By Ivan G. Goldman
Pat Russell understood the stakes when he refereed the rarefied slugfest between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado. In a brutal contest like that, the two fighters keep going until one man enters the twilight world of basic helplessness. On the other side of twilight is disability or death.
“When there’s that level of violence and brutality, once they start to slip they fall off the edge of earth,” he told me. “Very quickly. One punch and you have a kid in a debilitated state. Next thing you know you’ve got a kid who’s passed out, gone to the hospital, or whatever.”
Many people, and that can include TV analysts paid to know these things, “may not understand the force of these punches,” he said. In a previous contest “I had my arm go numb from one punch thrown by a guy who weighed 139 pounds.” It was a mistake, of course. The shot was aimed at the opponent with the kind of force expended after a particularly skilled fighter has spent thousands of hours of his life refining the speed and power of his punches. “I lost all feeling in the arm,” Russell recalled. “They unleash hell in there. That’s the business we’re in.”
Nowadays when networks get up close and personal with athletes, fans learn quite a bit about them. But they learn surprisingly little about the third man in the ring, the one who’s charged with maintaining the rules and making sure fighters don’t suffer what the fight game calls “serious” injuries that go beyond a typical broken nose, smashed ear, or other mayhem that would send ordinary citizens to the emergency room.
Russell is an ex-paratrooper and a combat veteran of Vietnam, where he was an infantry commander. He’s a college grad, a retired San Diego detective, and he fought in the amateurs. He’s had the kind of life experiences that make him particularly qualified to make quick, far-reaching judgments inside the ring.
I’ve known him for years.
He’s refereed other memorable slugfests — Marco Antonio Barrera-Kennedy McKinney comes to mind, as does the third great match between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez that ended in a split decision for Marquez. Fans know that Marquez-Vazquez was one of the greatest series of battles between two fighters in the last thirty years, but we don’t hear it discussed by HBO analysts — perhaps because it appeared on Showtime. In some ways HBO reminds me of the old Soviet Union, which used to write people and events out of history books if they failed to fit the propaganda effort.
Vazquez has undergone several eye surgeries thanks to that series. Human beings weren’t built to endure one such contest, much less a series of them. Russell refuses to rank any of the super-matches he’s worked. He believes it would be unfair to describe any of them as less great than the others. “Everything is apples and oranges,” he said. “They all have unique characteristics. They’re distinct, memorable events in my life.
“The story of this fight (Rios-Alvarado) was concentrated on eighteen inches in the center of the ring like the dividing line between France and Germany. Every punch was thrown with bad intentions and great vigor. It was a great fight. No Question. I had no idea who would crack under the pressure. They had everything invested in it. Everything. A wonderful fight.”
After Russell jumped in to protect Alvarado in the seventh round, ending the junior welterweight match, we had the luxury of slow motion footage to show that Alvarado had taken about ten solid, consecutive unanswered punches, that his chin was hanging in the air like a sign flapping in the wind, and his gloves were out in front of him, but not in a fighter’s envelope. They were like the arms of a man who’d just stepped on a land mine. It was clear Russell — through skill and certainly some luck — had jumped in at precisely the right time, not a second late or early.
I spoke to Russell before he had the chance to see the footage. “That was the moment,” he said. “He was done, defenseless. We had seen the drama play out. We don’t need the epilogue of a guy in the hospital with a swollen brain. It was great theater, but I’m not there to get these kids hurt like that. Their job is to convince me they’re okay.” Alvarado, he noted, was sending all the wrong messages. “Of course if you ask the two warriors, they’ll say it was stopped early. They were willing to fight to the death,” he noted.
Yet network analyst Max Kellerman saw the slow-motion shot and told Russell on camera, “I was a little bit surprised (at the stoppage) because I never saw his arms drop — as though he were in control of his facilities — faculties.” It was an amazing statement. Even when the action was slowed down, Kellerman failed to understand what he was looking at. Alvarado’s arms told precisely the opposite story that he said they did.
I have no doubt Kellerman can tell us how many times Carmen Basilio fought Sugar Ray Robinson. But a network analyst needs to know the difference between a Rocky movie and an athletic contest. I’m confident he used to pass that test. I’m no longer sure he does.
Ivan G. Goldman’s critically acclaimed novel The Barfighter is set in the world of boxing. Information HERE