Boxing and Refereeing: Criticism of Vitali Klitschko v Shannon Briggs

This post is not about MMA, but it is about boxing. If the content is not deemed relevant to this site, please tell me so I can have the post removed.

For those of you who do not follow boxing, Vitali Klitschko defended his WBC Heavyweight title on Saturday night against Shannon Briggs in Hamburg, Germany.

Vitali, along with his brother Wladimir are widely recognized as the best heavyweight boxers in the sport today, although there has been much mixed opinions about the standards of heavyweight boxing since the division's glory days between a decade or so ago. The fight with Shannon Briggs, a 38 year old former WBO Heavyweight Champion and perennial fringe contender, held no surprises. Briggs, who has shown limited ability in his past few fights, was dominated by the elder Klitschko and despite claiming to be in the best shape of his life, failed to seriously threaten his opponent at any time during the fight. Briggs lost the bout by 120 - 107, 120 - 107 and 120 - 105 on the judge's scorecards - a clear shut out.

But the reason why I wanted to write this article was not because I wanted to applaud the dominance of the Klitschko brothers, but because of the decision and potential implications for Shannon Briggs. For those who watched the fight, many will agree that it was becoming extremely painful viewing towards the latter half of the fight: Klitschko was dominating his opponent and from Round 6 onwards, was seemingly hitting his opponent at will. Although Briggs threw one or two clean shots in later rounds, he became nothing more than literally a punchbag for Klitschko to hit.

To his credit, Briggs did not go down, and even more incredibly, he remained upright when giving out an interview after the fight. "Hopefully I showed you the heart of a lion", Briggs said, "...and the perseverance of a champion".

Yes you did Shannon. But at what price?

The media reports that Briggs took 302 blows to the head and body, with 171 of them registering as 'clean' shots. Briggs, despite being able to give a post-fight interview, collapsed when giving a urine sample and as of today, is still in hospital for treatment.

The fight should have been stopped earlier. The referee should have stopped the fight. The ringside physician should have stopped the fight. Reports claim that Brigg's corner wanted to have the fight stopped, but it was Brigg's pride and refusal to have the fight stopped that kept it going: "I made it clear that stopping was not an option".

Well it should have been.

A statement released by Brigg's claimed that he had incurred no severe head injuries. Rejoice? I don't think so. It is known that pugilistic illnesses are sometimes latent, coming into fruition after the fighter has retired from the sport. If Briggs develops pugilistic dementia later in his life, then this fight will immediately be spotlighted as having a major contribution.

The referee has since been under immense criticism after the fight. Referee John-Lewis claimed that he was satisfied that Briggs could continue fighting. Looking back, I wonder what made him think that. If his decision to not call an end to the beating was justified by Shannon Brigg's refusal to quit, then he made the wrong call. A referee is there to protect the fighter's health and well-being, not listen to the fighter and make a judgment based on his wishes. If his decision to not end the fight was, really as he claimed, based on the fact that Briggs could continue fighting, well, he was wrong as well. Briggs was being used as a punchbag for Klitschko, and although it is the immediate health of a fighter that is of primary concern to referees, one must give some thought to the implications of that fighter's future.

I am not saying that the referee is 100% to blame; Brigg's cornermen should have been more forceful in stopping the fight, and although it is always hard for a fighter to accept defeat, Brigg's resilience and determination to continue was also a huge factor. But at the end of the day, the referee is the one responsible for calling the bout and Ian John-Lewis, by allowing the fight to continue, failed in this situation to adequately protect Briggs.

In all combat sports, there will always be, at some point, concern about an individual's health. We, the audience, might protest about early stoppages, but at the end of the day, an early stoppage can always be resolved by giving a rematch. For Alzheimer's, there is no cure. In all refereed bouts, there is a duty of care owed by the referee to the fighters, and in the majority of cases, the referee will get it right.

Unfortunately for Ian John-Lewis, this time he got it wrong.

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