Last week, heavyweight star Tyson Fury had a tougher than expected win over Sweden’s Otto Wallin, overcoming a horrible cut above his right eye to beat the huge underdog by unanimous decision. The cut was caused by a Wallin left hook with :40 left in round three, blood pouring profusely for the rest of the contest despite the best efforts of Fury’s cutman.
Initially, veteran referee Tony Weeks had informed the corners that the cut was caused by an accidental headbutt, but use of instant replay by Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett and replay official Jay Nady determined otherwise.
The fight proceeded into round five with Fury and his team working on the assumption that it was a clash of heads. It was at this point when ESPN’s blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore ordered reporter Bernardo Osuna to ask Fury’s cornerman Ben Davison if he knew that the cut was caused by a punch.
“Do me a favor [Bernardo], I want you to get with Ben Davison,” Tessitore said. “You find out what that corner knows or doesn’t know, and you let us know.”
“It’s been deemed as a headbutt,” Davison told Osuna. “That’s what the referee has told me. We did make the referee aware of [Wallin’s headbutts] before.”
“Actually it’s been deemed a punch,” Osuna said. “The Nevada State Athletic Commission saw the replay and they deemed it to be a clean punch, how does that change the outlook?”
“Well, obviously Tyson’s gotta deal with it,” Davison responded. “He’s got plenty of heart as he’s shown before, so hopefully the referee understands that and keeps him in the fight, but Tyson’s dealing with it okay — he can box, he can see so I don’t why it should be a problem.”
A cut that’s officially ruled to be caused by a clash of heads can result in a no contest or a technical decision, whereas a cut caused by a punch can lead to a TKO stoppage at any given time if the fighter can’t (or isn’t allowed to) continue. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fury significantly increased his power punch output from rounds 6-11, and a post-fight interview with Davison confirmed that he changed up the strategy following his exchange with Osuna.
There were immediate eyebrows raised over how ESPN handled the situation, and it’s easy to see how it could be perceived as a potential conflict of interest. Top Rank has a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN, Fury is a Top Rank fighter whom the network has invested tens of millions of dollars in, and a freak loss would seriously jeopardize an agreed upon lucrative mega-rematch with Wilder.
Scott Christ of Bad Left Hook:
There is some question about that conduct, understandably. Fury, of course, is signed to a major money deal with ESPN. Otto Wallin is not. Fury is worth a lot of money to the ESPN boxing brand — he’s the face, or at least one of the faces of the ESPN boxing brand, perhaps along with Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko.
In short, the ESPN commentary team influenced the corner during a fight. Maybe you see that as no big deal — after all, if my dumb ass sitting at home can get the information, why shouldn’t Ben Davison have that same access? And you might even question why Davison had not been told clearly by referee Tony Weeks that the cut had been ruled to be from a punch.
There are those who will assume the stance that the measures taken by ESPN helped clear up a potential disaster on what was deemed a major fight night.
Cynics have already claimed that the actions taken were to protect the network investment, with Fury due a lucrative rematch with unbeaten heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder. The bout remains on tap for some time in 2020, although the severity of the cut and the timing of Wilder’s next fight—a yet-to-be-announced Nov. 23 rematch with Luis Ortiz—could ultimately push back those plans.
No matter your take, what’s abundantly clear was that an ethical line was crossed, one that could have been avoided had Tessitore stayed in his lane and stuck to his assigned role, one which doesn’t include commissioner in its job description.
So what caused all of this confusion? When asked for comment earlier this week, Bennett explained to Bloody Elbow that after Weeks told him it was a headbutt, Bob said it was from a punch and asked him if he wanted to see the video for himself. Weeks did not look at the video, but acknowledged and accepted Bennett’s ruling, after which Bennett said “it was put down on the scoresheet as a punch” at the end or round three. What Weeks failed to do as the sole arbiter of the contest was notify both corners of this development.
“I think Tony [Weeks] did a great job [refereeing the bout], he just didn’t inform the corners,” Bennett said.
Bennett also told Bloody Elbow that ESPN effectively inserting themselves into the fight by revealing info that should’ve come only from the commission was “not gonna happen again.” He expanded further in a separate interview with ESPN’s Dan Rafael.
“We dropped the ball by not letting them know it was a punch, and ESPN let them know and I don’t have a problem with that because we dropped the ball, and it won’t happen again,” Bennett said. “No network will be the ones in the corner telling anyone about a ruling in the future.”
What could’ve been the main story here — potentially a significant development for the future of combat sports — was the mostly successful implementation of Nevada’s recently expanded form of instant replay for boxing. While Nevada has used instant replay to review fight-ending sequences in boxing and MMA, the current system for boxing now includes the ability to look at sequences that extend beyond fight-ending blows, such as whether a knockdown caused by a punch or a slip, or if a cut was from a punch or a headbutt.
“It was the first time we’ve used instant replay [for an instance such as this one],” Bennett said to Bloody Elbow, additionally noting that they don’t want these reviews to “want to stop the flow [of the fight] if we don’t have to.”
He also told ESPN that they also failed to “fulfill their responsibility by failing to hold up the card saying it was caused by a punch.”
The actual replay system worked well and figures to be a good sign for future boxing cards held in the state — Bennett’s long-term vision includes a more centralized replay system similar to the NFL and NBA — but the Nevada Athletic Commission can be faulted for Weeks’ error, which did a disservice to both Team Fury and Team Wallin. ESPN’s role in the bout can still be questioned from an ethical standpoint — even more so given they didn’t even attempt to see if Wallin’s corner was similarly unaware of what happened — although you can just as easily argue in favor of ESPN’s decision.
In a hypothetical case where the fight had been stopped and Tyson had lost by TKO, Team Fury would have had every reason to be aggrieved with the NAC for the lack of any notification. Ultimately, they were told the right message, just by the wrong messengers.