So I tuned into HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” last Saturday and, to my delight, found an entertaining main event featuring welterweights Diego Chaves and Brandon Rios at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
Chaves is an Argentine knockout artist who was looking to make a splash on U.S. soil and could do so with a win over Rios, a former world champion who was looking to get his career back on track after consecutive losses threatened to derail it.
For the first few rounds, it looked like a classic in the making. The fighters stood toe-to-toe throwing haymakers at each other as the crowd gasped and anticipated more action.
Chaves appeared to land the more telling blows, but Rios was landing with a little better efficiency and appeared to have the edge in ring generalship.
What already was a difficult fight to score became tougher when, in Round 3, referee Vic Drakulich, who has dozens of word-title bouts to his credit, penalized Chaves a point for excessive holding.
The penalty seemed quick, as there hadn’t been any warnings, at least none seen by viewers. In what rated to be a close fight, you’d hate to see the outcome decided by a questionable deduction.
But at least the fouls evened out when Drakulich penalized Rios a point in Round 5 for instigating a takedown of Chaves. At this juncture, the penalties were even, so the scoring would not have been affected because of fouls had it gone the distance.
Moreover, Chaves was getting the best of it. My arm-chair prediction was that Chaves was headed toward a potential knockout victory, as his heavy-handed assault was hitting its mark more often than not and I wondered whether Rios could withstand the onslaught.
But the fight grew uglier, the clinches more difficult to break, and Drakulich clearly was getting frustrated. At one point he told the fighters he was growing tired of their antics, and he wouldn’t be afraid to call off the fight on a disqualification if they didn’t clean up their acts.
In Round 9, he kept his word. The ugly round started with Chaves initiating a takedown, in which both fighters tumbled to the mat. After another aggressive clinch that Drakulich struggled to break, he pulled the fighters apart and declared the fight over by disqualification.
At first, I was unsure who was awarded the victory and why. But it was clear Rios was pretty upset as he emerged from the clinch, pointing at his right eye, screaming and calling a Chaves a “motherf—er” repeatedly, almost igniting another brawl.
Chaves was disqualified for dirty tactics, and Rios was awarded the win. Like most HBO viewers and boxing fans, I was disappointed that the fight couldn’t reach a more organic conclusion. I felt bad for Chaves (23-2-1, 19 KOs), who appeared to be just a couple rounds away from a victory.
But I also respected Drakulich, who has officiated fights for 25 years and has numerous accolades on his resume, for having the nerve to follow his convictions, make good on his ultimatum and govern the fight as he saw fit.
Even so, I wondered if the crime merited the punishment. Rios (32-2-1, 23 KOs) complained immediately afterward in the post-fight interview with HBO that Chaves was deliberately eye-gouging Rios with the open thumb of his glove whenever possible, and that this foul was what prompted the stoppage.
Sure enough, if you see a replay of the final clinch, you’ll see Chaves has Rios in a headlock and, with the head-locking hand, appears to be trying to stick his thumb in his opponent’s eye.
What’s more, I’ve since seen multiple snippets of the fight and concluded it was, in fact, a much dirtier brawl then I first realized while watching it live.
Even so, it was a disappointing ending to what could have been a classic bout with a potential rematch, regardless of who emerged victorious.
But upset fight fans and observers directed their ire at just one target — Drakulich, the referee. I guess this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the old “blame the ref” cop out was both unwarranted and preposterous in this case.
That Drakulich got abused by the knuckleheads on social media didn’t catch me off-guard. What did surprise me was how many mainstream media members were right there pointing the finger with them.
I found it ironic and mystifying that many of the detractors suggested Drakulich “didn’t have control.” Um … let’s see … he took three point deductions, repeatedly admonished both fighters, and stopped the fight on a DQ.
If anything, you could argue he exerted too much control.
Moreover, if you are going to criticize, then you need an answer, as far as I am concerned. Drakulich was in the wrong? Then, what would have been the correct solution?
I was open to hearing arguments, but the blood-thirsty mob wanted nothing when it came to rational conversations.
Perhaps the worst sentiment I saw came from ESPN boxing writer Brian Campbell, who tweeted the following:
This sentiment is fundamentally flawed on many levels. Again, a generic and non-specific criticism with no context or solutions offered, along with the inherently inaccurate “didn’t have control” observation.
At this point, I felt I was the only boxing observer in the world cutting Drakulich the benefit of the doubt, as if he were in the ring on an island and I was his personal corner man. But I wasn’t seeing anyone else come to his defense, so I decided that I might as well be the voice of reason.
Campbell’s tweet was absurd and upsetting, and my first inclination was to fire off an angry response.
Then, thankfully, I remembered my mode of operation when it comes to Twitter — that lovely social media playground in which complete strangers feel it’s appropriate to just hurl insults at each other — and that is, I flat-out refuse to accept Twitter venom from anyone who interacts with me.
At the risk of operating under a double standard, I also try and treat people with the same respect that I’d like to receive in return, not unlike the approach one might take when interacting with others in the real world.
So I eventually collected my thoughts, showed restraint, and sent him what I believed was a fair and thought-provoking response, from one sports media guy to another:
He never replied. So, absent of any explanation or mea culpa on his part, I now find it appropriate to say that Brian Campbell, it was you, sir, who gave an awful performance top to bottom in covering that fight.
