Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Tyrannosaurus Ref

I feel as though I ought to write about the weekend’s Ricky Hatton Fight, although I am struggling for anything original to say. I love Ricky, but I think the boring and sad truth is that he has now found his level.

He has fought two of the best boxers of the last twenty years, and they have both beaten him – there’s no shame in that. On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao used his superior hand speed and phenomenal power to put what I hope is an end to the career of one of the most charismatic and, let’s be honest here, one of the most extraordinarily talented British fighters of my generation.

But what could be my unique take on this? I can hardly bang on about what a great fighter Ricky has been – it’s been done. I could talk about other British boxers who have found success in America, although I don’t think anyone has ever taken twenty-five thousand fans across with them.

I could talk about the dramatic impact Pacquiao is having on the world of boxing, eclipsing Floyd Mayweather as the now-universally acknowledged best boxer on the planet. But that’s all been said.

No, the real story here is Kenny Bayless. He is the American referee who pulled out Ricky’s gumshield two minutes into the second round. He has taken charge of several world title fights now, has established a reputation as one of the best in the business but best of all, he runs unmistakeably like a T-Rex.

Seriously, you have to see some footage of him – he sort of bounces around the fighters on his hind legs, moving his head around as though he’s looking for food, and his gloved hands sit limply in front of him like the vestigial limbs of a flightless bird. I reckon the only reason he is so good at what he does is that his vision is based mainly on movement.

It’s an odd job, that of the boxing referee. Almost exclusively the preserve of former pros, the crucial skills appear to be the ability to fasten a bow tie, and the willingness to stand between two psychopaths. Back in the old days, the ref was on the payroll of the promoter and there are countless examples of “long counts,” where the knocked out fighter would be nudged with the boot and encouraged to rise and continue. “These people need to get their money’s worth.”

Nowadays, boxing likes to hold the fiction that the safety of the boxers is paramount. I’m not anti-boxing – far from it – but I am anti-hypocrisy and there is no way you can describe this as a safe sport. Nonetheless, the referee these days is much more likely to step in and save a struggling fighter rather than allow the fight to continue and a serious injury to occur.

You can hardly blame Bayless for not stopping the Hatton fight early – not a single person in the state of Nevada saw that left hook coming, much less Ricky.

I love the unwritten rule that appears to dictate that the physical size of the ref has to be in inverse proportion to the fighters. So whereas Bayless towers over the welterweights, tiny Mickey Vann – something of a personality with his own catchphrase, “no naughties with the heads…” – always gets put in with the monstrous heavyweights.

I hope Ricky decides the time is right to retire. He has been one of the all-time greats and will have a long and lucrative career of TV punditry and after-dinner stand-up. My only concern is that, if he lets himself go and puts on the pounds, we’ll not be able to find a referee small enough for him.

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