On Saturday, May 21st in Moscow, Denis Lebedev delivered a brutal knockout to all-time great Roy Jones Jr. The knockout came near the end of the 10th round as Lebedev cornered Jones against the ropes.
A right hook followed by a right uppercut left Jones bent over, out on his feet. Lebedev pauses for three seconds before delivering a final hook that knocks Jones unconscious. The pause isn't as dramatic as Pacquiao looking over to referee Laurence Cole during the Margarito fight, but it is noticeable. Veteran referee Steve Smoger failed to jump in to protect Jones during these crucial three seconds when he was hurt.
Let's get a few things out of the way. Being a professional boxing referee is an incredibly difficult task. It requires split second decisions and mistakes are going to be made. Referees are human and as prone to error as anyone else. Additionally, Smoger is a veteran referee who has done excellent work in the past and, no doubt, will continue to do so in the future.
While I wish that Smoger had stopped the fight before the final, brutal shot from Lebedev, I can understand any referee can misjudge the situation or react just a second too late. It's unfortunate but it happens.
I can accept errors in the heat of the battle, but I find it hard to accept the excuses that Smoger is making since the fight ended.
Smoger has made two arguments to defend his lack of action. "I didn't stop the fight because there were only a matter of seconds remaining in the fight and it seemed that Roy was pretending, trying to trick his opponent," Smoger told Russian boxing journalist Alexander Pavlov.
Let's deal with the first part—there were only a matter of seconds remaining. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, the referee's job description does not change when there are "only a matter of seconds" left in a fight. The referee is there to enforce the rules, ensure a clean fight and protect the combatants when they can no longer protect themselves. None of that changes no matter how close it is to the end of the fight.
Smoger has a responsibility to protect a defenseless fighter until the final bell rings. Second, it seems unlikely that Smoger would have known exactly how much time was left. The flurry started with around 20 seconds remaining and Jones hit the canvas with 13 seconds left. All of this is before the 10-second warning, so, unless Steve Smoger has an internal clock accurate to the second, he didn't know exactly how much time was left.
I know that some will recall the Chavez-Taylor stoppage in reference to this situation. This is not the same. Taylor had absorbed cumulative punishment but Taylor was not in imminent danger with two seconds remaining as Jones was when he was slumped against the ropes with 16 seconds to go.
The second part of Smoger's defense—that he believed Roy was attempting to trick Lebedev—is more valid, especially given that Jones is capable of "playing possum." Watching the tape, though, it seems evident that Jones is badly hurt and Lebedev's hesitation doesn't seem to be out of concern that Roy may be tricking him. The final blow is a looping hook—not at all the kind of punch a professional fighter of Lebedev's caliber throws if he is concerned about a counter. Lebedev knew that Jones was out on his feet and Smoger should have recognized it too.
I'd have no issue with Smoger had he admitted an error caused by the small amount of time he had to react. "I should have stopped it one punch sooner" was all he had to say. For a referee of Smoger's experience and ability to make excuses rather than admit a misjudgment simply compounds the error.