Boxing: Gory injustice of outdated rules

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The Independent Online
Bloodless boxing, traditionalists argue, would be like mud-free rugby league: you can't have one without the other. Yet sitting close enough to Billy Schwer's brave but inevitable cuts defeat by Rafael Ruelas in Las Vegas a week ago to be spattered by his blood, their case seemed to lack conviction. Schwer was technically good enough to have taken Ruelas's International Boxing Federation lightweight title, and was only two points adrift on two of the three scorecards when long, deep cuts on both eyebrows convinced the ringside doctor that, after seven increasingly gory rounds, he should not be allowed to continue. There is a basic injustice about a system that penalises a man because of his bone structure, and negates considerations such as skill, courage and endurance, which are so much more valid as the true test of a champion. Graham Houston, my predecessor as editor of the sports trade paper Boxing News, puts the counter argument forcibly: "Without cuts, we would have been denied some of the most dramatic moments in boxing history," he said. "Remember Sugar Ray Robinson, on the brink of being stopped with a bad cut against Randy Turpin, blazing back to stop Turpin in the 10th? Or what about Jorge Castro in Monterrey last December, knocking out John David Jackson to retain his middleweight title when he was so blinded by blood he could not have seen Jackson? Cuts are an integral part of the sport, and it would be weakened and diluted to an unacceptable degree by eliminating them."

Houston has a point, of course. I was in Monterrey for the Castro fight, and the memory of that heroic victory is indelible, a triumphant celebration of warrior spirit. Similarly, Henry Cooper's blood-smeared knockdown of Muhammad Ali lives on as one of boxing's defining moments.

But for every instance of high drama, there are a thousand heartbreaks. I have seen too many young fighters weep in frustration and disappointment as their skin has let them down again, and denied them a victory that their talent merited. I have yet to be persuaded that there is a valid argument against allowing them to enter the ring with some kind of protective covering on their eyebrows - even if it is only protection as basic as a strip of plaster.

No doubt, back in prehistory, there were critics who snorted that the game was going soft when foul-proof cups were introduced. Some tough men scorned their use: Rocky Graziano, a future middleweight champion, was once asked before a fight if he had a cup. "No," said the Rock, "I'll just drink from the bottle."

The heavy-fisted Graziano would have thoroughly approved of the explosive young Russian Konstantin Tszyu, who captured the IBF light-welterweight title on the Schwer v Ruelas bill with a display of such ferocity it suggested he is the natural successor to Julio Cesar Chavez as the superstar of the Nineties. He was up against Jake Rodriguez, a seasoned and respected champion at the peak of his form, and yet he floored the Puerto Rican six times in as many rounds with punches so hard that you could actually hear them thump home from ringside. (Contrary to Hollywood's percussive depiction of fights, that is a rare experience, particularly when you have five or six thousand fans yelling in your ears at the same time.)

Tszyu has had only 14 professional fights since following the classic defectors' route by refusing to return home from an amateur tour of Australia, but his non-professional record of just three defeats in an astonishing 296 contests is a measure of his worth. He will be eminently marketable, and the promoter Bob Arum has already booked him for a return trip to Las Vegas on 6 May.

The American media loved him. He has the wide-eyed innocence of a 14-year-old, and speaks near perfect English without, curiously, the hint of an Australian accent. And to provide a touch of pure schmaltz in a sport full of hard men with soft centres, when the beaten champion heard of Tszyu's disappointment that there was no championship belt available for him to take home to his family in Australia, Rodriguez presented him with his own.