A muddled recollection (or did Sonny Padilla really influence a title fight?)

A muddled recollection (or did Sonny Padilla really influence a title fight?)
Carlos "Sonny" Padilla Jr. —WBCBOXING.COM WEBSITE

It was an interview Carlos “Sonny” Padilla Jr. should not have engaged in.

For the few unaware, the name Sonny Padilla is synonymous with boxing not only in the Philippines but also in the United States. Last Aug. 8, he was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame (Class of 2020) along with Miguel Cotto, the four-division boxing champ from Puerto Rico, and the late Jose Sulaiman, the longest serving president of the World Boxing Council (WBC). 

During that induction weekend, the retired boxing referee sat with Sulaiman’s eldest son, Jose Martin, for some sort of interview. The 35-minute, 11-second recording uploaded on the WBC’s YouTube channel (and since taken down) showed the 88-year-old wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at the top and a bright red baseball cap emblazoned with the words “New Jersey.” 

The interview began with Padilla reminiscing on his past career and how the boxing scene had changed since he refereed what is still regarded by many as the best fight of all time—the “Thrilla in Manila” between boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975.

Two years later Padilla migrated to the United States and thereafter called Las Vegas his home. From there, he would officiate at some of the biggest boxing matches involving such legends as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Tommy Hearns, and Julio Cesar Chavez, solidifying his iconic status.

As the recording hit the 17:45 mark, Sulaiman asked Padilla about his last refereeing assignment before retiring for good. That last assignment happened to be the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Australian challenger Nedal “Skinny” Hussein at the Ynares Sports Center in Antipolo City on Oct. 14, 2000.

Damning account

Like a happy old man sipping scotch and reminiscing about the good old days, Padilla launched into a damning account of the events leading up to his decision to stop the fight in the 10th round and declare Pacquiao the winner by TKO (technical knockout).

At stake in that Pacquiao-Hussein fight was the WBC international junior featherweight championship and Pacquiao, then 21 and ranked No. 5, was defending his title for the third time against a No. 11 fighter who had not lost in all his 19 fights (11 of those victories came via TKO).

“That fight, I’m about to go and leave the following day. They told me, ‘Carlos, please… this is an important fight for Manny Pacquiao because the winner will have the chance to fight for the world championship,’” said Padilla, who never revealed who “they” were. “So, you know the opponent, Hussein, or whatever his name was, he [was] taller, younger, stronger, and a dirty fighter, managed by Jeff Fenech (a former Australian boxing champ and trainer).”

“So in the 7th round, I think”—it was actually in the 2:24th mark of the 4th round—“Manny got knocked down,” Padilla continued, and added, chuckling: “I thought he was going to get up, but his eyes were cross-eyed.” 

Padilla then related how he administered the mandatory 8-count for the fallen Pacquiao but made it longer than usual, apparently to give the boxer the chance to clear away the cobwebs: “I’m Filipino, and everybody watching the fight is Filipino, so I prolonged the count. I know how to do it. When he got up, I told him, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ Still prolonging the fight. ‘Are you okay? Okay, fight!’” 

Smelling blood

Hussein had smelled blood and was obviously going for the finishing blows at the end of the 4th round. Padilla continued his account: “Then Hussein, because Manny was not like Manny is now, and he wasn’t trained by Freddie Roach yet, he holds on for his dear life. The guy throws him, and he goes down again. I said to the opponent, ‘Hey, you don’t do this.’ You know, I was prolonging the fight. ‘You don’t do that. Okay, judges, [point] deduction [for throwing an elbow].’” 

Viewing the fight on YouTube, one can see Padilla pausing the exchanges from time to time as Hussein was constantly using—illegally—his elbows and shoulders and making some wrestling moves to knock out Pacquiao for good.

According to veteran boxing analyst Al Mendoza, a knockout count is not necessarily 8 seconds but, rather, a “count of 8.” 

“Putting it simply,” Mendoza told CoverStory, “referees are not digital clocks, and consequently 8 counts that take longer than 8 seconds are a common occurrence in boxing. What is important is, did the fighter beat the count, and can he continue?”

While this referee tactic is not entirely illegal, what Padilla said next was startling, to say the least. He recalled how Hussein got a cut in the left eyebrow at the end of the 8th round: “Because he (Pacquiao) is shorter, he head-butted the other guy. There is a cut, but I declared it a punch. If there is a head butt, you have to stop the fight and declare to the judges a point deduction. But I didn’t do that, meaning the fight could continue.”

