“He gave you the old good news / bad news routine. The good news is – you’re gonna get a shot at the title. And the bad news is – they want you to do the old flip-flop for ‘em.”
– Joey Lamotta sets up a fix with brother Jake in Raging Bull
One of the reasons that boxing attracts such a varied circle of followers and can even inspire great works of literature or cinema is the darkness of the culture that surrounds it. Since its earliest days, the professional game has been shrouded in layers of mystery. While what takes place in the ring – two young men, under the lights in a battle of guts and wits – appears simple, we are often left wondering whether other, perhaps sinister, forces are at work.
Sometimes this can be at a systemic level. On small hall shows, the typical early-career-boxer v journeyman fight is often one in which the result seems pre-ordained. Even an away fighter not willing to play the game must contend with massive disadvantages. Short notice and lack of preparation, perhaps having to shed weight quickly and the prevalence of home corner decisions from officials, all make it extremely difficult for a journeyman to pick up a ‘W’, even if he tries. But what about the upper tiers of the pro game, where big money and belts are contested? How often there do we witness something that does not ring true?
The quote at the top of this article is taken from the landmark Scorsese biopic of former middleweight champ Jake Lamotta, detailing a time when he was paid to take a dive by the mafia. Lamotta’s experiences were not unique. For many years around the middle of the 20th century, organised crime had a prominent role in boxing business. Rumours of set-ups were rife and more often than not would be connected to gambling stings, where large sums of money were wagered on unexpected outcomes. As well as going down on purpose, fighters might be paid to ensure a contest ended in a particular round or to ‘carry’ an inept opponent to the final bell. If the boxers themselves were not in on the conspiracy, judges or referees could be bribed, to ensure a certain result.
There is a temptation to believe that such behaviour belongs to a lost era of tommy-guns and men in trilby hats. But is it fair to wonder if these sorts of shenanigans are now consigned to boxing’s past, merely the stuff of movies and novels? Or are there examples from recent history that have aroused suspicion?
Turley on Tuesday provides four fights from the last decade, when fans and onlookers might well have cried, ‘the fix is in!”
- Gomez v McDonagh (2006)
In January 2006, former British champion Michael Gomez (real name Armstrong) took on rank outsider Peter McDonagh for the Irish lightweight title at the National Stadium in Dublin. Gomez set a frenetic pace, as he so often did, out-strengthed McDonagh in the early rounds and although the fight was close, appeared to be in control. That came to an abrupt end midway through the fifth, for no apparent reason. Gomez was caught with a couple of shots, immediately stopped fighting, half turned away and put his hands down. McDonagh followed up with a barrage, Gomez went down briefly, got up, made some sort of gesture to his corner and the bout was stopped. McDonagh, meanwhile, sank to his knees and gave credit for the victory to celebrity spoon-bender Uri Geller, who had helped him prepare. The ending had been both sudden and truly, deeply strange.
Purses were withheld due to ‘irregular betting activity’ on the fight, with one Irish bookmaker suspending wagers twelve hours before first bell, after a slew of bets were made on McDonagh to win in the fifth. Such was the deluge of money on that that result that it had opened with a starting price of 125/1 but by fight time had come in to 18/1.
Both camps strongly denied all suggestions of corruption. After an investigation by the Boxing Union of Ireland, the dues were paid and the fighters cleared of any wrongdoing. For many, suspicion still lingers, however. Hmm…
- Mitchell v Banks (2013)
With the Klitschko brothers entering early middle-age and heading for retirement, promoters and managers worldwide had begun a frantic search for fighters who could replace them. Ideally, they wanted someone from the states, to hark back to the days when the Heavyweight championship had been an American preserve and reignite the large, US market. Of the names in the hat at the time, the UK’s David Price and Tyson Fury both came with amateur pedigrees, as did Alabama’s Deontay Wilder. Yet one, who was often mentioned in the same breath came to the game incredibly late.
A former college footballer, Seth ‘Mayhem’ Mitchell began boxing at 24 years old, turning pro with Golden Boy promotions. Immensely strong, with a squat physique, physical comparisons were often made with Mike Tyson and he racked up an impressive 25-0-1 record before coming up against wily former cruiserweight Johnathon Banks, for the WBC ‘International’ title. Pre-fight talk was that after beating Banks, Mitchell would box a world-title eliminator.
