As if the heavyweight division needed another strange controversy to create further debate about who is, or is deserving to be considered the division’s best, we were served one up this past weekend.
Heading into Saturday’s bout against Oleksandr Usyk, Daniel Dubois entered as a gargantuan underdog, with many observers scoffing at the utility of the bout, aside from the contractual mandate it satisfied within the WBA. Dubois also wore the unjust stain of a 2020 loss to Joe Joyce in which he was alleged to have “quit” despite sustaining a fractured eye socket (and then two fights later fighting two rounds with a torn ACL). Coming out of the weekend, he has another loss on his resume, but has managed to turn the tables entirely and become a sympathetic figure in the eyes of plenty of fans instead.
Though Usyk ultimately won the bout by stoppage, dropping Dubois twice in the ninth round, it’s what happened in the fifth round, a potential knockdown that wasn’t to be, that has garnered much of the post-fight discussion.
The fight has mostly been distilled to still screencaps of the punch in question. In the early rounds, Dubois was handling himself about as well as could have been expected, keeping up with Usyk’s constant motion and occupation of his lead hand. Eventually, he found the opening he was looking for, certainly a shot he had thrown thousands of times onto his trainer Don Charles’ body protector in training camp. Usyk is always pawing and circling with his right hand, threatening that it could jab or hook at any time as he waves it out front, daring his opponent to try to sneak past the gates. Dubois found the perfect time, slipping just inside an Usyk hook that travelled past his face such that an elbow hit him instead. Dubois remained in motion and landed a hard right hand that landed on Usyk’s trunks.
Usyk immediately dropped to the canvas, writhing in pain. Referee Luis Pabon made the instant decision that the punch was a low blow, and upon hearing this, Usyk began cupping his groin with his gloves and indicating the same. That it landed on the waistband of Usyk’s shorts is not disputed. Whether enough of Dubois’ glove strayed below it to warrant Pabon ruling it a low blow is at least the first aspect of this debate.
After the punch, Usyk remained on the canvas for quite some time. Some of it was voluntary, using some of his allotted time after being on the wrong end of a ruled low blow to recover. However, much of it was not, as Pabon essentially forced Usyk to continue to recover despite Usyk’s protests to continue, even smacking his gloves together to display his eagerness. Ultimately, after what sure felt like the full five minutes one can legally take (or be given) to recover, the fight resumed, and four rounds later, Usyk scored the stoppage win.
In the wake of the fight, some observers have claimed that Dubois was “robbed,” which is a sentiment Dubois and his promoter Frank Warren have loudly expressed. It is certainly fair to feel that Dubois was robbed of a knockdown. Other referees would have seen the very same shot land, and ruled that it was a proper body shot knockdown. Where the argument is being taken too far is in the implication that Dubois was robbed of a knockout victory and with it, the heavyweight title.
Even if you feel that the shot that landed should have been legal, there simply isn’t any way to know whether Usyk would have remained on the canvas for the count of ten. It is true that Usyk was on the canvas for well over ten seconds after the shot landed, but Usyk’s staying on the ground and the fact that the referee had told him it was a low blow can’t be assumed to be independent of one another. There is the possibility that if Pabon had ruled it a knockdown, Usyk would have heard the count and made it to his feet in time.
As former junior middleweight titleholder Liam Smith tweeted, “Usyk milked the time he was allowed but, no one can answer (whether) he stays down it the ref counts it.”
Of course, there’s the possibility that he was unable to make it to his feet whether the adrenaline and desperation that can be caused by knowing defeat is imminent kicked in or not. It’s also possible that he would have made it to his feet but been badly hurt and vulnerable to a Dubois onslaught immediately.
That is, unfortunately, all there is to hold on to however, that possibility. Had Usyk been rendered unconscious and it been incorrectly ruled an illegal blow, making the argument that Dubois was flatly robbed of a knockout would be a pretty ironclad. But debates in Dubois’ favor have to first pass the burden of proof of the punch’s legality, then the more difficult hurdle of proving Usyk’s inability to continue if the punch had been deemed legal.
Many fights turn on split-second referee decisions, and Dubois himself has been the beneficiary of them. His knockout victory over Kevin Lerena, the very reason he was eligible for this fight, was one deemed controversial as well, with Lerena and many observers taking issue with the promptness of referee Howard Foster’s stoppage.
This fight will be added to that pile, an enduring debate that fans will revisit, which isn’t the worst result for Dubois. He now has a very loud contingent of fans, fighters and observers who feel he is a heavyweight king without a crown, or at minimum, the victim of incorrect decision-making that robbed him of a very good opportunity to win said crown.
Of course, the burden of proof in the court of public opinion isn’t beyond a reasonable doubt, and a grievance is both a marketing tool and a bargaining chip.