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Knee-Deep in Latest Fight Joke

Boxing as an industry slays me. The sport of Stanley Ketchel, Sam Lanngford, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis sometimes reaches new highs in buffoonery that make it hard to remember it’s trying to be serious.

Take the Riddick Bowe-Buster Mathis Jr. fight of last Saturday. Please.

Now, as you know, boxing is a sport governed, more or less, by a code of ethics and behavior known as the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

As a matter of fact, John Sholto Douglas, the eighth Marquess of Queensbury, didn’t actually devise them, he merely lent his name to them. Boxing, quite early, got used to duplicitous behavior.

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The rules sought to civilize and make regulatory what otherwise appeared to be a sanctioned mugging.

The Marquess’ rules were few (12) but fairly explicit. Rule No. 10 read: “A man on one knee is considered down, and, if struck, is entitled to the stakes.”

No ambiguity there, right?

Now, you might have noticed Saturday in the Atlantic City Convention Center before witnesses (not many really--the cognoscenti managed to miss this pugilistic mismatch), Riddick Bowe, the once and future heavyweight champion, broke Rule 10.

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It’s hard to know what the Marquess would make of this but it was too bad, really, because Bowe threw the best right hand he threw all night, maybe ever.

It caught Mathis flush on the chin and doubled him over backward and unconscious.

Unfortunately, Mathis was kneeling at the time. No one quite knows why. Mathis does things on the spur of the moment and it’s hard to predict from one moment to the next what his strategy will be.

Bowe can probably be understood for his infraction if not forgiven because it was the only time all night when Mathis was in range and visible.

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You see, Bowe couldn’t hit a moving target. So, whenever Mathis was upright, Bowe kept missing him. Bowe is not exactly nifty. The last time he fought for the title, a parachutist landed almost on top of him in the ring. And there are nights when the promoters are afraid pigeons will light on Bowe too, mistaking him for a statue of Beethoven. Bowe moves about as fast as a post office line.

It was very frustrating for Bowe, who was half a foot taller and 24 pounds heavier than Mathis. From that vantage point, he seemed to have great difficulty in locating Mathis all night, although Buster is not what you’d call svelte. He appears at first sight to be all waist line. Either that or the world’s biggest soccer ball. He doesn’t really seem to have any hitting area.

That’s why Bowe, who has trouble finding the hitting area on the heavy bag in the gym, couldn’t believe his good luck when he saw Mathis kneeling in one place. He unloaded on him. Mathis was lucky his head didn’t come off.

Now, Bowe has probably never read the Marquess of Queensbury rules--among the myriad other subjects he has never read up on. But hitting a man when he’s down is pretty much frowned upon in most of the civilized world. At least outside of Central Park.

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Still, I suppose you can understand Bowe’s frustration. He couldn’t hit Mathis when he was up. Riddick had a no-hitter going. And he didn’t knock Mathis to one knee. Buster simply kind of went there of his own accord, like a guy genuflecting in church. To escape punishment, I should imagine. I mean, he thought he was safe--although it’s doubtful if Buster ever read Rule 10, either.

If you think the punch dazed Mathis (and it did) it was nothing compared to the confusion it caused the referee.

Arthur Mercante is 75 years old, and he had never seen an incident quite like this one. To his credit, Arthur didn’t bother to count. He stopped the fight. He was heard murmuring dazedly something about “fining Bowe $10,000" but letting the fight stand, but the New Jersey boxing commissioner, Larry Hazzard, knew a felony when he saw one.

They argued briefly as to how best to proceed.

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There is no doubt as to how they should have proceeded. Bowe should have been disqualified. According to the Marquess’ rules, Mathis was “entitled to the stakes.”

But Hazzard had a kind of Solomonic decision in mind. Only, he did cut the baby in half. “We felt we could not allow Bowe to win the fight,” Hazzard explained later. But, apparently, they felt neither could they allow him to lose it. So, they ruled the bout “no contest.” It never happened.

I told you boxing was hilarious. Now, “no contest” in boxing lore usually meant a fight in which one or both participants in a fight declined to give his best. That, in turn, usually meant the gamblers had gotten to one or both of the fighters. Boxing not only was funny, it was larcenous.

This was not a case of that. As bad as they were, both pugs were trying.

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So, what we have here is your basic non-fight. Let the record books figure it out.

There is, however, an additional complication. It is that Mathis might have gone to the floor without being struck. Now, the Marquess didn’t address that, but the London Prize Ring Rules that predated the Marquess and to which he deferred, are quite clear on that. Rule No. 13 unequivocally states “It shall be a fair ‘stand-up fight,’ and if either man shall willfully throw himself down without receiving a blow, whether blows have previously been exchanged or not, shall be deemed to have lost the battle.”

Fair enough? Wait a minute! The rule then goes on to contradict itself: “But this rule shall not apply to a man who, in close, slips down from the grasp of an opponent to avoid punishment, or from obvious accident or weakness.”

And you thought this job was easy!

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Only once in the history of the ring has a heavyweight won the championship while on the floor. Max Schmeling accomplished this dubious feat in 1930 when he fell to the canvas, clutching his groin in the fourth round of his title fight against Jack Sharkey. His manager, the resourceful Joe Jacobs, famous for giving the world the words to live by “We wuz robbed!” leaped in the ring and claimed the title. Successfully.

Schmeling’s legacy to the game was the tin cup over the groin. No more low-blow fouls deciding a match. But what is Mathis’ going to be--a catcher’s mask?

In the case of Buster, it’s a good idea. Bowe is probably the best we have at the moment, at least at hitting a stationary target. He’s an irresistible force only when encountering an immovable object. Fortunately for him, the “other” heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, off his recent fights, qualifies. He doesn’t even have to kneel to be hittable. Meantime, if you feel the urge to pray, make sure Bowe isn’t around--and in need of a tuneup.


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