There’s a reason why every good conspiracy theory comes equipped with its own logic. When the world of traditional answers doesn’t seem to have much room in it for you and your ambitions, every busted sportsbook ticket, every parking violation symbolizes the oppressive consensus of the status quo. Escape from that sort of blockish, entrenched reality requires an elegant path. That’s why a conspiracy theory has to be meticulous, why there has to be a paper trail, why it has to be slightly less plausible than the consensus. The conspiracy only really becomes exciting when it subverts what is obvious and self-apparent.
Boxing in 2012 is oppressive, entrenched and controlled by small cabals of very wealthy men. But the conspiracy theories that start to pop up after a fight like this past Saturday’s bout between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley Jr. aren’t even really conspiracy theories. There are no mysterious dives, no phantom shots, no reports of Sonny Liston crying in the dressing room. The smoking gun is in plain sight and it’s pointed straight at the balls of anyone who really cares about this corrupted sport. Nick Tosches could study all the angles from Pacquiao-Bradley and pore over every frame of the tape and he’d most likely come to the same exact conclusion as the overwhelming majority of the public: The fight was rigged to force the contracted rematch. The clues have been easy to spot. At a press conference last week, Bradley stood at the podium and hoisted a gigantic ticket for a rematch and even had the gall to pin down the date: November 10. When asked how he came up with the idea, Bradley said that he was trying to “shake” Manny and that his promoters had come up with the time and place. The fight contract, of course, had an automatic rematch clause that would kick in if Bradley somehow upset Pacquiao. The promoters who came up with the brilliant “giant rematch ticket” gag, of course, promote both fighters.
Why fix the fight for Bradley? Rafe Bartholomew, who attended the fight and had a much better grasp for what was being said ringside, offers his opinions here. Manny Pacquiao has been a moneymaking machine for Top Rank. Why tarnish his earning power — not to mention the integrity of the entire sport — to pump up a kind of boring, not-all-that-talented dude who is clearly better off fighting second-tier guys like Kendall Holt and Devon Alexander? There have been rumors that Team Pacquiao has been considering leaving Bob Arum’s Top Rank Entertainment once Pacquiao’s contract expires in 2013. Fixing the fight for Bradley and forcing a rematch not only bumped down the value of a departing asset, it also ensured that Top Rank wouldn’t have to split the money for Pacquiao’s next fight with a rival promotional team. In comments given after the match, Teddy Atlas said, “when [a fighter is about leave his promoter], sometimes funny things happen.”
Funny things did happen. The fight started about 45 minutes late because Manny had been watching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The last match of the undercard had abruptly ended in the second round when Jorge Arce and his lollipop couldn’t continue after two vicious, post-low-blow shots from Jesus Rojas. The first round of Arce-Rojas was what the most optimistic fight fans had been expecting out of Pacquiao-Bradley — a full-out brawl where Rojas was knocked down early and then gamely fought back to secure what many scored as a 9-9 round. Arce has earned the right to be above suspicion, but it was impossible to watch him writhing on the canvas and not wonder — at least a little — if he wasn’t simply making the rational decision to take the “no decision” against a much younger, competitive opponent. Arce’s early exit bumped up the start time for Pacquiao-Bradley, and because Manny was still stretching his calves, or whatever, HBO was forced to fill the interim with whatever commentary they could find. Part of the filler was Harold Lederman’s assessment of Duane Ford, C.J. Ross, and Jerry Roth — the three judges for the main event. Lederman described Ross as “mediocre” and Roth as “the scary one” who shouldn’t be thrown into a major fight.
Those three judges saw a much different fight than did the press, the millions watching from around the world, and the thousands in attendance, including Timothy Bradley, who, in the post-fight interviews, could only muster up, “I’ll have to look at the tapes to see if I won or not.” After the shock soured into indignation and disgust, Arum puffed himself up and said, “This is a death knell for boxing and I’m going to make a ton of money on the rematch.”
One thing you quickly learn around the poker table is that the bluffer is always the first guy to proclaim his innocence. If a guy names the suits of the cards he supposedly held, he’s probably lying. If he tells you that he’ll show you his cards if you lay down your hand, you should immediately push all-in. The more detailed and insistent a confession, the less stock you can put in the confessor. I don’t know what possessed Bob Arum to say anything that even smattered of the truth, but his post-fight press conference, in which he divulged that Bradley had thought he lost the fight, stunk of a desperate man who had convinced himself that if he started shoveling enough shit at the hole, maybe everyone would forget the fact that when Pacquiao and Bradley fight on November 10, Top Rank will be the only promotion company that receives a check.
