It has been a trying few weeks for boxing fans, particularly boxing fans who like their main events to end in clear-cut, unambiguous fashion. Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s controversial knockout of Victor Ortiz and Chad Dawson's even more controversial TKO/body slam of Bernard Hopkins (and even Abner Mares' low-blow-littered decision win to lift Joseph Agbeko's belt in August) have prompted much groaning and sad sighing among the sport's supporters, accompanied by the inevitable "This is why boxing is dying" chants from the peanut gallery.
Cries of anguish are understandable when folks are asked to shell out $60 or more for pay-per-views during a recession (or even during economic boom times.) But as unsatisfying as such inconclusive conclusions can be, they are nothing new. Endings both controversial and bizarre have in fact been a staple of the sport for more than a century, as the following examples testify:
Tom Sharkey W-DQ8 Bob Fitzsimmons
Dec. 2, 1896, San Francisco
When neither boxer's team could agree on a referee, the job was offered, at noon on the day of the fight, to former lawman Wyatt Earp. Fitzsimmons' manager was dubious, having been warned that the fix was in and that Earp was part of it. But his fighter, concerned that the pro-Sharkey crowd would turn on him if the bout was called off, agreed to go ahead. Earp entered the ring and removed his coat, in the process revealing that he was packing a revolver, of which he was swiftly relieved. Fitzsimmons dominated the bout through seven, and dropped Sharkey with a body shot in the eighth. But Earp ruled that the blow was low and declared Sharkey, who had to be carried from the ring, to be the winner. So controversial was the decision that, for many years, Earp was better known for his sole turn as a boxing referee than for his role in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
After Dempsey landed a pair of apparent low blows, Sharkey looked to the referee to complain, and Dempsey promptly clocked him with a left hook, dropping him to his knees and his face for the count. "What was I going to do," Dempsey said afterward, "write him a letter of apology?"
Jack Dempsey KO7 Jack Sharkey
July 21, 1927, New York
Having lost his heavyweight title to Gene Tunney, Dempsey fought an eliminator against Sharkey and found himself in a grueling contest. In the seventh, Dempsey, who had been working to Sharkey's body all evening, landed a pair of apparent low blows. Sharkey looked to the referee to complain, and Dempsey promptly clocked him with a left hook, dropping him to his knees and his face for the count. "What was I going to do," Dempsey said afterward, "write him a letter of apology?"
Max Schmeling W-DQ4 Jack Sharkey
June 12, 1930, New York
Poor Sharkey was involved in another controversy three years after his bout with Dempsey -- coincidentally, in a contest Dempsey promoted. Facing off against favored Schmeling for the vacant heavyweight title, Sharkey was ahead on points when he landed what appeared to be a low left hand that crumpled the German to the canvas. Schmeling pointed animatedly to his groin as he lay on his side; his manager leaped into the ring, prompting a flood of bodies to follow suit. Schmeling's corner team dragged the writhing boxer to his stool, and, in the confusion, the referee declared the German the winner, making Schmeling the first and only man to win the heavyweight title on a foul.
Muhammad Ali KO1 Sonny Liston
May 25, 1965, Lewiston, Maine
The ending to their first fight, in which Liston remained on his stool after the sixth round, had been controversial enough. The rematch made it look positively ordinary. When the bell rang, Liston immediately took the offensive, pursuing the new champion and throwing jabs that retreating Ali easily avoided. Then, suddenly, Ali threw a lightning-fast right hand that dropped Liston to his back. As Liston lay on the canvas, Ali stood over him, taunting. The referee, former champ Jersey Joe Walcott, pulled Ali away and led him to a neutral corner; Liston clambered slowly to his feet, but, as Walcott stood between the two fighters, Ring magazine publisher Nat Fleischer called the ref to ringside and told him that Liston had been down for 10 seconds. In Walcott's absence, Ali resumed his assault on Liston, only for the referee to separate them and declare Ali the KO winner as the crowd booed vociferously.
Tomas Molinares NC Marlon Starling
July 29, 1988, Atlantic City, N.J.
