- Nigel Collins, ESPN Staff Writer
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It never looks good when a boxer turns up at the postfight news conference in a wheelchair -- especially if he's the winner! But that was the counterintuitive culmination of Timothy Bradley Jr.'s bittersweet upset of Manny Pacquiao last year. The uproar over the puzzling decision was a real buzz killer for the winner, nullifying much of the glory that would have accompanied a clear-cut victory, while the strained ligaments he suffered in both feet added injury to insult.
The verdict is now part of the never-ending litany of boxing controversies, destined to be remembered far more for the unpopular outcome than the fight itself. Bradley is naturally eager to shed some of the lingering residue and will get his chance on Saturday when he defends the welterweight belt he won from Pacquiao against Ruslan Provodnikov. It is a match he's favored to win. Even so, Bradley just might have more than the Russian slugger to worry about.
The fate of fighters who win titles controversially has been checkered at best, and their first defense has frequently been their last. Call it a curse, instant karma or simply coincidence, but before dismissing the notion out of hand, let's examine the record and see if we can find a common thread that might provide insight into the premise.
An early example was the Sept. 7, 1908, middleweight championship fight between Stanley Ketchel and Billy Papke, which featured a legendary cheap shot that had a resounding impact on the result. In those days, it was customary to touch gloves as the bout commenced, not during the referee's instructions, as is today's practice. When Ketchel offered to shake hands, Papke drilled him with a right to the head, deemed "the most fiendish sucker punch in boxing history" by "The Ultimate Book Of Boxing Lists."
The infamous blow resulted in the first of three knockdowns Ketchel endured during the opening round. Remarkably, he managed to beat the count every time and soldiered on until the 12th round, when he finally succumbed after 36 minutes of nonstop abuse. Papke's time at the top was fleeting. Two months later, Ketchel regained the title by knockout. The man they called "The Illinois Thunderbolt" was never quite the same after that, and even though he campaigned until 1919, Papke's championship days were over for good.
When heavyweight champion Gene Tunney retired after his knockout of Tom Heeney in 1928, it left the division rudderless and floundering in a mediocre talent pool. Finally, two years after Tunney went to pasture, German Max Schmeling and American Jack Sharkey tangled for the vacant title. In the fourth round, Schmeling dropped to the canvas, clutching his groin and writhing in supposed agony after absorbing a left to the body. Whether or not it was an illegal blow or as debilitating as Schmeling's histrionics indicated remains a topic of debate. But even Sharkey didn't deny that he hit Max low.
"I thought I sunk a punch into his body," Sharkey said. "Maybe it was low, but if it was, it was unintentional. Hell, I'd be out of my skull to purposely foul when I had the title in my hands."
After consulting with other officials, referee Jim Crawley ruled in favor of Schmeling and disqualified Sharkey. It marked the first and only time the heavyweight title changed hands on a foul, and was the first domino to fall in a sequence of pugilistic fiascoes.
The June 1932 rematch was almost as controversial as their first encounter. At the end of 15 rounds, Schmeling seemed the clear winner, but the split decision went to Sharkey, prompting Schmeling's manager, Joe Jacobs, to famously protest, "We was robbed. We shoulda stood in bed."
The final folly of the farcical trilogy came in Sharkey's first defense, when he crumbled at the feet of Primo Carnera, a former circus strongman controlled by gangsters and the alleged beneficiary of numerous choreographed fights. Sharkey maintained until his dying day that he was legitimately concussed, but doubts remain. As does the fact that three consecutive heavyweight championship bouts ended in a suspicious manner, with the winner losing the title after a painfully brief reign.
For those who think this trend died out along with prohibition, flappers and fedora-wearing gangsters, two words: Antonio Margarito.
Although it was never proven that Margarito had loaded his gloves prior to being caught immediately before his 2009 bout with Shane Mosley, it is widely suspected that his blood-smeared TKO of Miguel Cotto six months earlier was tainted. The second part of the double-ended jinx came in Margarito's first defense, when Mosley knocked him out in the ninth round and annexed the junior middleweight belt the Mexican had won from Cotto.
Although the evidence is apocryphal, these are not cherry-picked incidents selected to prove a point. This uncanny phenomenon has occurred many times down through the years: In 1978, when the WBC stripped Muhammad Ali for taking a rematch with Leon Spinks rather than fighting Ken Norton, the alphabet outfit handed its heavyweight title to Norton without the formality of actually fighting for it. Norton, of course, also lost in his maiden defense of the ill-gotten title, dropping a close decision to Larry Holmes.
Then there was Rocky Lockridge. The victim of a hometown decision in 1985 when he lost his 130-pound title to badly faded Wilfredo Gomez in Puerto Rico. According to "The Ring," it was WBA kingmaker Pepe Cordero who "negotiated a $55,000 payoff to number-one contender Alfredo Layne," who agreed to step aside, thus clearing the way for a Lockridge-Gomez contest. Afterward, Gomez gave conspiracy theorists additional fodder when he declared, "I owe this title to Pepe Cordero."
Then came the familiar boomerang effect: Layne knocked out Gomez in Wilfredo's first defense, while Lockridge went on to hold a pair of junior welterweight titles before retiring in 1992.
Few who saw it could forget the forlorn look on Manuel Medina's scuffed-up face after he lost a featherweight belt to Johnny Tapia in April 2002. Although he fought well and deserved the verdict, Medina knew what was coming. "He told us before the fight he was going to win, but that they would give it to Johnny Tapia because Tapia was the bigger name," said HBO's Larry Merchant.
Medina was a resourceful fighter with a hangdog look who somehow forged a multi-title career despite the fact that he couldn't punch, wasn't very fast and bled virtually every time he ducked between the ropes. Despite his self-fulfilling prophecy, he didn't deserve a hosing from the judges that night at Madison Square Garden. As it turned out, Medina gained an indirect measure of vengeance when Tapia relinquished the title in order to take a big-money fight with Marco Antonio Barrera. Tapia lost to Barrera and never won another major title, while Medina bounced back to capture a featherweight belt the following year in an unlikely victory over Scott Harrison.
There is, of course, no guarantee that every fighter who wins a title in dubious fashion will get his comeuppance shortly thereafter. The most notable case is that of Muhammad Ali, who captured the heavyweight championship by stopping Sonny Liston in a fight surrounded by rumors and accusations, including claims that Liston took a dive. It was very much the same when Liston flopped in the first round of the rematch. But Ali overcame the skepticism that cast a shadow over the Liston fights and went on to have a legendary career regardless.
The sober truth is that there is no cosmic justice righting boxing's numerous wrongs, just a quirky balancing of the scales most likely caused by rewarding the lesser fighter at the expense of his superior opponent. What this means for Bradley when he steps into the outdoor ring at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., remains to be seen. On the face of it, he should shine against Provodnikov, who rushes recklessly into the fray, blocking punches with his head every step of the way. But if, by chance, there is an upset, it could be considered confirmation that Pacquiao did indeed get the shaft.