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Reconfiguring the Championship Rounds: What if There’d Been 3 More or 3 Less?

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  • Reconfiguring the Championship Rounds: What if There’d Been 3 More or 3 Less?

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    By Jeffrey Freeman

    The true championship distance is 15 rounds insisted Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini when pressed about it. “I have a problem with guys who only had to go 12 and got into the Boxing Hall of Fame before guys who went 15. I lost against Alexis Arguello and Livingstone Bramble,” he said, “(but) I was winning after 12. So if it’s only 12 rounds, I’m undefeated! What would they say now if I beat those legends?”

    Good question Good Son.

    They’d say that Arguello folded you to a knee with a perfectly timed right cross at the very end of the 12th round and that had it been correctly ruled a knockdown, you’d have lost a 12-round decision to the defending WBC champion. They’d also say that Bramble got you in the rematch.

    Still, the former lightweight champion from Youngstown, Ohio makes a fan friendly point that goes to the hypothetical heart of the ‘12 versus 15 rounds’ debate. How would boxing history be viewed differently if certain 15-round fights had been scheduled for 12 rounds and vice-versa?

    Let’s look at 10 such fights and ask, what if?

    Joe Louis KO 13 Billy Conn, 1941: Famously, the undersized underdog title challenger was ahead on two judges’ scorecards after 12 rounds and even on the third. If title bouts in the 40’s were 12-round affairs, the “Pittsburg Kid” might have danced off with Joe’s heavyweight championship of the world but no, he found out that you can run—but you cannot hide. Louis knocked Conn out in the 13th round and then again in the 8th round of their 1946 rematch.

    Would three more rounds have made any difference for Anthony Joshua against Oleksander Usyk last Saturday in Tottenham, U.K.? Far behind on two of three scorecards after 12, the real question is would AJ have had the stamina to go 15 and/or would Usyk have stopped him?

    Rocky Marciano KO 13 Jersey Joe Walcott, 1952: Arguably the most important of all “come from behind” knockouts, the determined challenger from Brockton, Mass was down on all three judges’ scorecards after 12 rounds were complete in Philadelphia but unfortunately for Walcott, this was still the era of 15-round world title fights. What if Marciano-Walcott was only scheduled for 12 rounds? Rocky either loses a unanimous decision and never becomes world heavyweight champion or he adjusts to the shorter distance and gets Walcott out of there sooner like he did in the rematch, blowing Walcott away in just 2 minutes and 25 seconds.

    Mike Weaver KO 15 John Tate, 1980: As WBA heavyweight champion, John Tate knew nothing of 12- round title fights. He beat Gerrie Coetzee via 15-round decision to claim the vacant title and his first defense against Mike Weaver was scheduled for 15. Knowing he was behind on the cards and that he stood no chance of winning the title by decision, “Hercules” Weaver flattened Tate in the 15th and final round for a memorable come from behind KO. What if this particular bout was scheduled for 12 rounds? Tate would have probably retained his title by decision and possibly gone on to defend against Muhammad Ali. It might’ve been Tate who put the final touches on Ali and retired him for good. Instead it was Trevor Berbick who did the job.

    Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns I & II, 1981—1989: When these welterweight champions first faced off in 1981, 15-round world title fights were still very much the norm in boxing. Ahead on points after 12 rounds, Hearns gave up the lead (and the superfight) by collapsing in the “true” championship rounds. Score it a TKO 14 for Sugar Ray Leonard. In the sequel eight years later, 12-round title fights were the new normal. Sugar Ray sure needed those three rounds back! If he’d had them, he might have chased a badly tiring Hearns out of the ring again for another “championship rounds” stoppage, instead he was saved by a Vegas draw while Hearns was arguably saved by the bell to end their rematch’s 12th and final round. The what if’s abound! In an alternate boxing universe, Hearns beat Leonard by decision in 1981 then gets knocked out in the 14th round of their 1989 rematch. What would they say now Ray?

    Ray Mancini KO 14 Deuk Koo Kim, 1982: Widely credited with being the catalyst for the abolition of 15 round fights in boxing, Mancini-Kim was a “ring death” played out on national television. What if this WBA lightweight title fight was instead a 12-rounder? Mancini would still have kept his championship but perhaps Kim would still be alive. The worst of the abuse Kim absorbed from “Boom Boom” came in the 13th and 14th rounds of their “kill or be killed” war.

    What if nobody had to die that day?