Welterweight titlist Starling dominated Colombian challenger Molinares through six rounds until, a split second after the bell rang to end the sixth, Molinares unleashed a right hand that knocked Starling out. Referee Joe Cortez, ruling that the punch was thrown before the bell rang, declared Molinares the winner and new champion, but, upon review, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board revised the result to a no-contest. The ending is perhaps most memorable for disoriented Starling's postfight interview with HBO's Larry Merchant, which included the following classic exchange:
Merchant: You seemed to be dominating him up until that point. The last two rounds, you were in complete control.
Starling: I'm still in control.
Merchant: What are your feelings, though? They've declared the other guy the champion.
Starling: I don't think he's the champion. How could he be the champion? When? When?
Merchant: The referee has ruled that the punch --
Starling: [Interrupting] He counted me out? Was I out? When did they count?
Merchant: He did count you out.
Starling? When? [Pauses, looking confused] He didn't hit me.
Merchant: Well, he did hit you, and if you can't remember it, that's proof that he hit you
Starling: And they stopped the fight?
Merchant: They stopped the fight because they counted you out and they ruled you had been knocked out
Starling: But I wasn't knocked out. I wasn't knocked down.
Merchant: What has your doctor told you?
Starling: I didn't talk to the doctor. I can go another round.
Merchant: [Pause] Thank you, Marlon.
Julio Cesar Chavez TKO12 Meldrick Taylor
March 17, 1990, Las Vegas
The ending of this fight still fans furious flames of opinion, on both sides, more than 20 years later. Taylor's hand speed and combinations staked him to a wide lead through the first three-quarters of this junior welterweight unification bout, but, if Taylor was winning the battle, Chavez was winning the war. The Mexican's harder punches began exacting a terrible toll, and Taylor, bloodied and battered, looked dazed and confused by the end of the 11th round. Still, Chavez needed a knockout to win, and, with 20 seconds to go, it appeared his rally had come too late. But then he trapped Taylor in a corner and unleashed a right hand that dropped the American. Taylor rose groggily to his feet, and referee Richard Steele twice asked him whether he could continue. When Taylor failed to answer, Steele waved off the contest even though only two seconds remained.
Luis Santana W-DQ5/DQ3 Terry Norris
Nov. 12, 1994, Mexico City/April 8, 1995, Las Vegas
Junior middleweight champion Norris was in a surprisingly difficult battle with Santana through four rounds in Mexico City, behind on all three cards, having being ruled down in the third and had a point deducted for an accidental head-butt in the fourth. In the fifth, he pinned Santana against the ropes and unloaded a flurry of punches, one of which grazed the back of Santana's head. Santana dropped as if he had been shot, and although most observers believed he was faking the injury, he was handed a disqualification win. In the rematch, Norris was dominant, knocking Santana down in the first and seemingly cruising to victory. After the bell rang to end the third round, Norris, seemingly unaware the round had ended, unleashed a right hand that dumped Santana beneath the bottom rope, prompting another DQ loss. In their third match, Norris annihilated Santana with a second-round TKO.
Riddick Bowe W-DQ7 Andrew Golota
July 11, 1996, New York
An out-of-shape Bowe was being handed a boxing lesson by relatively unknown Golota in the early going, but although Golota was effective in landing to Bowe's somewhat flabby body, he was also allowing those body punches to stray low too often for Bowe's (or referee Wayne Kelly's) comfort. Kelly warned Golota in Round 2 and deducted a point in Round 4. In the fifth, Golota focused on Bowe's head and rocked him repeatedly. But by the sixth, he apparently felt he had been insufficiently attentive to Bowe's testicles. Another crunching low blow earned Golota a second point deduction; yet another, in the seventh, resulted in a third. When Golota hit Bowe low again just 30 seconds later, Kelly disqualified him. Proverbial pandemonium promptly erupted: Bowe's entourage stormed the ring, attempting to mete out justice via cellphone (in the days when cellphones were the approximate size of bricks). Lou Duva, Golota's trainer, was stretchered from the ring after having initially appeared to suffer a heart attack. Fights broke out in the arena and spilled down to ringside. In an Atlantic City rematch five months later, Golota again sabotaged a dominant performance by using Bowe's genitals as a pinata, but, this time, security had been beefed up sufficiently and there was no postfight melee. The beating Bowe took in the two bouts, however, effectively finished him as a prizefighter.
