For the most part, a fighter is alone in the ring. He can get training, support and advice. But once the bell rings, it is one-on-one. Except for one thing: There is a third man present who can wield enormous influence.
With that in mind, one of the major stories leading up to this fight is being missed: Kenny Bayless as the referee is a stunningly bad choice, and the worst possible news for Manny Pacquiao.
Bayless is a popular choice for the "Money" team. After Saturday, he will have worked five of Floyd Mayweather's last 11 bouts. He is a solid pro, and was a non-factor in Mayweather's fights vs. Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Canelo Alvarez.
Last September, he again got the call for Mayweather's rematch with Marcos Maidana, and it's there where he played a major role in the fight, in a way that should greatly concern the Pacquiao camp.
To understand why, you have to understand how Mayweather controls the ring. To use his own phrase, Floyd is looking "to take you into deep water, and drown you." This means he will use his timing and skill to make his opponent miss one shot after another, draining his energy in the process. He did this to Diego Corrales in his first superfight -- way back in 2001 -- turning one of the most dangerous offensive punchers in the sport into an exhausted wreck by the 10th round (a punched-out Corrales was knocked down five times in the 10th before his corner stopped it).
What Mayweather is looking for -- and this is his personality in and out of the ring -- is control. He wants to slow things down and reduce the punch output, and thus the chances of any kind of unexpected occurrence. Unrelenting action leads to improvisation, creativity and increased offense. Mayweather wants none of this. He is a like a defensive-minded basketball coach who -- to use the vernacular -- takes the air out of the ball. He wants an organized set-piece. The method is this: square up, engage, disengage, repeat. As Mayweather, 38, has aged and lost his legs, it's more like: engage, clutch, disengage, repeat.
This still requires immense talent. The hardest thing to do in the ring is stand right in front your opponent and make him miss your head. Everything works off Mayweather's exceptional skill of anticipating a punch and making his opponent miss. Miss enough, and a fighter begins to hesitate. One opponent after another comes in ready to let his hands go, only to find himself hitting nothing but air. This slows down the output and tilts the odds to Mayweather's favor.
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The next step is offense. Mayweather, even as a young fighter, rarely threw more than one or two punches at a time. He is efficient and economical. He doesn't have devastating power, but he throws with enough force to hurt, stun and get respect. He will make you miss, and then hurt you. But only with one or two shots. This leaves him in a position to be hit. To get out of danger, he must move out, or move in. That means run, or clutch.
Against Maidana, a rough brawler, he would do both. At his advanced boxing age, clutching requires less energy from Mayweather and has become the better choice. Mayweather is very sturdy on his feet, and is surprisingly strong grappling on the inside. Even against bigger fighters -- De La Hoya, Cotto and Alvarez -- he has refused to get pushed around. Against active, fierce volume punchers however -- Maidana and Rickey Hatton -- he needed help from the third man in the ring.
When fighters clinch, a referee has two basic choices: Call for the boxers to "fight out of it" or call "break" to stop them from punching, and disengage. A good ref is one who breaks up the fighters only as a last resort. This is professional boxing, and the ref is supposed to encourage action. If the clinching is done excessively, to avoid action, the referee is supposed to eventually penalize the fighter. Just this past weekend, in the world heavyweight championship bout, referee Michael Griffin took a point away from Wladimir Klitschko for excessive holding against Bryant Jennings. It didn't figure in the outcome, but it was refreshing to see a referee doing this part of his job.
In the rematch with Maidana, not only was Mayweather not penalized by Bayless, he was protected at every opportunity.
In 2007, I thought Joe Cortez -- a referee I respect greatly -- did a poor job in the Mayweather-Hatton fight. In that bout, Cortez frequently broke the fighters out of a Mayweather-induced clutch, giving Mayweather an advantage. Cortez, though, did allow some infighting, and was just trying to limit the rough stuff inside. What Bayless did in the Maidana bout, however, was absolutely egregious. I thought that while I was watching it live, and said so on the Showtime telecast post-fight.
I had scored the first Maidana fight 9-3 in favor of Mayweather, so I was not one of those people burning for a rematch. The second time around, I knew Maidana would have to let his hands go with even more abandon on the inside to have any kind of realistic shot to win.
