Pat Russell: Chicken or Egg

By Robert Ecksel on December 28, 2011
Pat Russell: Chicken or Egg
“At the end of the day, what did I really have?" he asked. "I really had an aborted title fight.”

I wonder why the CSAC felt it was necessary that Pat Russell submit a report without the assistance of video…

“People pick on the fighter, trainer and manager, but they don’t pick enough on the referee.”—Lou Duva

Time is a funny thing. We live by it. We die by it. It controls our waking moments and those moments we steal for precious sleep. But time is a construct, a template, an imposition, yet one of those things we deem as genuine as sunlight, air, and water.

An example of time’s fickle nature is that we rarely look back, so eager are we for the newest of the new, the next big thing, the latest subject or object we can zero in on, before tiring of the novelty and skyhooking it into the dustbin of history where it belonged all along.

This applies to boxing no less than it applies to the octopus of pop culture. Our memories, be they sprinkled with stardust with clotted with cobwebs, are often as short as our attention span, virtual midgets in a world where gigantism rules. Whether this is due to hardwiring or design is anyone’s guess.

Take, for example, the fight between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson in L.A. The Staples Center stinker was for Hopkins’ WBC light heavyweight title and treated accordingly. The bout was written about, discussed, dissected, and hyped to the high heavens. And while no one was expecting an exciting fight, we dutifully did what it is we do, and the unfortunate result was out of our hands.

My memory is as shot full of holes as the next guy’s, but I recall Hopkins throwing a punch that Dawson ducked under, and Hopkins used his forward momentum to catapult himself onto Dawson’s back. Dawson reached down with his left hand and grabbed Hopkins’ leg. Then Dawson straightened himself up and deposited Hopkins onto the canvas. Hopkins landed awkwardly, hurt his shoulder and refused to continue fighting. The referee Pat Russell had a better view than I did and called it a TKO victory for Dawson. Some disputed that call, and rightfully so. It could have just easily been called a no decision. But no one, at least to my knowledge, disputed the nagging feeling of having been ripped off at the fight’s unsatisfying end.

Yet no sooner had the rosin settled, than Golden Boy petitioned the WBC, whose light heavyweight title Hopkins had lost, and the California State Athletic Commission to have the verdict overturned.

The fight and all that followed were also written about at length. In a matter of days, the WBC rose to the occasion by second-guessing the referee and overturning his decision. A few weeks later, the CSAC followed suit. (The Ring magazine belt was also in play, but The Ring’s decision, inasmuch as it is owned by Golden Boy, was a foregone conclusion.)

Many were unhappy at the turn of events, not least among them Chad Dawson. But what’s done is done. It’s water under the bridge. Que sera, sera. Besides, it’s old news, the Cali Commission having handed down its decision all of two weeks ago.

It would seem that Pat Russell, a pleasant chap and solid referee, was caught in the crossfire, and rather than run or duck for cover, he took it between the eyes. Russell was in a difficult situation and had to think fast. But it takes two to tango, or two to tangle, as was the case in this matter, and neither Hopkins nor Dawson was free from blame for the subprime boxing fiasco.

But having recently spoken with Pat Russell, he neither seemed put-upon nor particularly distressed by what went down—in the ring, with The Ring, or with the WBC and Cali Commission.

“I have to say that I made an opinion at the time, and I made an opinion at the Athletic Commission,” said Russell about his reversal. “You’ve got to understand, I wasn’t allowed to speak that night, and then my executive officer told me he didn’t want me talking to anybody. Right after I spoke with Steve Kim, I was given a gag order from talking to anybody at that point. I understand that. And then he told me to write a report, without looking at the video, without any other outside influence, to the best of my recollection. So that report was written I think within three or four days. I submitted that report and on Tuesday I testified.”

I wonder why the CSAC felt it was necessary that Russell submit a report without the assistance of video. We don’t live in the dark ages. At least I don’t think we live in the dark ages. We’ve made advancements, especially when it comes to technology. Yet the Athletic Commission, who presumably wanted a fair, accurate, objective recounting of what caused the fight’s premature end, specifically asked for a report based solely on the referee’s memory. With the Staples Center in an uproar; with Hopkins moaning, groaning, grimacing, and blaming Dawson what occurred; with Dawson strutting around the ring like he was the rebirth of Jack Johnson; and with the eyes of the world, at least the eyes of the boxing world, on Pat Russell and his actions, he wasn’t allowed to look at a tape of the fight before submitting his report? That makes no sense.