There were no follow-up tweets, no (apparent) attempt to reach Drakulich (and I can tell you from experience, he’s reasonably media-friendly), no attempt to provide context for Drakulich’s actions.
Just another armchair, post-operation “expert” lofting a dart at an easy target. Zero empathy for the idea that Drakulich had an extremely difficult job, and even less for the suggestion that just maybe, maybe Drakulich was privy to things in the ring that we couldn’t see.
And maybe these critics could consider having a little reverence for the fact that Drakulich has a lot more experience in handling such situations than you, the keyboard warrior, can boast.
The next day, ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael weighed in with this beauty on Twitter, also devoid of context, details or solutions:
Good work, Rafael. Nice, even-handed analysis … hope your legs don’t hurt too much from that bandwagon plunge. Is it really too much for any half-sensible person to conclude that maybe it was the boxers who ruined the fight, and not Vic Drakulich?
Listen, fight fans have a right to be disappointed, but I’ll be the first to say this — Chaves cost himself the potential victory, not the referee.
Coincidentally, my view comes from a perspective that includes having covered a Drakulich-officiated fight in which I disagreed with his actions.
This was a lower-profile bout – although a very big deal regionally — between Jesse Brinkley and Joey Gilbert, two Northern Nevada natives who decided to settle their differences in a bout dubbed the “Civil War” in Reno.
Drakukich, a Reno native himself, was the third man in the ring for the middleweight bout. I sat ringside covering the fight for the Reno Gazette-Journal and watched as Brinkley, the slight favorite, quickly established himself as the superior fighter.
The bout took place on Feb. 14, 2009, at the Reno Events Center, and drew a near-sellout crowd of about 8,000 fans which made it the biggest Reno boxing event in recent memory.
Brinkley floored Gilbert with a smashing right hand in the 5th round. Gilbert suffered a broken nose, bled profusely and barely answered the count.
The remainder of the match was difficult at times to watch, and I felt it should have been called off. At one point early in the 9th round, Brinkley stepped in and landed another vicious left-right combination. Blood sprayed from Gilbert’s face — he exhaled and stepped back, and had a look of resignation on his face.
This would have been a perfect time to step in and stop the fight. Instead, Drakulich allowed it to continue, and Brinkley won a lopsided unanimous decision.
After reporting on the fight that night, I called Drakulich the next day to ask him why he let the fight go the distance. I believe I might have mentioned at some point that I thought it should have been stopped.
He answered my questions professionally and directly, and didn’t attempt to avoid the issue. Drakulich observed that Gilbert hadn’t lost the ability to defend himself, and emphasized the respect he had for the honor involved for a fighter finishing the match on his feet.
To this day, I disagree, at least with respect to this specific boxing match. I had an up-close view, and I thought letting that fight continue did nothing but extend a humiliating and potentially physically debilitating beating for Gilbert.
He stood zero chance of winning, wasn’t competing and the carnage was only getting worse as the fight wore on. Sure, he left with his pride in tact … I’d much rather see him leave with all of his faculties, and that’s the job of the ref.
So, Drakulich and I disagreed. Mature adults can do this. I called him, as a professional reporter doing my job, and he answered the questions as a professional official who, unlike many officials in many sports, didn’t try to hide under a cloak of anonymity.
He was fair to me, and I did my best to be fair to him (*see the full story below). Memo to Brian Campbell and Dan Rafael – if you’re reading this, the next time there’s a controversy in a fight, you might want to do the same.
* Here is the follow-up sidebar I wrote on the Brinkley-Gilbert fight after contacting referee Vic Drakulich:
Referee doesn’t regret letting the fight go 12 rounds
By Josh Nagel
A week after the “Civil War” bout in Reno, referee Vic Drakulich said he doesn’t regret letting the boxing match, between Jesse Brinkley and Joey Gilbert, go all 12 rounds, even though it turned into something of a Valentine’s Day massacre.
Yerington’s Brinkley dominated the Feb. 14 middleweight fight from the opening bell, and the outcome was never in doubt after a fifth-round knockdown that left Gilbert bleeding profusely from a broken nose he suffered in the third round.
Gilbert, of Reno, spent much of the remainder of the fight eluding Brinkley’s relentless attack, though he did throw an occasional flurry.
A veteran of 35 world-title bouts, Drakulich said he consulted with ringside physician Dr. Damon Zavala, who determined Gilbert wasn’t having trouble breathing and that he wasn’t swallowing a dangerous amount of blood.
Although the fight grew more lopsided as it wore on, Drakulich said his respect for both boxers played a role in him allowing the fight to go the distance.
“I’ve known Joey for many years,” the Reno-based referee said. “He and Jesse Brinkley both are great warriors, great fighters. He earned the right to finish the fight.”
Drakulich said Gilbert showed he was capable of defending himself, and provided just enough offense to warrant the referee’s approval to continue.
Gilbert later said the blood affected his vision and gave him breathing trouble, but he hid the severity of his injuries so the fight would not be stopped.
Two of the three judges scored the fight 120-107 — a shutout for Brinkley — and the third scored the bout 119-108. The Reno Gazette-Journal also scored the bout 119-108.
Even so, the Yerington fighter did not emerge unscathed. At the post-fight news conference, Brinkley removed his shades to reveal a black eye and other scrapes.
He also gave Gilbert credit for getting off the canvas after taking a vicious overhand right in the fifth round.
“I never dreamed he would get up from that right hand,” Brinkley said.