To his credit, Maidana seemed to be mentally ready to do just that. Having fought Mayweather tough already, any apprehension he may have had was now gone. From the outset, though, he was not allowed to fight on the inside. Any time that happened, Mayweather would run, or clutch. And any time Mayweather grabbed Maidana, instead of allowing professional fighters in a world championship bout to fight out of a clutch, Bayless' call would ring out: "Break!" It would happen almost every ... single ...time.
From the early rounds, I was incredulous. It was obvious to anyone who knew the style matchup that Maidana needed to fight on the inside to have a shot at winning. I'm not saying he should be allowed to fight illegally, I'm saying he needed to fight on the inside. Mayweather was clutching to limit the action, and not only was he not in danger of being penalized, there was simply no chance of any in-fighting happening as long as Mayweather was willing to grab Maidana.
Bayless was hyper-vigilant in his quest to not allow in-fighting. He was ready to leap in at every single possible chance close action became possible. At one point, my Showtime colleague Al Bernstein pointed this out, saying something to the effect of, "Bayless was looking to break a clinch, and they hadn't even clinched yet."
The 10th round was especially telling (watch it at about the 11:53 mark of the above video). About halfway through the round, the two fighters tangle and Mayweather hits the deck. Bayless, who was hovering nearby, jumps in quickly, ushers Mayweather to the neutral corner, and then immediately and emphatically assesses a point deduction to Maidana. I know watching it live, I believed Maidana threw Floyd to the ground, and deserved to be punished.
However, watching it again, I realize it's Bayless' actions that led me to that belief. After a Mayweather clutch, the two fighters break. They tangle up again, this time with Maidana clinching first, but trying to bang away with his free left hand. Mayweather steps away, and Maidana, in the top position, steps forward. At this point, Mayweather, not wanting to use the energy to hold Maidana up, collapses in a heap. It's Bayless, then, who jumps in to chastise Maidana and take a point away, enforcing the perception that Maidana is the dirty fighter, and Mayweather the fighter who needs protection. In this case, it was Mayweather disengaging -- falling to the canvas -- rather than fighting on the inside. And he was rewarded for doing so.
For the rest of this round, Bayless is so close he has to leap out of the way a few times to avoid colliding with the fighters. With one minute to go, Maidana is on the attack, and Mayweather on the run. Mayweather gets his glove caught under Maidana's arm for about one second, and Bayless jumps in to break them up. There was basically no clinch, but there Bayless was, breaking up any chance of sustained action. Now Mayweather gets to breathe and step back. Maidana has to start from square one, on the outside, having to breach the gap yet again to get inside. It's the story of the fight.
In the post-fight analysis on Showtime, I brought this pattern up to Bernstein, Paulie Malignaggi and Mauro Ranallo. I don't remember anyone defending Bayless. Mayweather, with the advantage the ref gave him, won the fight going away.
It's not as if I am anti-Mayweather. I have known the fighter now for 18 years, and despite the televised verbal sparring, we get along quite well. There have been occasions where we have made peace after rough interviews. I have the utmost respect for his remarkable career. He is entitled to put himself into the best position to win. If this means working a referee so much in the pre-fight that the ref overcompensates in the fight itself, then you've done your job well. It's like a basketball coach planting things in a referee's head about an opponent he says is "dirty" -- it might buy you a call here or there.
The Mayweather camp would be foolish to not want that advantage. It is also sensational news for them that the Nevada State Athletic Commission named Bayless the referee for this fight.
It's the Pacquiao camp that I wonder about. Did their subscription to Showtime lapse? Did they miss Mayweather's rematch with Maidana?
Perhaps they figure Pacquiao is such a different fighter stylistically it won't matter. Pac isn't Maidana or Hatton. He uses hand speed, angles and volume to overwhelm his opponents. But why would you not protest a referee that was so prone to pro-Mayweather actions only a few months ago? A ref who may have heard the protests of the "Money" camp about Maidana being dirty, and acted on those suggestions with such exceptional vigor for 12 full rounds.
I have to say I'm surprised the Nevada commission, watching that fight in September, would put Bayless in the ring for such a high-profile bout, and I'm absolutely stunned the Pacquiao camp is allowing their fighter to enter such a career-defining event with even the chance he is at a disadvantage.
It is another edge gained by Mayweather, who is always tilting the odds in his favor, always looking to keep things under control.