Ask any Briton what sport has undertaken the biggest change this season and you’ll receive the same impassioned answer: football and VAR (Video Assistant Refereeing). This video technology has been introduced into the English Football Premier League for the 2019–20 season having been implemented across the rest of the world over the last couple of seasons. With a month of action now under our belts, it’s safe to say that this change to our national sport has been greeted with scepticism.
Change – in any sport – has been historically received under the same cloud of scepticism, with purists often citing the important role that luck has to play when partaking in any competition. Sport, to many, is an extension of life, with uncertainty in decision-making and allowances for human error adding equal measures of joy and heartbreak to each spectacle. A move towards a more clinical, science-based set of laws is feared; an intrusion on the natural flow of a Premier League match with interjections and reversed decisions is a major concern.
The supporters of VAR – perhaps, the VARmy army – will claim this is nonsense. Correct decisions in sport will take away the injustice that often prevails due to bad refereeing or fine margins where the naked eye will fail. Elite performers in the sport will thrive, eradicating the risk that an athlete could miss out on achieving their dreams due to circumstances out of their control.
Whether it’s a line-call in tennis or an LBW dismissal in cricket, a majority of professional sports have implemented the use of video technology over recent years, to some degree, to aid decision-making by the officials. Boxing, seems one of the last to fully embrace this potential change.
The WBC has championed the use of action-replays since trialling the video technology in 2008. “This will be a great tool for fairness and justice in boxing,” Mauricio Sulaiman stated after approving the use of a three-person panel. “It can help in cases when the audience in the arena and whole world is watching on television realises that something has happened that was not correctly called by the referee, who might have missed it, because his vision was obscured.”
This system was used to great effect during Grigory Drozd’s WBC cruiserweight world title win over Krzysztof Woldarczyk in September 2014. With the concept being agreed on by the Russian Professional Boxing Federation before the bout, the 7th round was subject to closer inspection by the video replays. Drozd was cut by what was believed to have been a punch, however, British referee Ian-John Lewis admitted the incident may have needed reviewing due to his vision being impeded. A review followed using HD monitors which had been placed ringside – this could have led to the outcome of the fight changing upon the severity of the cut between a technical knockout and a technical decision, and subsequently, the title ending in the hands of the wrong fighter.
It’s important to note that it is down to the boxing commissions across the world to accept the use of the WBC’s action-replay system. The British Boxing Board of Control aren’t one of the commissions that have sanctioned what is being labelled as ‘boxing VAR’, so what unfolded inside London’s O2 Arena in Edwards and Martinez’s WBC flyweight world title fight was out-of-the-ordinary, to say the least.
Having forced the champion to take a knee in the third round, Martinez delivered a sickening body shot to Edwards whilst he was crouched over on the floor, sending him tumbling over, writhing in pain. Referee Mark Lyson – who was in charge of his first world title fight – counted Edwards out, declaring Martinez the winner. WBC president would then step into the ring amidst the chaos and announce on the microphone, like a younger, more portly Vince McMahon in his WWE heyday, that the result would be changed to a ‘no-contest’ and Edwards would remain their champion at 122-pounds.
”I’ve never seen anything like that before, but it was completely the right thing to do,” Eddie Hearn said following the reversal of the decision. “The new conversation is that the WBC’s instant replay system, which is being used quite a bit now, is not allowed by the British Boxing Board of Control, but when you’ve got 12 screens around the venue you can’t ignore it, so is it time to have the system for WBC events, or do we just implement it anyway?”
Edwards’ promoter Hearn went on, declaring his support for a rethink regarding the use of action-replays: “Essentially it’s VAR for boxing, and everyone else is doing it. There is no downside, it’s not going to slow the game down which is the problem with football and cricket. They look at it very quickly and will rule on it very quickly.”
This wasn’t the first time we have seen this type of incident inside the ring, but the decision to call the bout a ‘no-contest’ was a confusing one. In 1997 we saw Roy Jones Jr. disqualified for a similar attack whilst his opponent Montell Griffin took a knee in the 9th round of their WBC light heavyweight title fight. Jones went on to celebrate until the decision was confirmed and Griffin was named the new champion at 175-pounds – what was the difference between these two incidents? Did Sulaiman believe this was an accidental shot from Martinez? Robert Smith of the British Boxing Board of Control also seemed in agreement, confirming shortly after that Edwards-Martinez was officially a ‘no-contest’ and a rematch would be ordered.
The WBC president has set a dangerous and confusing precedent by his actions following Saturday’s fight. Overturning a referee’s decision so quickly could, in turn, lead to constant disputes from teams looking to reverse a decision to their advantage, with all eyes on the WBC representative to undermine any decision as they see fit. This confusion is heightened when realising that the BBBoC didn’t accept the use of the WBC’s version of VAR in the first place. Imagine Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, walking out onto the pitch at full-time and changing the result of a World Cup match due to a dubious decision on the pitch. It’s not an argument against a continuation of video technology, but this middle-ground that the sport could be dragged into could cause more questions than answers.
Considering the high-profile nature of Saturday night’s card, this incident-packed flyweight title fight may well ignite the conversation in the upcoming weeks for changes in our sport. A more holistic approach is needed, rather than small variations of hundreds of rules, governed by even more commissions.