Bob & Nonito: What happens in Macau stays in Macau

Everyone loves Nonito Donaire.  Read Donald McRae’s Changing Man interview and see how he comes across – what’s not to like, right?  He is one of boxing’s good guys.  He is also a great fighter. During his 12 year unbeaten stretch he picked up belts in the fly, super fly, bantam and super bantamweight divisions.  Plus he entertains.  In 2007 and 2011, Ring Magazine awarded him Knockout of the Year gongs and he was their 2012 Fighter of the Year.  Fighters who are hugely likeable (and thus marketable) outside the ring and thrillingly devastating inside it are a promoter’s dream.  In the Filipino Flash’s case, he is Bob Arum’s and Top Rank’s dream.

Everyone hates Bob Arum.  Do any sort of reading on the Top Rank chief and see how he comes across – there is little to like.  The first boxing match Arum ever saw was Ali v Chuvalo in 1966.  He also happened to promote that fight and readily admits that, before his eyes were opened to the millions he could make from the sport, he had no interest in it.  It was simply “two guys clubbing each other over the head” to Bob. 

Before entering boxing, this Harvard Law graduate was a District Attorney and Wall Street tax expert.  For the uninitiated, a Wall Street tax expert is a man proficient in creating elaborate tax structures that facilitate anyone wealthy enough to be able to pay him for the privilege avoiding their fair share of contributions to the state.  Those pesky deductions from our salaries the government makes each month to fund the likes of healthcare, education, infrastructure-building and weapons of mass destruction wild goose chases.  In boxing, an industry that the FBI described as having no governing rules and being nothing more than legalised extortion, Arum’s apprenticeship in the engine room of the quasi-legal financial world has served him extremely well for almost half a century.

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Fifty years never far from controversy.  He has testified in a federal court that he bribed the IBF to gain a more favourable rating for one of his fighters.  He has been implicated in numerous (unproven) cases of fixing from De La Hoya v Mosely to Pacquiao v Bradley.  He was criticised for his defence and support of Antonio Margarito after the Mexican was revealed to be cheating, and endangering opponent’s lives, with loaded gloves.  And he is seen by many as the main reason for Mayweather v Pacquiao never happening on account of his ego-fuelled feud with Floyd, who Arum controlled until Money got too big for middlemen consuming his profits.  On the plus side, Don King doesn’t like him.

But fifty years of controversy for a fight promoter in the Teflon land of boxing realpolitik is as about as career-damaging as a US president taking a special shine to a White House intern.  Blue dresses aside, nothing sticks, and the Machiavellian machinations of slippery Bob have manoeuvred him into position as one of the most powerful and influential men in the sport of boxing.

A combination of all of the above, plus Froch Groves II dominating the headlines on the same weekend, is why mainstream media outlets allowed last month’s events in Macau to pass relatively unnoticed.  It appears that, bar a handful of blogs voicing concerns, the farcical Nonito Donaire v Simpiwe Vetyeka contest has been quietly filed away in the boxing archives with a Post-it saying, Arum: best not to dig any deeper.

In truth, the fight was a shambles from start to finish.  Champion Vetyeka, looking bigger and stronger than his opponent, began well, somewhat bullied Nonito around the ring and won the opening round.  It was at the end of the first that the fun and games really began.  As the bell rang and referee Luis Pabon stepped between the two men, Nonito briefly winced and dropped to his knees before arising and walking to his corner with blood already flowing from a deep gash along the top of quickly swelling left eye.  Pabon, not for the first time in his career, hadn’t the faintest idea what had happened.

To be fair to the hapless ref on this occasion, even with the benefit of numerous replays, there is nothing 100% conclusive on what opened Donaire’s flesh, nor what caused him to drop, wince and complain at the bell.  Scan the boxing forums and within minutes you’ll find Vetyeka’s head, elbow and fist being labelled the culprit for the cut.  Likewise, Nonito’s reaction was down to a low blow, a late shot to the back of the head, or the alleged head butt that cut him, depending on who you speak to.  In short it is all about as clear as a jug of Weissbier at Oktoberfest.

When the dust had settled, the party line, presumably emanating from the mouth of Bob Arum and regurgitated by all who suckle, or dream of suckling, from his teat, was that Vetyeka’s head is guilty on all counts.  Case closed.  Reviewing the fight footage, and ignoring HBO commentary that was delivered and recorded hours later when they had time to get their ducks in a row, I’m not convinced.