Banks had not read the script however, exposed Mitchell’s limitations and knocked him out comfortably in two rounds. The Golden Boy gravy train was derailed. A rematch was arranged seven months later in which a very similar result appeared likely when Banks hurt Mitchell badly in the third. Another KO seemed imminent, but instead of following up and finishing his man off, Banks mysteriously stopped fighting and went onto the back foot, in a defensive shell. From then on he allowed Mitchell to recuperate and box his way gingerly to an unconvincing points win. After sending him reeling, Banks had barely thrown another punch.
The loser tried to explain himself in the aftermath by claiming he had hurt his hands, but an unsavoury taste was left in the mouth of viewers. Mitchell would go on to get his eliminator, against Chris ‘the nightmare’ Arreola, in September 2013, in which he got splatted inside one round. Fascinatingly, videos of the Mitchell / Banks rematch do not appear to be available anywhere online. Somebody, somewhere, doesn’t want people to watch that one again.
- Burns v Beltran (2013)
In the days before the Anthony Joshua juggernaut gathered momentum, Matchroom Sport’s PPV ambitions rested on the shoulders of several British world champions, spearheaded by Carl Froch. Among them was Coatbridge’s popular Lightweight WBO world champ Ricky Burns, who was making his fifth defence against experienced Mexican, Raymundo Beltran in Glasgow, September 2013. Although previous wins against Michael Katsidis and particularly Kevin Mitchell had been impressive, there was a feeling that Burns’ last bout against Jose Gonzalez, had been a little flat and perhaps he was on a downward curve.
Fears that Ricky had lost some lustre appeared confirmed early on, as he was tagged repeatedly by Beltran, who was sharper, faster and clearly bossing the bout. The dogged Scot showed admirable toughness, suffering a broken jaw in the second and a knockdown in round eight, hanging in until the bitter end. Regardless, it appeared a landslide victory for the challenger.
Yet in a staggering display of twisted officiating, one judge scored the bout a draw and another to Burns by three points. In other words, allowing for the eighth round knockdown, which should have been a 10-8 for Beltran, that particular official otherwise scored a five point win for a man who had been comprehensively beaten in every department. The margin of error was baffling, making the overall result a draw.
Much maligned commentator and fellow Scot Jim Watt, strayed from the Sky script and said, “sometimes I don’t like the boxing game very much. Beltran should be going home as champion.”
When an utterly dejected challenger was interviewed in his dressing room, post-fight, he spoke of the money he could have made from the title and how it could have provided for his children’s futures. Mournful, he reflected, “I know how it works, they are protecting their investment.”
Meanwhile in his post-fight interview, promoter Eddie Hearn defended the decision, saying he thought “a draw was about the right result.”
Of course it was Eddie, of course it was… Burns was to undergo surgery, have a titanium plate fitted and lose the title in his next defence, against a magnificent Terence Crawford.
- Wilder v Scott (2014)
By the time Olympic bronze medallist Wilder fought Malik Scott, in March 2014, Vitali Klitschko had left the scene and the WBC title, for many years considered the most prestigious, was vacant. Following Mitchell’s demise, Wilder was touted as the leading American contender, with the expectations of a long-starved nation on his shoulders. This fight had been earmarked as an eliminator, meaning the winner would box either Bermane Stiverne or Chris Arreola for the championship. While Scott had long been considered a fringe contender himself, his elite credentials were damaged following a sixth round TKO loss to London’s Dereck Chisora.
There was (and still is) considerable hype around Wilder, a tall, handsome, athletic banger with a great story to tell. (Wilder’s daughter suffers from spina bifida and he took up boxing as a means to pay for her treatment.) At the same time however, many pointed out technical weaknesses and that in the past, when tagged, as against Harold Sconiers in 2010, his ability to hold a shot looked highly questionable.
Having built up a bum-of-the-month style CV and climbed the rankings by KOing nobodies, it was felt that Scott should be able to provide more of a challenge. It wasn’t to be however, with the contest ending at 1.36 of the first round, following a trademark, left right combo from Deontay. In real time it looked impressive enough and Wilder grinned at the crowd while commentators gushed over his natural power.
That was until replays clearly showed that the straight right which apparently knocked Scott out, hadn’t actually landed, instead merely grazing his glove. The arena filled with boos when replays were shown on a screen above the ring. It was a tricky one to explain.
“Malik Scott definitely didn’t come here to fall down…” Said Al Bernstein on the HBO commentary.
Watch my appearance on last Tuesday’s Channel 4 News, here.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please visit my non-boxing blog at https://markturleyblog.wordpress.com/