In addition, it was reported that after Russell’s report was submitted, it was studied by Commission attorneys and Commission executives. Their recommendation to the Commission at large was that Russell’s TKO verdict should stand. Yet the CSAC either chose to ignore their own committee’s recommendation, or took it upon themselves to decide otherwise, based upon criteria that remain unclear.

“To give you a summary of what I testified,” Russell continued, “I was asked, and I was very candid by saying this: If there was no foul that I saw—and to this day it’s a disputed foul as to whether or not Dawson flipped him off his back—if you read that report it kind of goes over that fact that what the champion Hopkins was doing in the minute Dawson ducked a little low, he raced in and jumped on his back, or basically smothered him, which is kind of a borderline tactic. Is it a foul? Is it not a foul? You have to put the context of the fight into the context of this.”

Whether Hopkins’s actions or Dawson’s actions were or were not fouls was for Russell to determine and he decided they were not. But when Russell says “Hopkins jumped on his (Dawson’s) back…which is kind of a borderline tactic,” the foul/no foul argument starts growing murky.

I like Pat Russell. He’s smart, he’s charming, and he’s blessed with the gift of gab. I let him talk, in part because I wanted to hear what he had to say, in part because I had no choice.

“These particular fighters are very, very skilled. Well, obviously, Bernard Hopkins is one of the legendary fighters in our business, and I think Chad Dawson if right up there. He’s one of the more skilled fighters that I ever worked, very methodical, knows his business. I was trying to calm them down, trying to get them into an area where they could DO THEIR WORK, staying within my rules, staying within the rules of boxing, yet still have an opportunity to do their work. And what happened was, immediate prior to this, Hopkins pushed him down. Dawson was doing other stuff. He was pushing down, grabbing Hopkins. They were just basically roughhouse tactics, not quite up to the foul level.

“I was directly behind Dawson when this thing took place. It happened in half an instant. And all I saw was Hopkins on top of Dawson. In fact, I saw his right hand reaching for Dawson’s left hip. That’s how far he was extended over him. And the next thing I see him flying through the air, because I see Dawson’s back arch, and then I see he’s on the ground and we go through the whole drama of what the injury was. The reason I didn’t call it a foul was because basically if there hadn’t been an injury I would have brought him (Hopkins) to the center ring, I would have warned him, I would have said ‘Enough of that stuff. Let’s cut it out. From here on out it’s gonna cost you points or disqualification. Let’s go to work,’ and hopefully that would have been enough to calm him down so that we could go back to having a championship fight. That didn’t happen obviously because he was injured. But the reason it became a TKO was he never allowed the doctor to look at that injury.”

It sounds as though Russell, to the best of his recollection, believes Hopkins was the more responsible of the two parties. It also sounds as though Russell believes Hopkins refused to let the doctor look at his injury, even though Hopkins says otherwise. Not long after the fight, Hopkins said, “I told the ref that I could continue with one arm. He said, ‘No, you can’t continue because you’ve got a lump on your top shoulder’ and he stopped it. He walked away and that was it.”

According to Russell, there were several issues he had to deal with. One was borderline fouling by both fighters. Another was Hopkins’ refusal to let the doctor “examine him ringside, so he could make a doctor’s intervention,” which Russell said was “technically an abandonment. The doctor stopped the fight upon what the fighter told him, not upon his examination.” So it came down to one of two decisions: a technical knockout or no decision. “At the time I chose TKO. If it had been a foul I could have called it a technical draw. A deliberate foul I could have called it as disqualification. I didn’t see the foul, or whatever it was that Dawson did after Hopkins jumped on his back. I’m not going to call a foul that I do not see.

“Candidly upon reflection—and I want to do what’s best for boxing—what I thought about was that I didn’t have a legitimate blow. I had incidental contact due to roughhousing. I had a kid who refused to let the doctor look at him, but that could have been because if pain. And at the end of the day, what did I really have? I really had an aborted title fight. We had a fight that could have been a title fight, but it never got off the ground. It was kind of like a preliminary fight. We really didn’t have enough information to make a decision. Therefore I told them that upon reflection, I thought that a no decision was a better reflection of the aborted title fight that we had in front of us, rather than a TKO. And that’s what I stated publicly at the hearing.”

I mentioned to Russell that since both fighters were guilty of roughhousing, and one fighter got injured as a result and could not continue, it seemed, for want of a better word, unjust that the CSAC allowed the injured fighter to retain his title.

“I don’t how that affected their decision,” Russell admitted. “You’d have to ask the Athletic Commission. I’m just an honest man trying to do what’s right. But now that I looked at it, having had a hundred views of it from the time, it’s a chicken or an egg argument.”