    Marvin Hagler UD 15 Roberto Duran, 1983: After 12 close rounds in Vegas, the late great “Marvelous One” was down by enough points on the judges’ scorecards that had it gone to their totals after 12 rather than 15, Duran would have been declared new world middleweight champion, a feat he pulled off six years later in 1989 when he decisioned Iran Barkley over 12 to win the WBC middleweight title. Hagler got busy in the championship rounds to hold off the attempted coup and earn a ‘much closer than it should’ve been’ 15-round unanimous decision.

    What if they’d robbed Hagler in a 12-rounder against Duran? My guess is that Hagler would’ve retired in 1984 and left Sugar Ray to wonder what might have happened if they’d ever fought.

    Sugar Ray Leonard SD 12 Marvin Hagler, 1987: Of the many concessions made by Hagler to make the Superfight with Sugar Ray happen was an agreement to go 12 not 15 rounds. Both were experienced 15- round fighters but as the active, defending champion, it was Hagler who was more “tuned-in” for 15 rounders than his comebacking challenger. Could a tiring Leonard have gone three more rounds? He won the 10th and 11th but then gave away the 12th. Could Hagler have rallied in the “championship rounds” as he did against Duran four years prior? The thought of three more rounds excites me in a way the prospect of the fight itself once did.

    But unfortunately, it’ll never happen.

    Julio Cesar Chavez TKO 12 Meldrick Taylor, 1990: There was so much at stake when these two undefeated junior welterweight champions clashed that it should have been scheduled for 15. This was the best fighting the best. We all know what happened. Chavez was being given a boxing lesson by a brave Philly fighter but it hardly mattered because the beating he was laying on Taylor could no longer be ignored, even by the HBO crew who tried their gosh darndest. With 2 seconds left in a 12-round fight in which Taylor was way ahead (!) on two of three scorecards, referee Richard Steele cut through the ‘what if’s’ by stopping the fight with a badly busted up Taylor out on his feet after getting up from a dramatic knockdown in the bout’s final ten seconds.

    What if Steele had let Meldrick go on knowing there were three more rounds scheduled and this was an elite unification match? Could Taylor hold on to his “lead” and finish the fight? I doubt it.

    Sergio Martinez UD 12 Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., 2012: For ten rounds, the defending world middleweight champion was toying with the son of a legend. It was fun to watch. Then as if animated by performance enhancing DNA, Chavez Jr. almost duplicated the famous feat of his father. Hurting Martinez in the 11th and dropping him hard in the 12th, Chavez Jr. attacked like a manchild possessed. Martinez got up, punched back, and the final bell rang. What if there were three more rounds to go? Would Martinez have still survived the bigger man? We’ll never know. For Chavez the father and Chavez the son, the mas importante championship round was the 12th.

    What’s the hook that connects Martinez-Chavez Jr. to Marciano-Walcott? It’s the late WBC President José Sulaimán. The familial godfather of Chavez Jr., Sulaimán came to Brockton in 2012 in the wake of the Martinez-Chavez fight to christen the new Rocky Marciano statue and to comment on the WBC middleweight title bout, telling me he believed it was well scored.

    Now let me shock you.

    After being mugged at Madison Square Garden in 2014 by Miguel Cotto, “Maravilla” Martinez retired to the land of misfit toys. You know that part. But did you also know that he fought twice last year and once last weekend against Brian Rose, winning all three? He looks good for 46!

    What if Golovkin-Martinez finally happens?

    And what does Boxing Hall of Famer “Good Son” Ray Mancini really think about the change from his era’s 15-rounders to today’s 12-round title fights? Was it all because he “killed” Kim?

    “That was a TV decision not a medical decision. They wanted 12-round fights so they had an opening and a closing if the fight went the distance so it wouldn’t go over into the local newscast. Once people understand that, then they’ll understand why it’s 12 rounds now. I’ve talked to neurologists and brain surgeons. I’ve found out there is no proof that more damage is done in the last three rounds as opposed to the first 12. There have been fatalities in 12 round fights too.”

    Will 10-round title fights be next?

    Chavez Jr / Martinez photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

    Boxing Writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1987, during the Marvelous career of Marvin Hagler. JFree then lived in Lowell, Mass during the best years of Irish Micky Ward’s illustrious career. A former member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a Bernie Award Winner in the Category of Feature Story Under 1500 Words. Freeman covers boxing for The Sweet Science in New England.

