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In Search of a Fair Shake

On the heels of a much-maligned decision in the Ali Funeka/Joan Guzman bout, the score-settling December 12 rematch between Juan Diaz and Paulie Malignaggi has placed judging in the center of the ring.

When Juan Diaz and Paulie Malignaggi square off in their rematch on December 12 at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, the judges at ringside may be under almost as much scrutiny as the fighters themselves. The second half of 2009 has brought with it two of the most controversial decisions in boxing's recent memory—the much disputed unanimous decision for Diaz in the first Diaz/Malignaggi fight in August, and then the universally declaimed majority draw in the Ali Funeka/Joan Guzman debacle on November 28.

While the sport has been riding a glorious high in recent months due to the veritable explosion of Manny Pacquiao's star power and the re-emergence of the always provocative Floyd Mayweather, the Diaz/Malignaggi and Funeka/Guzman situations gave boxing two high-profile black eyes, prompting familiar criticisms that the sweet science was a sour enterprise, riddled with corruption and provincial foul play.

It's a shame that such controversy is the legacy of Diaz/Malignaggi I, because the bout itself was an entertaining entry in that most tried-and-true stylistic rivalry between Boxer and Brawler. Over the course of twelve action-packed rounds at the Toyota Center in Houston, Diaz brawled his way forward in front of his hometown fans, practicing what Budd Schulberg once termed "the manly art of no defense." Meanwhile Malignaggi boxed effectively from the ring's perimeter, peppering the encroaching Diaz with incessant jabs and combinations.

After the fight, the consensus on press row was that Malignaggi consistently had landed the more meaningful punches and deserved a narrow but definitive victory. Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial scorer, agreed with that assessment, tipping it for Malignaggi to the tune of 115-113. But the judges saw it differently, offering scores of 116-112, 115-113, and a staggering 118-110, all in Diaz's favor. The outcry was immediate, especially given the fact that prior to the fight, Malignaggi had complained vociferously to the media that the deck was stacked against him because he was fighting in Diaz's backyard with judges hand-picked by Golden Boy, Diaz's promotional company. In an emotional tirade following the bout, the clearly devastated Malignaggi took out his frustrations on Texas, saying, "This state never gives a fair shake to anyone coming to fight here."

Cut to November 28 when Michael Buffer read the scorecards after the Ali Funeka/Joan Guzman fight at the Pepsi Center in Quebec City for the vacant IBF lightweight title. Despite the fact that Funeka appeared to dominate, and that Guzman was bloodied, staggered and seemingly in danger of being stopped in the later rounds, the three judges scored the bout a majority draw, with two cards reading 114-114 and the third 116-112 for Funeka. To the majority of observers, 116-112 for Funeka was the only fair score of the lot, and even that seemed generous to Guzman. Lederman had the fight 117-111 in Funeka's favor, awarding Guzman only the first, second and seventh rounds. When the draw was officially announced, the HBO commentators at ringside were flabbergasted. "Wow!" yelled Bob Papa, while Max Kellerman wondered aloud if the judges had added their scorecards incorrectly.

Paulie Malignaggi

The additional controversy will only heighten what was already a taut atmosphere surrounding the issue of judging in the Diaz/Malignaggi rematch on December 12 in Chicago. With neither fighter known for knockout power, the second fight is just as likely to proceed to the scorecards as the first did. When that happens, one wonders if the controversy surrounding the first fight will play any tricks on the minds and eyes of the judges.

Doug Fischer, editor of RingTV.com, thinks that's a definite possibility. "We've seen in boxing before," Fischer says, "where, after a questionable decision, judges make adjustments in the rematch towards the fighter who was perceived to be victimized in the first fight. Look at the rematch between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield in 1999. Holyfield definitely deserved to lose the first fight and he got a draw. But then Holyfield came back in the rematch and fought a pretty damn good fight. I was ringside for that fight, and there were many members of the British press, overwhelmingly rooting for Lewis, who still had the second fight a draw. Some had Holyfield winning by a point or two. But the judges gave Lennox a unanimous decision. One even had him winning nine rounds to three."

Complicating the Diaz/Malignaggi rematch scenario is the fact that while the controversy of the Funeka/Guzman draw is being chalked up by most boxing pundits to judging incompetence, the first Diaz/Malignaggi bout was without question a close contest in which the stylistic contrast made many rounds very difficult to score.

"It was very competitive, Diaz and Malignaggi," says Harold Lederman. "I personally scored it for Paulie Malignaggi, seven rounds to five, which is close, you know? The 118-110 score from the one judge was way out of line, but if you liked an aggressive puncher, you liked Juan Diaz in this fight. It was controversial, but it wasn't the worst decision the world has ever known."

Fischer agrees with that assessment and thinks that if either fighter expects to win an indisputable decision in the rematch he's going to have to take a page out of his opponent's playbook. "They need to borrow a little from the other's game," Fischer says. "For Malignaggi to improve on the first fight, he has to be a little bit more aggressive and throw a few more right hands, snap Diaz's head back a few times. And Diaz needs to box a little bit more. He can do more than just stalk a guy. He's got a good jab—he should use it, try to block Paulie's jab and drop his jab at the same time. Maybe he'll discourage Paulie from using his jab so much, which usually discombobulates a pure boxer."

Each familiar with the other's style, it's certain that both men are devoting training camp to winning this second fight in convincing fashion. And considering the neutral site of Chicago and the neutral judges agreed upon by both camps, the entire event may go off controversy-free. Then again, Quebec was a neutral site for Ali Funeka and Joan Guzman.

Given the bad blood surrounding their first bout, nothing would be more convincing or satisfying for either Diaz or Malignaggi than to notch an electrifying stoppage on December 12 and keep the scorecards out of the matter altogether. It would go a long way towards erasing the taste of bad decisions currently lingering in the collective mouths of devoted fight fans everywhere, and no doubt it also would come as a great relief to the three judges at ringside.

"This state never gives a fair shake to anyone coming to fight here," an angry Malignaggi said in the post-fight interview.

Posted 12:00 AM | Dec 7, 2009

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