All this is speculative, of course. But here’s boxing’s problem: The sport has reached a point where the conspiracy is actually the more logical explanation. To argue that the only two people who watched the fight who thought Bradley won also happened to be sitting in the judge’s chairs is far less reasonable than concluding that a thoroughly corrupt sport had another corrupt moment. And the sad part is that even if every conspiracy theorist is wrong, and even if Ross and Roth acted alone, and even if Bob Arum was actually really angry and not just putting out a plausible alibi, that truth will never breach the consensus. This year, boxing has seen the postponement of the Andre Berto–Victor Ortiz fight, the eventual cancellation of that fight due to Berto’s failure to pass a drug test, the absurd disqualification that ended the James Kirkland–Carlos Molina fight, and the cancellation of the rematch between Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson (the first bout, of course, ended in a controversial decision). The sport, to put it bluntly, is fucked. The nice truth is that nobody really cares about this because the average sports fan has no awareness of Lamont Peterson or Andre Berto. The ugly truth is that nobody cares because they expect boxing to be compromised and full of shady characters who put their own profit over the best interests of the sport.
It’s fun to imagine that the terrible decision in the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight on Saturday night is a product of a conspiracy theory. As a person who spends more time reading Wikipedia pages that contain the words “conspiracy theory” in the title than should be humanly allowed, I can’t deny this. But when the public started hatching a million different plots for why Bob Arum, Las Vegas, and the sport of boxing wanted Manny Pacquiao to lose on Saturday night, all I could think about was Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”
The most plausible explanation as to why this decision occurred is the combination of judging incompetence and randomness. Not randomness in the sense that the judges just gave a random score to each fighter after each round (although that also is plausible), but randomness in that the fight happened to be assigned two of the very few people in the world who truly believed that Bradley won that fight. That sort of randomness happens way more frequently than one might realize, even if we believe that the vast majority of observers would have penciled in a win for Pacquiao.
Let’s do a quick theoretical exercise to prove it. Let’s pretend that every competent judge in the pool available to Nevada was able to sit ringside and score the Pacquiao-Bradley fight in real time. What percentage of those judges do you think would have given the fight we saw on Saturday night to Pacquiao? 75 percent? 90 percent? 95 percent? Based on the sorts of scorecards and arguments that have been floating around the Internet since the fight, 90 percent is probably a fair estimate. Using the binomial distribution, we can figure out the likelihood that either two or three of the judges would award a given fight to the fighter who would only have won in the eyes of 10 percent of all available judges. In fact, the odds of that happening in any given fight where that 90-10 split happens to be the case is 2.8 percent, which is just under 36-to-1. That sounds low, but think about how many obvious blowouts you see go to decisions in either MMA or boxing matches over the course of a couple of years. Is one awful decision out of 36 really that impossible of a figure to imagine?
One way to alleviate that problem, naturally, is to add more judges to make the decision for any given fight. While you run the risk of adding an incompetent judge by expanding to five judges, more often than not, you’ll add an observer who will be in line with the consensus. If boxing simply moved to a five-judge system and didn’t otherwise change a single aspect of the sport, terrible decisions would be harder to come by. In the case of the 90-10 matchup like the one we’re estimating with Pacquiao-Bradley, the odds would go all the way from 36-to-1 to 117-to-1, making a terrible decision more than three times less likely to happen.
Of course, adding more judges doesn’t prevent an incompetent one from slipping through the cracks, and that’s what appears to have happened on Saturday night. The database at boxrec.com has historical records for each of the three judges who sat ringside for Pacquiao-Bradley, and one of the three stands out as possessing frequently contrarian views: C.J. Ross, who scored the bout as a 115-113 win for Bradley. Among the last five fights Ross has judged that went eight rounds or more and went to a decision that wasn’t unanimous, four have been decisions where Ross called for a draw and the other two judges each voted for the same party to win. That includes Ross’s most egregious decision, which came when she voted for a 95-95 draw in the 10-round fight between Rodel Mayol and Javier Gallo while the two other judges each voted for a 98-92 Mayol victory.
One of those “correct” judges in the Mayol-Gallo fight was Jerry Roth, who was the lone judge to score the fight for Pacquiao on Saturday night. The other judge who scored it for Bradley was Duane Ford, who doesn’t have a history of contrariness. Over the past two years, the two of them have been involved in eight other fights of eight rounds or more that went to a non-unanimous decision. In seven of those eight fights, Ford or Roth agreed with one of the other judges on a particular side. The eighth fight saw each of the three judges present a different verdict. Being contrarian doesn’t automatically mean that a judge is doing a poor job — Roth’s performance this past weekend being a perfect example — but repeatedly delivering scores that are several points away from those of other judges watching the same fight is a sign that the judge is interpreting the fight incorrectly.
There’s one other factor that makes the decision look worse than it actually was: the fact that the range of scores provided for multiple outcomes. While the three judges saw two different outcomes, the difference between the sets of scorecards wasn’t uncommon for a 12-round fight. Instead of 115-113, 115-113, and 113-115, what if the three judges delivered verdicts of 117-111, 117-111, and 115-113? Nobody would bat an eye, but that would be a fight that delivered a roughly similar level of disagreement between the three judges. Because this level of disagreement changed the outcome, though, it seems much bigger than it actually is.
Maybe we’ll all look back in a couple of years and find that the conspiracy theories surrounding the Pacquiao-Bradley fight are entirely accurate. That will be awesome and entertaining and I’ll love reading about it a lot more than I love attributing it to random chance and incompetence. But that decision on Saturday really wasn’t as preposterous as it might seem. There are just some times when shit happens. This was one of them.