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

  • #2
    So impressed are some boxing writers with the championship accomplishments of Oleksandr Usyk they’ve now declared him a future first ballot Hall of Famer after the former undisputed cruiserweight champion upset heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua by 12-round decision. He’s the new real deal right? They might be right, right? The more things change the more they stay the same that’s for sure. Usyk still needs to “fight Tyson” if he wants to be the undisputed heavyweight champ! By the way, I timed the 12th round of AJ-Usyk and it was exactly 3 minutes so clearly the TV time was misaligned to the real time but further to the nature of the story, WHAT IF championship title fight rounds are some day 2 minutes instead of the “old fashioned” 3 minutes? As in Holy-Belfort. Times they do change. In professional wrestling men wrestle women, vice versa, fans root for both genders to be smashed into submission by the other!!


    • Kid Blast
      Kid Blast commented
      Editing a comment
      This is an interesting angle for an essay and not an easy one. Good job.

  • #3
    Thanks Ted, perhaps most interesting of all the WHAT IF scenarios (for me anyway) is the one that could actually become reality, Golovkin-Martinez at middle for whatever belt Golovkin has or for the vacant WBC if they’re able to get it off Charlo’s waist for whatever reason. It seems that Sergio has the much maligned organization in his corner, finally. And Golovkin clearly isn’t what he was. And Sergio wants a legit title shot. Or will when he’s ready for it, like Foreman. Sergio is 46 but he makes weight and still looks like you remember him. Physically he looks no different than the world champion we remember. He still fights in the same entertaining but risky style. His smile still lights up a room. His trunks still glisten in the ring lights. This is not a phony attention seeking comeback like Oscar. Sergio is not on an epic booze bender. And if he lands a shot at a fading Golovkin, my heart would be split between two fighters I was very fond of. It’s not the mismatch it once was. Or it’s an even bigger one?!?


    • #4
      An especially astute reader writes in response: “I like the article and all, I like the way it was written, I like your points but for me it's like it goes in any other sport too…baseball, football, the rules for the sports have all changed so much over the years. I mean yeah you made great arguments and very intriguing and thought provoking but what if Babe Ruth had a metal bat?” #WHATIF

      🤯 (that’s my “mind blown” emoji)


      • #5
        This comment from New England boxing ring announcer extraordinary John Vena: “Nice article. Reminded me of the kind of articles I would read in the boxing mags in the 80s and 90s.”


        • Kid Blast
          Kid Blast commented
          Editing a comment
          Very good indeed

      • #6
        Interesting write up I must say. Are lives being saved in the ring with a 12 round fight as opposed to 15 ? And if so what are the numbers ? I will have to do some reasearch to get a feel for that ansere. What was the real reason for the change ? I do believe if boxing thought 15 round fights would increase the viewership they would hope to change things. As far as the praise put on Usyk I believe it had more to do with other facts as opposed to his win over A.J. Things like fans getting tiered of the outcome of a fight being determined before the first bell rings. Being told before the fight during the fight and so forth. There are other reasons for sure.


        • Kid Blast
          Kid Blast commented
          Editing a comment
          Outcome of Kim vs. Mancini was reason for 12 round fights.

      • #7
        Mancini revealed what he believed to be the real reason for the change. Usyk has broken through that massive wall of jaded expectations stacked against him, my own included. I really didn’t see him winning. He’s a very hot property right now. Real fans like us love it when a guy does what he did. Now we want him in with the Fury/Wilder winner if boxing still works like it did just a few short years ago. I talked to Marlon Starling today about the Boxing Hall of Fame, his exclusion in particular. Seems John Scully has taken up the case for Marlon on Facebook and he might just be able to publicly shame the right people into finally doing the right thing and getting Moochie on the ballot. He deserves that much. Usyk has only just started his potential HOF run but it looks pretty good. He moves his head well. Peek a 👻


        • #8
          From the KO Digest Mike Weaver Q&A:

          Q: The first Dokes fight was about one month after Duk Koo Kim’s fatal fight against Ray Mancini, and referee Joe Curtis claims that the NSAC stressed that fight so much that he believes he may have overreacted by stopping your fight (with Dokes) with that recent tragedy in the back of his mind. Now, based off incidents like that and the deterioration of fighters following their careers like Muhammad Ali, title fights have been reduced from fifteen rounds to twelve. What’s your take on the length of championship fights?

          A: “I liked fifteen rounds. Those were the championship rounds. The heavyweight championship of the world should be fifteen rounds. The referee talked about the Duk Koo Kim fight, but I really felt that was just an excuse.”