
The call turned the fight. Agbeko had the momentum and seemed to be on the verge of overtaking Mares. Mares was up 96-93 and 95-94 on the cards of Shellenberger and Byrd, respectively, after 10 and Ross had Agbeko up 95-94.
Had Agbeko won the final two rounds, he would have won the fight. But after taking a debilitating low blow, rather than winning the 11th, he lost it 10-8.
He also failed to get a five-minute rest period, as required by the rules, when a fighter is fouled.
"The punch that I saw live was a fair punch," Mora told Showtime's Jim Gray after watching a slow-motion replay that unequivocally showed the punch was low. "It parried off of his glove. It was a fair punch."
There was no question about the left hand that Mares landed which grazed Agbeko's head in the first, but there is room for debate about Mora's ruling that it was a knockdown. A punch landed, so it could be ruled a knockdown. But looking at it from Agbeko's point of view, he was following through on a punch and his legs were tied with Mares and it appeared that the legs, and not the force of the punch, caused the knockdown.
The officiating overshadowed what was a sensational fight and a big night for Mares, who won his first world title. He came agonizingly close on April 23, 2010, in Los Angeles, when he appeared to do enough to defeat then-IBF champion Yohnny Perez but was forced to settle with a draw.
Mares came out strong and was hurting Agbeko with clean shots repeatedly in the opening rounds. He was committed to the body and landed a series of punishing shots that forced Agbeko to wince in pain.
"I landed some great shots there, but he's a very tough guy," Mares said.
Mares showed a toughness that belied his baby face when he took a straight right that landed squarely on the chin in the fourth round. Both of Mares' knees buckled, and momentarily, he went into a crouch like a baseball catcher, but he was able to right himself and remain erect.
Managing to stay up was yet another of the turning points in the gritty, back-and-forth battle.
"He has a great right hand," Mares said, laughing, after the fight.
The postfight news conference was dominated by talk of the officiating and of a rematch. Golden Boy chief operating officer David Itskowitch wouldn't commit, but Mares showed the heart that makes him a champion when he said he was willing to fight anyone.
"I'm open for anything and I'll fight anyone," Mares said. "If they want to do whole tournament again, let's do it. I'm here to fight."
Mares' manager, Frank Espinoza Sr., said it was the type of a fight "where maybe a rematch is warranted.
"I hate to see anything taken away from either of these kids with all of the talk about the referee," Espinoza said. "I thought Abner did enough to win it, but it was a great fight and the other kid laid it all out there, too. We'll talk about it, but I don't think anyone on our side is against a rematch."
A rematch makes the most sense so that the fighters, and not the referee, can determine the outcome themselves.
"People paid a lot of money to buy tickets to see us fight and watch on television," Agbeko said.
It was Mora, though, and not Mares or Agbeko, who was in the spotlight after the bout.
A rematch is the only way to fix that.
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- Abner Mares
- Joseph Agbeko