Pat Russell is a company man, which frankly is the only kind of man to be in these times. He spoke about the integrity of the system, and of the system having been challenged but ultimately working in the end. He said the CSAC is trying to “come up with a way to resolve this exact situation” should it arise in the future. Some of the things the CSAC are exploring are “limited use of an instant replay,” “limited use of a conference with ringside inspectors,” and “limited use of the ability to poll judges.”

It’s good that the Cali Commission is at least looking at these things. But there’s a caveat. Boxing isn’t like football, which goes on forever and a day, and where officials can halt the game for however long it takes to study instant replay and wrangle amongst themselves. Boxing is like boxing. It is highly structured and symmetrical. With its three-minute rounds and one-minute rest periods, there’s not much time for even limited use of instant replay and conferences with ringside officials and judges. If it takes longer than 60 seconds it throws the whole game out of whack. And what could possibly be determined in less than a minute?

Russell told me that he thinks “Joyce Carol Oates distilled it and said it best when she said, ‘The referee is the conscience of the audience.’ And I think that’s really a high standard to work with. And the other thing that always stuck in my mind was years ago an excellent referee once told me that our job is to celebrate the fight card, not to destroy it. These words have always stuck in my mind. We take the kid into deep water, but we don’t let him drown. So if a fighter tells me he cannot continue, in the absence of it being egregious nonsense, I’m going to believe them. I don’t know the pain level. I don’t know the history of his shoulder. I don’t know if he literally could move, if he was frozen. I don’t know any of that. And I’m not going to allow him to go on if he’s telling me he can’t go on.”

What exactly happened that night remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It was an unhappy end to an unhappy fight and the intervention of the WBC and CSAC didn’t help. Pat Russell made a call, what he thought was the right call at the time, and subsequently reversed his decision. None of us knows what did or did not go down behind closed doors. But Russell, in my opinion, wasn’t responsible for what occurred. He’s just a piece on the chessboard. He was the third man in the ring, caught in the middle, between a rock and a hard place, and did what he needed to do, for whatever reasons he needed to do them.

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  1. the thresher 07:15am, 12/30/2011

    ice jb has the beat. A rematch would be a cure for insomnia. ZZZZZzzzzzz. Think flat line.

  2. "Old Yank" Schneider 06:37am, 12/30/2011

    Don—Happy New Year to a great boxing fan!  All the best!

  3. Don from Prov 05:31am, 12/30/2011

    Oops!  Part of that didn’t post.
    What’s up with that?  Anyway, will add—

    Wink wink smile smile.
    Remembrance of Things Past (and all that)!
    Have a good New Year OY :)

  4. Don from Prov 06:40pm, 12/29/2011

    There’s an opening in the Republican party now that Newt has faltered you slimeball.

    And I’ve seen you pen lies.

    You’re an errand boy for financial sociopaths who crippled this country.

  5. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:59pm, 12/29/2011

    Robert—In direct answer to your question, in private dialogue I’m privileged to learn a great deal about the folks I advise. At times it feels much like an attorney/client privileged relationship and more often than not it is legally protected privacy. I have been a party to hearings where my testimony under oath was critical – central to identifying the truth that had careers and serious money at stake. Under oath I’ve never been less than truthful. How that truth was couched in order to best reflect how I desired it to be reflected has always been under my control. Call it bending, call it what you wish; when a lawful or personal morals gray area exists, I expect no man to operate outside of his own best self-interest. But I can state without reservation that I’ve never given testimony under oath that was a surprise to either my superiors or my attorneys. In my opinion, it is a serious exercise in poor judgment to do so. Good and decent men exercise poor judgment at the risk of unsavory appearances all the time.

  6. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:37pm, 12/29/2011

    Robert—I fully appreciate the pressures Russell was under with the gag order. The gag order imposed by his superiors applied to Russell talking to outsiders (the press included). But there was never a gag on him that could prevent him from letting his superiors know ahead of time that he’d viewed the video “a hundred times” and came to a different conclusion than his written report stated. I am left scratching my head over why Russell waited until the hearing to let his superiors know that he’d seen something on the video that he missed the night of the fight. Is he entitled to reserving his judgment call until the last minute? Absolutely he is! Was it a good judgment call politically or appearance wise? Not a chance! Again, I have every reason to believe that Russell is a good and decent man. I just hate it when odors like this waft up from the bathtub we call boxing.

  7. Mike Schmidt 08:28am, 12/29/2011

    A big New Years toast to Don indeed. Yes they should do a rematch—probably nobody wants to watch it but Dawson deserves it—I have a badddd feeling Mr Dawson is going to be on the sideline looking in. Only way to settle the nonsense is do the rematch—ORDER THE REMATCH. Oh sorry that does not work either does it Chavez Jr.

