For most of the night last Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., Tim Bradley was in control of his bout versus Jessie Vargas. Heading into the last half-minute of their 12-round contest (as they were competing for the WBO interim welterweight title) it seemed destined that Bradley would cruise to a wide points victory over Vargas.
But with just 20 seconds remaining the usually light-hitting Vargas uncorked a right hand that caught Bradley square on the chin and had him staggering around the ring. Like he did in his only other outing in this venue – that he dubbed the “War Grounds” – against Ruslan Provodnikov in 2013, Bradley would have to crawl to the finish line.
After avoiding and deflecting a few oncoming left hooks from Vargas, Bradley initiated a clinch. Then just as suddenly, referee Pat Russell, believing he had heard the final bell – and not the actual 10-second warning – called an end to the fight. Vargas, believing he had scored a late, dramatic knockout began celebrating, as if he had won.
Instead, Russell ruled that the fight had ended with four seconds on the clock.
Eventually the confusion was cleared up and Bradley was ruled the victor by the scores of 115-112, 117-111 and 116-112. But the center of controversy was Russell, who prematurely shut the window on Vargas’ opportunity to score a late KO.
Russell explained to UCNLive.com on Monday afternoon, “The noise level was extremely intense that last 20 seconds and I saw Tim Bradley take what I believe was a good right hand. It hurt him. It certainly startled him enough and caught him and he went reeling back, bounced against the ropes and Vargas, to his credit, came in to try and close the deal. Bradley, I think, took some punches. He was clear-headed and then, in my mind, I heard what I thought was the bell.
“And it turned out, I heard the clacking of the 10-second warning; I thought it was the bell. I thought the fight was over and that was that.”
As the fight was called off, Carl Moretti of Top Rank Promotions immediately jumped into the ring to get a clarification of Russell’s ruling.
He made it clear that he had not ruled a knockout but had instead ended the fight.
“Afterwards I realized that’s what it was and then I heard the sound of the bell and it turned out, I guess, that there was four seconds left. But that’s what I heard and that’s what I did,” said Russell, who understands that he erred. “First and foremost, I take responsibility for my actions. Every referee does; we own the responsibility, so I’m not going to blame anybody else. I’m not going to say anything else – that’s my decision.
“Am I regretful that my human action caused what I felt was a terrific championship fight to really become a second-tier story as opposed to being my fault? That’s a terrible feeling. I live with that and it makes me feel terrible for the fighters. These are the people we come to see, not my human mistake and do I feel bad that I made a human mistake? Sure. It was an honest, human mistake. I live with both.”
For years, Russell has been considered one of the best referees in the sport. But in the aftermath of his mistake, his age (67) has suddenly become an issue. It’s also become somewhat fashionable to say that perhaps he had lost a few inches off his fastball. But Russell says this talk doesn’t bother him, “No, absolutely not. Everybody – especially every fan – has a right to an opinion. That’s why they throw on the tube and they can do that. If they think that’s an issue, then I think they have a right to voice that issue. And I make this clear: I told the athletic commission this was my last year. We talked about that and we’ve made a decision; I was going to make my way through and not just because of this situation because time marches on and so should I.
“At the end of the day, I’m sorry that an incident like this happened. If you want to make that judgment [that it was age] then you should look at the rest of my performance during that 12-round fight. Was I in position to make the right calls? Did I keep it going with the rules? Did we avoid situations because of that? I don’t stand in the way of anyone having an opinion. What I do say is: Make a clear and honest opinion based upon the facts you see in front of you. Not any other fashion or anybody else’s opinion. Make your opinion. That to me is a lack of fairness if you’re jumping in with the voice of the crowd, then you lose credibility.”
Andy Foster, the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, confirmed this would be Russell’s last year as a referee but also pointed out, “That was a Pat Russell decision. I think Pat’s a good referee.”
When asked about the conclusion of Bradley-Vargas from his vantage point, Foster recalled, “It got loud at the end. I think most people agree it was loud at the end and [Russell] made a mistake. I mean, I think he thinks he made a mistake. I think the whole world thinks he made a mistake. Pat thought he heard a bell when, in fact, it was the clapper.”
Speaking of which, there used to be a time in which the timekeeper would bang on the canvas twice and yell out,”Ten seconds!” as the warning instead of using the two blocks of wood to make a clacking sound. The advantage was those in the ring could feel the vibration in their feet.
“What we’re looking at doing for outside venues – and I think the clapper and bell system works fine, has worked fine for years. This was an unusual situation because you’re in an outdoor venue. You have different kind of acoustics and that’s important for a referee to have – is probably using like an airhorn like we use for UFC fights,” explained Foster.
(Cameron Dunkin, who manages Vargas, confirmed to UCNLive.com on Monday that they planned to file an official protest with the CSAC over the conclusion of this fight.)
The heat is on Russell for the time being, which he more than understands. It’s the nature of the job. He knew that when he decided to start this job in the early-’80’s. All referees, officials or umpires will make mistakes and face a certain type of scrutiny. But throughout the industry, Russell (who was Special Forces in the US Army, a Ranger captain during his tour in Vietnam and spent over 30 years in law enforcement) is a universally respected figure throughout the industry.
Perhaps his judgment can be questioned on this occasion but never his integrity.
Russell still plans on judging fights from ringside if the commission will still have him.
“I think there’s a beginning, a middle and an end and there’s a lot of factors that go into it but the primary factor is there’s a lot of really good, newer referees that need their opportunities to step up to the level that I’ve had the privilege and honor to have been at,” explained Russell. “I’ve been blessed to be at the fights I’ve been at. My greatest sporting thrills have been to be in the ring with people like Israel Vazquez, Rafael Marquez, Ruslan Provodnikov, Marco Antonio Barrera, Tim Bradley, on and on.
“That’s just an honor and a pleasure that is really mine for life and I’m just thrilled by it. But it’s time where we all need to take a look at what point can I honorably walk out with integrity out of that ring doing the very best I could, as long as I could and leave it at least as good as I was given and, hopefully, maybe just a little bit better.
“This is my time to do that. It’s just the nature of mankind to move on.”
MY VANTAGE POINT
I’ve broken down the last 20 seconds of Bradley-Vargas like the Zapruder film (well, OK, maybe that’s just a slight exaggeration) but what I saw was, after Bradley got clipped and badly hurt, a series of left hooks from Vargas either missing or being deflected by the right glove of Bradley, who still had the presence of mind to put his hands in proper defensive position before clinching Vargas.
It was at that point in which Russell mistakenly called for the end of the fight. Just my opinion, Bradley’s eyes seemed pretty clear.
That said, this is all just opinion/conjecture; nobody really knows what would’ve happened in those final seconds.
Vyacheslav “Slava” Shabranskyy, who was decked twice in the first round by Paul “Pay-Per-View” Parker, has a lot of rough edges to work on, namely tucking in his chin and not squaring up his shoulders so much. But he makes for fun fights, no doubt…A welterweight bout between Johan Perez and Dmitry Mikhaylenko has been finalized for Aug. 8 on HBO Latino…An IBF middleweight title eliminator between Tureano Johnson and Eamonn O’Kane has been ordered and it looks as though both sides are game…Speaking of Bradley-Vargas, it averaged 1.121 million viewers on HBO…So the Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Miami Hurricanes over/under win total at 5.5? OK, I’ll put my money where my mouth is by putting some money on the ‘Canes to go over…So the Lakers will land a big man in free agency, right?…Seriously, it’s awfully humid right now in Southern California…I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.