Look closely at 4:28 in the video and see how a glancing, but perhaps slicing, left from the champion appears to land exactly where the cut opened.  Could that somewhat innocuous blow be the culprit? Roll on two more seconds and note Vetyeka connecting south of the border with a short sharp left just as Roy Jones Jr. says “right there”.  Jones is referring to a head clash that may or may not be real, but the sneaky left below Donaire’s belt cannot be denied and would surely be more conducive to a dropping to the knees in an “I’m winded” gesture than a head butt above the eye would be.

Regardless, ref Pabon made no clear ruling or judgement whatsoever on what had occurred.  By not indicating an accidental clash of heads, Pabon presumably believed the damage to Nonito’s eye was caused legitimately by the gloved hands of his opponent.  That being the case, any stoppage due to said cut would have to result in a TKO victory for the champion and a second loss in three fights for one of Arum’s most prized cash-cows.  Apparently that wasn’t the case however.

The fight continued and became more confusing with every passing round.  There were further complaints from Nonito about Vetyeka’s use of the head but, in truth, there did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary going on in that department.  The champ was coming forward aggressively and heads certainly came together, but this was a title fight not a tickling contest and I have seen a lot worse go unpunished over the years.  Was Nonito milking it, making sure ref, judges, doctors and fans had Vetyeka’s head at the forefront of their thinking on the fight?

By the third round Nonito was battling like a man who knew time was against him – perhaps further evidence that at that point he wasn’t sure what Pabon’s ruling on his cut eye was.  He caught Vetyeka and Vetyeka caught the top rope to keep himself upright.  It was a clear knockdown but somehow Pabon missed it.

In the fourth Nonito nailed him again and Vetyeka went down.  Right down to the canvas floor this time to make life a little easier for Luis Pabon.  The predominantly pro-Donaire crowd went wild as they expected their man to finish off the South African and throw his name in the hat for Ring Magazine’s 2014 Knockout of the Year award.  To the surprise of everyone, Nonito did the exact opposite.  He stood off his man and allowed him to recover while simultaneously gesturing to his gashed and bloated left eyelid and beckoning the doctor to take another look.  I’m no medic but it did not look to have changed a lot from how it was nine minutes previously at the end of the first round.  By this stage it was clear that the Filipino’s corner knew we were going to the scorecards at the end of the round.

The fight ended with a confused whimper as Pabon called it off at the first opportunity to dump responsibility for the entire affair in the laps of the judges.  It appears that at some point throughout the contest the ref made up his mind, or had it made up for him, that Vetyeka’s head did indeed cause the damage.  And that this information was passed on to Nonito’s wily trainer Robert Garcia who then knew exactly what to do.

The farce continued with the ring announcer awarding Nonito the technical decision with all three judges scoring it 49-46 in favour of the Filipino.  Some going in a four round fight you may think, but it later became clear that the bell was apologetically rung for a fifth round that lasted all of half a second and was thus scored 10-10.  Not to be outdone in the comical stakes, Larry Merchant then appeared to believe he could understand Simpiwe Vetyeka speaking in his native tongue until someone whispered into his ear, “Larry, the guy’s not speaking English”.  It was in danger of turning into a slapstick comedy event.  Carry On Boxing if you like.

At the end, Vetyeka appeared confused but took it all in amazingly good grace.  Perhaps an unsettling amount of good grace based on what had just transpired.  For his part, Nonito looked a little embarrassed and promised a rematch.  His interview brought back memories of Timothy Bradley telling Manny Pacquiao, with mysterious certainty of date, that they can do it again on November 10th immediately after Pacman was robbed blind in 2012 – both men that day were Arum fighters by the way. 

Bob, I have no doubt, was absolutely delighted. There are very few easier ways to swell a promoter’s coffers than ready-made rematches in boxing and he was probably already mentally dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the Donaire v Vetyeka II contract from his ringside seat.  Don’t be surprised to see it on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao’s fight on the 23rd of November, probably back in Macau, and certainly boosting Top Rank’s bottom line figures before the end of the year.  I’ll leave it there for you to make your own mind up on the unseen hand of Bob Arum in boxing’s latest shady result.

Paul Gibson @BallsOfWrath

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