  8. Don From Prov 08:01am, 12/29/2011

    Two points—

    1) I’ve changed my mind and now believe that Russell should be tortured and killed.

    2) And, seriously, have we really come to the point where it’s taken for granted that pretty much no one will stand on principle??  Ever???  But as far as THIS issue goes, it appears to be a whole lot of farting in the bathtub for very little reason.

  9. Robert Ecksel 07:15am, 12/29/2011

    I live a glass house. The view is great, but the mortgage is killing me.

  10. mike schmidt 06:49am, 12/29/2011

    So you then agree with Old Yank’s statement Robert???

  11. Robert Ecksel 06:16am, 12/29/2011

    Old Yank—I’m not sure Russell CHOSE to do any of the things you suggest. Whatever power he has is limited and exists only inside the ring. Outside of the ring, within the larger power structure of boxing, he’s expendable, just another referee, as easily replaced, and discarded, as a battery in a flashlight. I can’t swear that everything Russell told me was 100% true. To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t injected with truth serum before we spoke. What does seem clear, however, was that he was under a gag order, INSTRUCTED by his boss to remain silent. He could have taken a “principled” stand. He could have defied his superiors, spoken to the media, and suffered the consequences, which might have meant the end of his career as a referee. That’s a tougher call to make than TKO or no decision. How many lawyers do you know who blithely defy a judge’s gag order? Not many I imagine. It’s an untenable situation for any man to find himself in. Let me ask you a question. If the shoe were on the other foot and you discovered that one of your clients was up to financial hanky-panky, would you report him to the SEC or some such watchdog group at the risk of losing all your other clients, your job, your income, your means of earning a livelihood? Each of us lives and makes decisions according to our own principles or lack thereof. How much we’re willing to bend in the direction of truth or bend in the direction of expediency depends on intangibles that differ from person to person. But bottom line, life is ultimately about survival in an indifferent, cutthroat world, is it not? I wish it weren’t so, but I think that’s what it boils down to in the final estimation.

  12. Ice jb 05:36am, 12/29/2011

    I don’t blame Russell. What I saw was an unprepared Hopkins jump on the chance to get out of the ring with a very motivated Dawson. The rematch is the only way to settle the dispute. However, it would be ridiculous to think that the rematch is going to intrigue a lot of people. Yes, I will watch it when and if it is FREE.

  13. "Old Yank" Schneider 05:05am, 12/29/2011

    Had Russell come clean early (i.e. weeks if not months earlier), then the CSAC could have made an executive decision to inform the Hopkins and Dawson camps that their recommendation was going to be to change the decision to a No CONTEST. Even the Dawson attorneys are bright enough to know that a change of view by the ref is compelling. The hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours—it should have lasted 10 minutes! The 3 hour and 20 minute monumental wasting of everyone’s time is 100% the responsibility of Pat Russell.

  14. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:58am, 12/29/2011

    In my heart and soul I believe that Pat Russell is likely a good and decent man—and a very competent ref. But between the time he wrote his report and the time of the hearing we waited MONTHS! Russell admits that he viewed the video hundreds of times over that period. He then kept his mouth shut until the day of the hearing, leaving the CSAC recommendation to honor a TKO on the table ‘til the last minute and then sprung it on everyone that he saw something different in the video than he did live. The fact remains that Russell had MONTHS to inform the CSAC that his review of the video brought him to a different conclusion. He CHOSE to remain silent. He CHOSE to leave the CSAC’s execs and attorneys hanging out there with a recommendation to defend a TKO. He CHOSE to tell NO ONE of importance that he was going to let the world know that his review of the video led him to changing his mind. Can good and decent people have a change of mind in the 11th hour? ABSOLUTELY! When it happens in the very aromatic air of boxing can it raise an odor that stinks to high heavens? ABSOLUTELY. In my view, a good and decent man CHOSE a path that now tarnishes and taints how he is viewed by the rest of the world. The MONTHS available to him to make his “new view” known should have led him to making a CHOICE to come clean MONTHS earlier. At best this is a case of excruciatingly bad judgement about when to come clean about what he saw and at worst it is…well…boxing as usual.

  15. Don from Prov 04:44am, 12/29/2011

    Smart article.  And, agreed—

    Can’t blame Russell.

  16. the thresher 04:16am, 12/29/2011

    “But Russell, in my opinion, wasn’t responsible for what occurred. He’s just a piece on the chessboard. He was the third man in the ring, caught in the middle, between a rock and a hard place, and did what he needed to do, for whatever reasons he needed to do them.”

    Well said.

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