By Eric Raskin
“It just wasn’t a good decision,” Harold Lederman reflected about the first Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev fight. “I mean, there’s no question in my mind that Sergey Kovalev got jobbed.”
HBO’s unofficial scorer doesn’t speak for everyone in objecting to the decision that fell in Ward’s favor by a margin of one point on each of the three official cards last November 19, but Lederman speaks for plenty of people awaiting the June 17 rematch. After the conclusion of a boxing match intended to clarify who is the best fighter in a weight class and perhaps even in the entire sport, many fans were still left looking for an answer.
Ward-Kovalev 1 delivered entertainment and drama, it confirmed Kovalev’s capability as a puncher, and showed the depth of Ward’s resolve and ability to adapt. But it didn’t clarify anything. That’s why the only next move that made any sense for either of them was to sign for a rematch.
It’s worth noting that, with all due respect to Lederman’s assessment, Ward-Kovalev should probably not be termed a robbery. Anecdotally, it seemed the average fan/media scorecard was 114-113 for Kovalev; the three judges each had it 114-113 for Ward. If the official and the unofficial tallies are separated by one round swinging in the opposite direction, can you really cry foul? Not too loudly.
But you can cry out for clarity.
Boxing is only slightly more littered with controversy than it is with rematches signed in part to capitalize on the controversy. Whether you view it as a lemonade-out-of-lemons situation or you skeptically assume every dubious decision is a part of some devious plot to cash in a second time, the reality is that controversy sells. Not every debatable outcome in boxing history has given birth to a rematch, but here are 10 notable examples that have -- five where the rematch was immediate (like Ward-Kovalev) and five where it happened on delay:
Joe Louis vs. Jersey Joe Walcott
Louis was 56-1 and more than a decade into his heavyweight championship reign when he defended the title against Walcott at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 5, 1947, got dropped twice, and received the sort of gift split decision that aging icons who transcend their sport tend to receive. In the immediate rematch six months later, the 34-year-old Louis again struggled -- he got knocked down in round three and was trailing on two of the three scorecards through 10 rounds. But “The Brown Bomber” summoned an 11th-round knockout that would allow to him to retire (temporarily) as the champion without a cloud of controversy hanging over him.
Carmen Basilio vs. Johnny Saxton
“It was like being robbed in a dark alley,” welterweight champ Basilio said of his March 1956 unanimous decision loss at Chicago Stadium to Johnny Saxton. Saxton was managed by mafioso Blinky Palermo, leading many observers to draw unsavory conclusions about why Basilio lost by seven points on two of the scorecards despite seeming to dominate the bout. In an immediate rematch six months later, Basilio got his title back by ninth-round knockout. For good measure, he needed only two rounds to win the rubber match five months after that. Those wins didn’t erase Basilio’s loss in the first fight from the record books, but they helped magnify the asterisk attached to it.
Pernell Whitaker vs. Jose Luis Ramirez
Precocious Olympic gold medalist Whitaker had 90 fewer fights worth of pro experience than Ramirez when he challenged for his first title in France in March 1988, but it was “Sweet Pea” who looked like the savvy veteran, slickly outboxing the Mexican on his way to what seemed a clear decision win. Two of the judges, however, had other ideas, awarding Ramirez a ridiculous split decision. It was ultimately a meaningless speed bump on Whitaker’s road to the top of the pound-for-pound list, avenged 17 months and four fights later when the judges got it right, two of them seeing the nearly untouchable Whitaker as a shutout winner.
Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor
This wasn’t a controversial decision, but it certainly was a controversial ending. On March 17, 1990, down by an insurmountable margin on the cards, Chavez rallied in the 12th round to convince referee Richard Steele to stop the fight with just two seconds left on the clock, as hotly debated a split-second decision as any ref has ever made. By the time the rematch came together more than four years later, Taylor was all but used up, and Chavez’s controversy-free eighth-round KO didn’t mean much. Even so, there’s a sense looking back on their first fight that even if there are two sides to the argument over who deserved to win the battle, there is only one reasonable answer as to who won the war.
Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield
With three heavyweight belts and the lineal championship on the line, the first Lewis-Holyfield unification showdown at Madison Square Garden in March 1999 had all the makings of a glorious night for boxing. But the fight disappointed -- Holyfield was flat and ineffective and Lewis boxed frustratingly cautiously -- and the draw decision was even worse. When they did it again in Las Vegas eight months later, the action was better, the fight felt closer, and while a draw this time around would not have been unreasonable, Lewis was awarded the unanimous decision and the undisputed championship that he deserved the first time.
Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales
The first meeting between Mexican rivals Barrera and Morales may have been 2000’s Fight of the Year, but it came with a Y2K bug: In the opinion of most, the wrong warrior got the nod. The favored Morales captured a highly controversial split decision by a single point, but even in official defeat, Barrera’s career was rejuvenated. When they got around to a rematch in 2002, it was Barrera who was favored going in, Morales who seemed to win over a majority of the viewing public, and Barrera who took home the controversial unanimous nod. It took a 2004 rubber match to establish a clear winner in the rivalry, with Barrera gutting out a well-deserved majority decision to finish with both the official and unofficial upper hand.
Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward
The controversy of the first Gatti-Ward fight, waged over 10 epic rounds in May 2002 at Mohegan Sun Casino, has been largely forgotten because winning and losing was hardly the enduring legacy of their saga. But in the moment, there was heated debate over whether Ward deserved the majority decision that went his way. Gatti and Ward were probably destined for an immediate rematch regardless, but a heaping spoonful of uncertainty over who proved superior never hurts. There was no such uncertainty after their second fight, in November ’02, which Gatti won going away, or in their third fight, in June ’03, which was closer than the second but still decisive for Gatti.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Jose Luis Castillo
The perfect 49-0 record upon which Mayweather’s “TBE” claims were built was nearly spoiled 28 fights into the run, in April 2002, when lightweight champ Castillo applied enough unrelenting pressure to convince HBO’s Lederman that he won 115-111. But the official judges went the exact opposite direction: 116-111, 115-111, and 115-111, all for Mayweather. It was a controversial decision made more so by the absurdly wide scores across the board, but there was no controversy to the rematch eight months later. Mayweather again was pushed but did enough to win by dead-on scores of 116-113, 115-113, and 115-113.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez
Pacquiao and Marquez don’t know how to swap punches without controversy. Their first fight, in 2004, was a draw about which opinions varied wildly. Instead of an immediate rematch, they waited four years and settled nothing in their second meeting, with Pacquiao winning a disputed split decision by a single point. Three more years passed before their third fight, which was the closest thing to a robbery in their series; Marquez seemed to win seven or eight of the 12 rounds, but it was Pac-Man who got the majority decision. So they did it a fourth time a year after that, and finally there was a clear-cut victor as Marquez knocked Pacquiao cold in the sixth round of a classic punchout.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley
If Pacquiao got a gift or two in his series with Marquez, he learned what the short end of that particular stick felt like in his June 2012 bout with Bradley, which all but a handful at the MGM Grand Garden Arena thought the Filipino won going away. Among that handful were two of the three official judges, who somehow gave Bradley seven rounds and set in motion some outlandish conspiracy theorizing and more than a few “never agains” from fans who bought the pay-per-view. Pacquiao set things right in the rematch two years later, winning a comfortable unanimous decision, and with the series technically tied at one apiece, Pacquiao prevailed again in the unnecessary 2016 rubber match.
Of these 10 controversial outcomes, all but two (Barrera-Morales and Pacquiao-Marquez) were fairly well settled and controversy-free by the end of their second fights. For Kovalev and Ward, the challenge is not just to win on June 17, but to do so conclusively enough to end the series with no demand for a third fight.