Romero, Barroso, and the Trials of Being a Boxing Fan

It can be easy to be a boxing fan. 

There is, after all, much to admire. Fans of other sports may challenge the assertion, but boxers are arguably the most complete athletes in the world, requiring both a physical and mental resilience that is beyond the reach of mere mortals. (Just try hitting a heavybag for three minutes straight. Then multiply it by twelve. Then imagine the heavybag hitting you back with the potential to blitz you into unconsciousness the moment you make a mistake).

There can be few, if any, sporting occasions quite like a big fight. There is a visceral thrill as the ring empties of trainers, officials and hangers-on, leaving just the two combatants and the referee as the seconds tick down to the opening bell - a thrill that never fades, no matter how many times you experience it. A classic fight can generate storylines that transcend the sport: Joe Louis uniting America as he gained revenge over Max Schmeling. James “Buster” Douglas feeding off the emotion and energy of his mother’s death to fell Mike Tyson. Diego Corrales picking himself off the canvas twice to stop Jose Luis Castillo.

But there is always a dark side. The very nature of the sport, the fact that its ultimate goal is for one combatant to render the other prone and helpless all too often leads, inevitably, to dark consequences. Jimmy Garcia. Beethaeven Scottland. Gerald McClellan. Magomed Abdusalamov. Prichard Colon.

And underlying it all is a sense of dirtiness with the entire enterprise, the constant feeling that the boxers all too often are mere chattel: used, abused, and all too often let down by the incompetent, the uncaring, and the venal, pawns in an industry run by people who couldn’t spell ethics if you spotted them the first five letters. It’s that constant drip, drip, drip of institutional failure that grinds you down, makes you wonder why you bother.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a boxing fan.

Saturday night in Las Vegas was one of those times.

Let’s begin a few months earlier, in August 2022, when Alberto Puello beat Batyr Akhmedov to become 140 pound world champion.

Except he didn’t. The real champion at the weight class, the one with all the world title belts – and yes, boxing uniquely typically has four or more claimants to world championship status at any one time – was and is Josh Taylor. Taylor had all the belts – the World Boxing Council belt, the International Boxing Federation belt, the World Boxing Organization belt, the World Boxing Association belt – except that, well, he didn’t. The World Boxing Association awarded him its “super” belt, for no logical reason other than a desire to fill its coffers with as many fees as possible, and then told Taylor he had to fight Puello to earn their “regular” belt. (One could argue also that the real champion should be Jack Catterall, who to most observers beat Taylor in February 2022 but was not awarded the decision and has been waiting for a shot at revenge ever since.)

Taylor wasn’t inclined to face Puello, so the Dominican faced Akhmedov for a vacant title that wasn’t really vacant, to crown a champion who wasn’t really champion, and he won a decision that he quite possibly didn’t really win, which the crowd booed lustily. And then, on Saturday night, Puello was slated to defend his “world title” against Rolando Romero, whose qualification for the shot was that he had rarely before fought at the weight class and had been knocked out in his most recent fight. But then Puello tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, for which he was heavily punished by being declared “champion in recess.” Romero, however, still had the opportunity to fight for the title; what passes for justice might just about have been served had he done so against Akhmedov, but the Uzbek had to be content with fighting on the undercard, in a bout in which he, once again, lost a close and controversial decision.

Instead, Romero fought Ismael Barroso of Venezuela, officially 40 years old but looking far older, as he was lined up to become only the second native Las Vegan to win a form of world title – even though the actual world champion, Taylor, would be defending his actual titles in New York the following month.

And then the fight began, and a strange thing happened. The old man started kicking the young favorite’s ass.

Fighting out of an awkward southpaw stance, Barroso kept landing left hands to Romero’s body and head. He knocked him down in the third round. Through eight rounds, he led on all three scorecards. An upset was brewing.

The third man in the ring was Tony Weeks. Weeks is a highly regarded referee, most celebrated for giving Corrales the opportunity to keep getting off the canvas to stop Castillo 18 years ago. Plenty of people think Corrales-Castillo was the greatest fight in history. Many of those people believe it wouldn’t have reached those heights without Weeks as the referee.

But on Saturday night, Weeks blew it. Badly. Horribly. Inexplicably.

In the ninth round, Romero landed, for pretty much the first time in the fight, a punch that hurt Barroso. Encouraged, he threw another, which also landed, and another. This third punch missed, landing behind Barroso’s neck. Romero leaned into the punch and pushed Barroso to the canvas. 

Weeks called it a knockdown. Mistake number one.

Encouraged, Romero finally started letting his hands go. He backed Barroso to a corner and kept throwing punches. Barroso slipped and blocked most of them and threw back punches of his own.

Weeks stopped the fight.

The man who played a vital role in quite possibly the greatest fight in history had now made quite possibly the worst stoppage in history. It was mystifyingly bad.

Fans online immediately cried “fix,” because that is the standard response of boxing fans when things go wrong in boxing. Because things go wrong in boxing disturbingly often, they cry “fix” a lot. But things are rarely that cut and dried. Boxing is no longer Frankie Carbo’s plaything. The fixes are more subtle and institutional, a subtle, sometimes unconscious, but never-ending bias against the underdogs and unfavored. Weeks made a horrible error that only he can explain – except that he didn’t, and nor did anybody from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, because that would require accountability and this is boxing. 

The crowd booed and the online community fulminated. And Romero had his win, and his “world title,” and promptly called for a pay-per-view matchup with Ryan Garcia – which would at least be consistent, given that Garcia was recently knocked out by Gervonta Davis who was the fighter who knocked out Romero before Romero was awarded a stoppage he didn’t earn against an opponent who was beating him to win a world championship that isn’t a world championship. Barroso’s reward will probably be another opportunity against another younger fighter, except that this one will likely be better than Romero and will quite possibly emerge legitimately victorious, at which point Barroso will be thanked for his service and put out to pasture. And Romero will get his pay-per-view fight with Garcia. And the boxing world will shrug and move on. 

It can be hard to be a boxing fan.