LAS VEGAS – On the night boxing showcased its best, an audience of millions got its worst. On the night two of the sports biggest stars waged a terrific fight in the ring, one of its most controversial judges stole the spotlight out of it. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin lived up to expectations in their middleweight showdown on Saturday, and, unfortunately, Adalaide Byrd lived up to hers.
First, the fight, which after being hailed as the most fan-friendly middleweight fight since Marvin Hagler’s epic battle with Tommy Hearns, largely lived up to its billing. It wasn’t Hagler-Hearns — what was? — and didn’t have the drama of Anthony Joshua’s knockout win over Wladimir Klitschko earlier this year. But for 12 rounds two elite 160-pounders threw haymakers, blasting away at each other for 36 gripping minutes. The result — a split draw — didn’t satisfy either, but both walked away with pieces of a win.
For Golovkin it was his titles, all three of them, and the paycheck that comes with fighting in the most anticipated match of the year. It’s been five years since Golovkin made landfall in the U.S., and after wiping out a steady diet of middling opponents, he finally got the one he craved: Alvarez, the 27-year-old budding megastar who after two years of back and forth finally agreed to face him. It wasn’t a brilliant performance; Golovkin controlled the ring and applied continuous pressure, but his eagerness to fight left him open to blistering counter shots that made up the bulk of Alvarez’s 114-110 edge in power punches, per CompuBox.
For Alvarez, he squashed the narrative that he couldn’t hang with the middleweight kingpin — in addition to collecting a sizable paycheck of his own. His strategy was unorthodox; he seemed content in the early rounds to fight off the ropes, seemingly hoping Golovkin, 35, would punch himself out, freeing him to land round-winning shots in the later stages.
It was an outstanding fight, and it was completely overshadowed by the scorecard of Byrd, a polarizing judge who never should have been assigned the fight to begin with. A year ago Top Rank attempted to get Byrd removed from Vasyl Lomachenko’s super featherweight title defense against Nicholas Walters. In a request made to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Top Rank cited several of Byrd’s questionable scorecards. There was a 100-90 card in favor of Jose Benavidez in a win over Francisco Santana (the two other judges had it for Benavidez, but much closer). There was a 118-110 card for Diego Magdaleno in his win over Nonito Donaire. Again, the two other judges scored the fight for Magdaleno, but far closer.
Byrd’s card in Alvarez-Golovkin stands as her most egregious. Her 118-110 scoring for Alvarez stood in contrast to Dave Moretti’s 115-113 card for Golovkin and Don Trella’s 114-114 draw. Most of the ringside media had the fight close, either even or a point or two in both directions. In a fight Golovkin seemed to control, Byrd scored just the fourth and seventh for him.
In a brief interview with Yahoo Sports, Bob Bennett, the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, defended Byrd. He admitted Byrd “was a little wide tonight,” but cited her steady performances in 115 title-level fights as proof that Byrd is “an outstanding judge.”
“Being a judge is a very challenging position,” Bennett told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not making any excuses. But look at her record over the last three years, the worst that you are going to find are maybe a couple of rounds [that were off]. I have confidence in her.”
OK. But given Byrd’s recent history, and the fact that a major promoter recently attempted to force her off a high-profile show, was assigning Byrd the most significant fight of the year really the right move? Bennett likes Byrd, but boxing has no national rating system. Bennett’s policy in recommending judges is to review a list, his list, and submit candidates to the commission for approval. And while Nevada does use out of state judges, it often leans towards using those in state. Byrd, who is married to noted referee Robert Byrd, lives in Nevada.
That, on the surface, is insane. In the highest-profile fights, state commissions should seek out the very best judges—wherever they are from. And while there are no official rankings, the elite are well known. Steve Weisfeld. Glenn Feldman. Max DeLuca. Burt Clements. Do they guarantee a fair decision? No. But by assigning them a commission is doing everything in its power to ensure there is one.
Said Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, “Something has to be done about the decisions here in Vegas. [Byrd] needs to go back to school and learn how to judge a fight.”
On that: If I’m Golovkin, when I wake up on Monday, face still bruised, fists sore, record blemished for the first time in my career, I’m wondering why my team didn’t have my back. Byrd’s struggles in recent high-profile fights are well known; a simple search reveals Top Rank’s complaints. Yet when the commission submitted the list of names of potential judges, Golovkin’s promoter, Tom Loeffler, didn’t make a peep. Sanchez said after the fight that he had issues with Byrd when he saw the list, but when asked point blank about Byrd on the Yahoo Sports Boxing Podcast last week, he didn’t raise an objection.
Now a promoter’s power is limited here; an objection won’t always be accommodated, as Top Rank discovered. But the Golovkin team’s unwillingness to raise hell over Byrd’s inclusion on the preliminary list was a mistake, one that might not have been made with a little research and a willingness to pick a fight with the commission. They didn’t, or wouldn’t, and Golovkin paid the price.
Hopefully something is learned here. Bennett didn’t seem inclined to overhaul his procedures, but perhaps the public backlash — Adalaide Byrd was trending on Twitter in the hours after the fight — will force him to. After appearing indifferent to the judges before the fight, maybe Golovkin’s team will be more proactive before the rematch.
Oh yeah: There will be a rematch. Golden Boy has an option for one, and while they wouldn’t commit to exercising it immediately after the fight, they will. Golovkin represents the biggest money fight for Canelo, and Canelo’s performance on Saturday gave company officials every reason to believe he can beat him.
“Of course I want the rematch,” Alvarez said. “Obviously, if the people want it, then yes.”
In the hours after the fight, Golden Boy president Eric Gomez pleaded with reporters not to make the post-fight coverage about the judging. He believed the stories should be about the brilliant performances by two of boxing’s best. And they should. But as long as boxing refuses to address this enormous problem, they won’t. As long as promoters, managers and fighters don’t demand change, judging, not fighting, will be the focus.