Padilla said he didn’t let the ringside physician immediately take a look at the cut because, he claimed, he wanted the cut to get serious. True enough, with still 1 minute and 23 seconds left in the 10th round, blood could be seen again gushing from Hussein’s wound. Padilla finally called for a timeout at the 1:12 mark to have the ringside physician check the cut.

When the doctor slightly shook his head, Padilla immediately waved off the fight at the 1:48th minute of the 10th round and declared Pacquiao winner by TKO. He even claimed during the interview that he decided to take matters into his own hands—meaning a referee-stopped bout—because he wasn’t sure if the judges’ scorecards would favor Pacquiao.

 But contrary to Padilla’s fears, when he decided to step in, the two judges’ scorecards showed 87-83 and 87-85, both in favor of Pacquiao. As a scoring referee, he gave it 87-83, also for Pacquiao.

‘Depth of corruption’

Per a report by World Boxing News, Hussein reacted to Padilla’s revelation thus: “It’s not the fact that he said what he said. It’s more because we already knew it. [It’s] the way he said it, with a smirk and a smile like he was proud of what he had done, like the depth of corruption, it’s obviously in his veins and his heart.” 

Hussein had moved on from the incident and won several more regional titles though he no longer took part in any world championship bout. He eventually became a car salesman in Sydney, and currently runs a boxing gym.

For Pacquiao, that fight was pivotal. The following year, he claimed the super-bantamweight title with a 6th-round knockout of Lehlohonolo Ledwaba (since deceased) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The Ledwaba fight would prove to be Pacquiao’s springboard for bigger, more lucrative world championship fights. He eventually became the only boxer in history to win 12 major world titles in 8 different weight divisions.

Asked to comment on Padilla’s remarks, Pacquiao said in an ABS-CBN interview in General Santos City that he did not cheat when he beat Hussein in their 2000 fight. “On my part, I’m just a boxer. I did my job in the ring,” he said in Filipino, adding:  That’s his (Padilla’s) problem, not mine.” 

In a Nov. 30 BBC Sport report, the current WBC president, Mauricio Sulaiman, was quoted as saying: “The WBC has appointed a committee to look into this matter and we will be working on this situation with full attention.”

Another ‘hand of God’? 

Padilla’s revelation may be damning, but he wasn’t in a courtroom when he made it. And his remarks may well be compared to the admission in 2005 of the Argentine football legend, the late Diego Maradona, that he deliberately used his hand to score a controversial goal against England during the knock-out quarterfinal stage of the 1986 World Cup.

That left-fist intervention, which Maradona famously dubbed at the time as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” was the first goal in Argentina’s 2-1 win against England. A few days later, Argentina would win the finals versus West Germany, 3-2, and claim the golden trophy. Maradona would become one of the greatest footballers in history and a towering figure in the sporting annals.

And like that “hand of God” moment, what transpired in the Pacquiao-Hussein fight will never be undone. Besides, Padilla’s camp may just claim that the remarks of the former boxing referee were made by a confused, near-nonagenarian. And the other party can only complain. 

On Instagram, Hussein described Padilla’s admission as “a travesty and a true injustice,” and said that “they should be held accountable for the sport we love.” That post was also addressed to WBC president Sulaiman.

But veteran sports analyst Joaquin Henson Jr., who actually served as commentator for the fight, remembered it differently. With memories of the fight still fresh, he expressed anger in his column at Padilla, but for a different reason (Sporting Chance, Philippine Star, Oct. 17, 2000): “[Hussein] should’ve been disqualified by referee Carlos (Sonny) Padilla earlier. Hussein lived up to Saddam’s reputation by using every trick not in the Queensbury rules against Pacquiao. It was the height of audacity. The Commonwealth and Australian junior featherweight champion defied every principle of fair play by punching on the break, butting, elbowing, forearming, and hitting below the belt. He spun Pacquiao around to strike from behind, pushed him down, and stepped on his feet to keep him still—in front of a hostile crowd. Padilla, however, didn’t seem to mind Hussein’s blatant display of unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Indeed, boxing referees hold fighters in the palm of their hand at the most crucial moments. They are all-powerful gods of the ring who are charged with the awesome responsibility of ensuring safety and fair play.

Padilla’s shocking revelation only points to one thing: that more should be done to improve the enforcement of boxing rules and practices. Football now has the VAR (video assistant referee) technology, to help officials review decisions for goals, red cards, penalties and offsides. In tennis, officials are now aided by the Hawk-Eye line calling technology. And in the National Basketball Association, referees now have the NBA Replay Center, which can pull out video images from any camera feed available so officials can review the play in question.

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