Lennox Lewis TKO5 Oliver McCall
Feb. 7, 1997, Las Vegas
Lewis, trying to avenge his 1994 second-round TKO loss to McCall, started brightly, beating McCall to the punch and landing stiff jabs and overhand rights. When McCall rushed Lewis, the Briton was able to muffle the blows and tie up his former conqueror on the inside. At the end of the third round, an apparently frustrated McCall paced back and forth instead of returning to his corner. In the fourth, he made little effort to fight back, and, between rounds, referee Mills Lane asked him whether he was OK and whether he wanted to continue fighting. McCall -- who had been in drug rehab and whose emotional stability had been questioned before the bout -- burst into tears and said simply, "I gotta fight, I gotta fight." At the start of the fifth, Lewis cracked McCall with a pair of right hands, but McCall wouldn't even raise his hands in self-defense. Lane stepped in to stop the contest and save tearful McCall from himself.
Evander Holyfield W-DQ3 Mike Tyson
June 28, 1997, Las Vegas
What can be said about this fight that hasn't been said already? Tyson's second reign as heavyweight champ had ended shockingly when Holyfield stopped him in the 11th round the previous November. Tyson then lost both completed rounds of the rematch, after which he came out for the third without his mouthpiece and took a bite out of Holyfield's right ear when the two were in a clinch. Bedlam ensued: Holyfield leaped away in pain, Tyson shoved Holyfield in the back, and referee Mills Lane docked Tyson two points. When battle resumed, Tyson promptly bit Holyfield on the other ear, and Lane disqualified him. Still one of the most infamous fights in boxing history and, sadly, the action that arguably most defines Tyson's in-ring career.
Lennox Lewis W-DQ5 Henry Akinwande
July 12, 1997, Stateline, Nevada
For the third time in 1997, and for the second time in a bout involving Lennox Lewis, referee Mills Lane found himself transported to Heavyweight Bizarro Land. In his autobiography, Lane wrote, "Akinwande entered the ring first. I remember [ ] looking up at him, and seeing that unmistakable look in his eyes. There was no misinterpreting his terror." That apparent terror manifested itself in a strategy that earned Akinwande the epithet "Huggin' Henry." Lewis would crack him with a right hand, and Akinwande would hold on tight. Sometimes, Akinwande wouldn't even wait to be hit. In the second round, Lane took away a point. Later that round, he pulled Akinwande aside and threatened to disqualify him if he didn't throw punches. Akinwande responded with some activity in the third, and even appeared to score a flash knockdown, but, by the second half of the fourth, he was being warned by Lane again for repeated holding. In the fifth, Lane took Akinwande to his corner, where trainer Don Turner pleaded with his man: "Don't let him disqualify you. All you got to do is fight him." To no avail: Before the round was over, Lane had seen enough and Akinwande was DQ'd.
Bernard Hopkins NC Robert Allen
Aug. 28, 1998, Las Vegas
It seems appropriate, in light of recent events, to conclude with a Bernard Hopkins fight. The first of his three bouts against Allen was the toughest by far, and the fight was being evenly contested when Mills Lane (once more at the center of controversy) moved in to try to break up a clinch in the corner. He apparently tried too hard, accidentally pushing Hopkins clear through the ropes and to the ground, three feet below the ring apron. Hopkins lay on the floor, grimacing in obvious pain, his ankle injured. "You can't lose the championship on this; you have to declare a no-contest and do it again," commentator Ferdie Pacheco said. Hopkins defeated Allen in two subsequent meetings. It remains to be seen whether he will have the opportunity to do the same with Chad Dawson.
Have a favorite controversial or unusual ending that we didn't include here? Add it to the comments section or tweet to @kieranmulvaney, and we may include them in a follow-up post.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.