RIO DE JANEIRO — American boxer Shakur Stevenson woke up on Thursday morning expecting to face Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in a semifinal bout in the bantamweight division later in the afternoon. But when Nikitin pulled out with an injury, Stevenson was granted a walkover victory and a spot in the gold-medal bout on Saturday afternoon. While the irrepressible Stevenson was surely not worried about the rugged but limited Nikitin, a free pass here has got to be a relief to any boxer—for it means one less outing in front of the judges.
In an Olympic boxing tournament that over the past three days has become as much about questionable scores cast at ringside as punches thrown within the ropes, every fighter now rightfully fears getting punched out by judges who have repeatedly proved themselves to be at best incompetent—and at worst corrupt.
On Wednesday, the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the sport’s governing body, acknowledged those fears, announcing that it had dismissed an undisclosed number of officials due to “less than a handful of [decisions that] were not at the level expected” in the 239 bouts contested through Tuesday and that “the concerned referees and judges will no longer officiate at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.” (Reports put the number of officials sent home at six, but AIBA would neither confirm a number nor provide any names, and several judges from disputed matches were back ringside on Wednesday.)
AIBA official Tom Virgets told the BBC, “We have a lot of educating to do and a lot of evaluating to do.”
That’s an understatement. And it’s unlikely that the anonymous removals will put boxers’ worries to rest going forward in the competition. Either way, significant damage has already been done to the tournament’s integrity.
On Monday night, Russian heavyweight Evgeny Tishchenko’s 29–28 unanimous decision victory over Vassiliy Levit of Kazakhstan in the gold medal match was greeted by gasps and boos from a crowd that had watched a relentless Levit largely batter and smother Tishchecko throughout all three rounds.
Earlier that same day, two of the favorites in the women’s lightweight division, 2012 gold medalist Katie Taylor of Ireland and American Mikaela Mayer, had been eliminated on questionable decisions. After Mayer’s loss, U.S. coach Billy Walsh had made no secret of his disgust at the judging. “I guess we have to knock them out,” he said, before adding with a sour smile, “to get a draw.”
And then on Tuesday, in the bout immediately preceding Stevenson’s quarterfinal victory over Mongolia’s Tsendbaatar Erdenebat, Nikitin was awarded a unanimous decision over the division’s reigning world champion, Michael Conlan of Ireland, after an action-packed fight in which Conlan appeared to land by far the more precise and telling blows. The crowd rained boos and whistles down on the judging team as it marched off the arena floor after that bout.
Moments later a stunned Conlan, speaking to Irish TV, let rip with an attack on the judging and on AIBA that was even more hard-hitting than the one that had left Nikitin bloodied—and one that immediately went viral.
“AIBA cheats, it f------ cheats,” he said, his eyes wide with anguish. “They’re cheating bastards. They’re paying everybody. I don’t give a f--- if I’m cursing on TV. They’re known for being cheats and they’ll always be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top!”
The fishy odor rose again three bouts later in U.S. light welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell’s quarterfinal against Fazliddin Gaibnazarov of Uzbekistan. Russell, a gifted 20-year-old southpaw from a boxing-rich Washington, D.C. family, fought with precision and control, feinting, moving in and out and stinging the wild-swinging Gaibnazarov repeatedly. The result? A split decision for the Uzbek fighter and the end of his Olympic dream for Russell.
“It just hurts,” said U.S. associate men’s coach Kay Koroma. “For a kid like Gary, who does everything he was asked and executes so beautifully—for them to stick him up like that? It’s blatant.”
Walsh, a former Olympic boxer for his native Ireland who coached the Irish team for 12 years before taking over the U.S. program last November, concurred. “A blind man could see it,” he said. “The judging has been atrocious. The last time I saw it this bad was in Seoul in 1988.”
Ah, yes, Seoul. Twenty-eight years ago, as a rookie reporter for Sports Illustrated, I sat next to Roy Jones Sr. in the boxing arena at the Seoul Olympics as he watched his son and namesake fall victim to the most notorious robbery in Games history. I can still see the gutted look on Roy Sr.’s face. Fighting in the final of the light middleweight division against South Korea’s Park Si-hun, American Roy Jones Jr. put on a virtuoso display, strafing Park throughout with shots to the head and body, scoring a standing eight count in the second round and rocking him several more times. But when the decision was announced, Park was declared the winner on a 3-2 score. As if in acknowledgment of the larceny, Jones was awarded the Val Barker Trophy as the outstanding boxer of the Games.
And, in direct response to the Jones decision, amateur boxing overhauled its scoring system, instituting a computer-based punch-count system. But that system proved dissatisfying to fans and just as susceptible to concerns about corruption. At the 2012 London Games allegations arose that, in exchange for millions of dollars paid by Azerbaijan to an organization controlled by AIBA, two Azerbaijanis would be guaranteed gold medals. In the end, a five-person AIBA panel declared the bribery allegations “unsupported by any credible evidence,” but a strong sense of suspicion has continued to swirl around the sport’s powers that be.
Between London and Rio, the rules were changed again. Punch counts were abandoned in favor of a pro-style 10-point-must system (in which three judges, “randomly selected” from the five at ringside for every bout, each award the boxer that they see as the winner of each round 10 points and the loser anywhere from six to nine points). In addition, a greater scoring emphasis was to be put on a more traditional style of fighting, rather than the rush-and-slap style engendered by the punch-count scoring.
Said an exasperated Walsh after Russell’s loss, “It’s hard to believe. You set up new criteria, you change the rules, you change the style of boxing and we try to adhere to that—be aggressors, throw more punches, be more accurate, be more stylish. And you go and do all of that and still lose the fight! I just don’t fathom it.”
On Tuesday, though, the irrepressible Stevenson simply gave the judges no opening for any funny business. Boxing with his hero Floyd Mayweather looking on from the stands (“I was walking in and heard him call to me,” a beaming Stevenson said, “I looked up and said, ‘Dang! Floyd’s here!’”), the 19-year-old southpaw from Newark, N.J., was masterly. He effortlessly controlled the distance in every round, moving in and out and landing with clear shots to the head and body; doing it all with a sense of engagement and fun that was plainly visible to the crowd. He gave himself just a B- on the day, promising to do better in today’s semi.
Asked how he plans to approach the brawling Nikitin this afternoon, Stevenson smiled (he smiles even in the ring) and said, “I guess I’ll approach him like I approached the dude today and box him on the outside,” Stevenson answered. “I got the longer arms, I got the reach, so I’ll plan on boxing him and win the fight.”
Coach Koroma was equally sanguine, “I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun with the Russian,” he said. “I mean, no disrespect to him, but he [comes in with] his head down a lot and we’re going to be there with uppercuts and then step around. He won’t know where Shakur’s coming from.”
Was he concerned about the judging, Koroma was asked. “What we do in the gym is we teach distance,” he said, “to show that Shakur’s actually the one scoring. It makes it difficult for the judges to go the other way.” He paused, then added with a sigh, “And if they do go the other way, we know it’s blatant.”
As it has been repeatedly so far here in Rio.