In November 1982, when I was 11 years old and in grade six, I watched the Ray Mancini-Duk Ku Kim fight on CBS. It was an afternoon fight, held in Cesar’s Palace, one of the iconic, outdoor venues of the era.
The fight contained all the elements of a classic. The little-known Kim battled heroically, toe-to-toe, against the wildly popular American champion, nearly punching Mancini’s left eye shut and tearing his left ear. But as the fight wore on, Mancini began to dominate. Round 13 was brutal, with Mancini landing a barrage of unanswered punches. Still, Kim continued to keep coming, with no sign of quit.
Shortly into Round 14, Mancini landed two flush rights that dropped Kim, hard. Kim managed to pull himself to his feet, but his unsteady gate convinced referee Richard Green to wave off the fight, awarding Mancini a TKO victory.
As a young fight fan, Mancini was one of my favorites. I remember jumping off my living room couch to cheer.
Less than a minute after the fight ended, Kim collapsed in a coma. He would never wake up.
Kim’s tragic death in that fight sent shock waves through the sporting world at the time. It was the key moment in the move to reduce championship fights from 15 rounds to 12.
As a young fan witnessing that moment, my own view of the sport was shaped. I have rarely criticized a ref’s stoppage, especially in print. In the heat of blood lust and excitement, fans forget just how dangerous the Sweet Science can be. The responsibilities a boxing referee carries on his shoulder far outweigh those felt by officials in other sports.
And I have always accepted the reduction of championship rounds from 15 to 12. In a potentially deadly sport, whatever small adjustments can be made should be embraced.
However, I remain ambivalent about the shortening for championship fights. The drama created in the traditional “championship rounds” of 13-15 is something that is mostly lacking in the modern fight game. So many all-time great fights were decided after Round 12. Rocky Marciano never would have won the heavyweight title from Joe Walcott, if their first fight had been only 12 rounds. Sugar Ray Leonard would have simply lost a somewhat competitive decision to Tommy Hearns in 1981, rather than recording one of boxing’s greatest comeback’s ever, to win by Round 14 stoppage. If Ken Norton and Larry Holmes had fought only 12 in 1978, they never would fought their legendary Round 15.
The last Ring Magazine Fight of the Year that went 15 rounds was Stevie Cruz’s come-from-behind victory over Barry McGuigan in 1986. Cruz’s two knockdowns in Round 15 provided him his margin of victory.
Last weekend, Jessie Vargas rocked Timothy Bradley at the very end of Round 12, in a fight that Bradley hung on to win by unanimous decision. Bradley’s escape at the end was assisted by the fact that referee Pat Russell stopped the fight 10 seconds early.
But if three rounds had remained, the excitement before Round 13 of that fight would have been tremendous, even with the referee’s mistake. After building a lead in the middle part of the fight, Bradley would have found himself desperate to hang on for nine more long minutes. Trailing on the cards, Vargas would have found himself suddenly with new life. The crowd noise starting Round 13 would have been roaring.
For the safety of the fighters, it’s worth losing a bit of that drama. But it might be interesting to see what kind of statistical analysis could be done to determine how much safer championship fights are when they are only 12 rounds, rather than 15. It would be helpful to know what is gained, in terms of safety. Because any fan my own age or older knows very well, something is certainly lost.