WHILE overshadowed understandably by Lionel Messi getting his hands on the trophy, Kylian Mbappe scoring a hattrick, and Emi Martinez’s penalty shootout heroics, there was a moment in the 2022 World Cup final when referee Szymon Marciniak made a decision so masterful in its execution it ranked up there with everything else we saw happen in Lusail that November night.
It happened, this moment, seconds after Marcus Thuram fell over in the Argentina penalty box and then tried to kid Marciniak into awarding France a penalty with only three minutes remaining of normal time. However, whereas Thuram’s teammates and everybody watching both in the stadium and at home were convinced they knew what would happen next, Marciniak, a picture of composure and conviction, instead wrong-footed us all by hunting down Thuram and booking him for simulation.
Certain of it, Marciniak’s conviction was in the end supported by video evidence which showed Thuram had indeed bought the contact and dived, meaning the referee’s decision was not only correct but, given the magnitude of the event and the weight of pressure, one of the finest decisions ever delivered in a football match anywhere and at any time.
In boxing, of course, the importance placed on a referee is that much greater given all that is at stake, health-wise. Also, in boxing it is more than just the referee who has the power to make decisions in a fight, at least in terms of when the fight should conclude.
Last Saturday in Wembley, for example, as well as it being the job of Steve Gray to potentially make that call, there was also power in the hands of the cornermen of both Anthony Yarde and Artur Beterbiev, for they knew they could at some stage be forced to make a decision they would, ideally, rather not have to make.
It is, it goes without saying, easier for the referee to make a decision in that scenario. They, after all, are the ones who are detached from the situation emotionally; the ones who have trained to make calls of that nature. They are also much closer to the two boxers involved with a view unobscured and, one would hope, completely unbiased, influenced not by any personal preference nor, for that matter, the flow of the fight.
In the case of Saturday, Steve Gray was ultimately not needed to decide when the fight should end. That was instead left to Tunde Ajayi, Yarde’s coach, who, at the two minutes and one second mark of round eight, made his way up to the ring canvas and signalled he had seen enough.
It was a move Gray, to his credit, was quick to spot and then act upon. What followed was the sight of Yarde being embraced by Gray juxtaposed by the sight of Beterbiev, having just floored Yarde with a right hand, wheeling away in celebration.
It had all happened so swiftly, this flashpoint, it was difficult in the middle of it to really process what had occurred. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye and a flash of a glove, Yarde, who had been doing so well, found himself on the deck and then, once again upright at the count of eight, was allowed to continue only to seconds later be rescued following just two more Beterbiev rights; of the cuffing variety, both catching the Londoner around the back of the head.
Indeed, it was only once it had happened – that is, on reflection – that the sheer brilliance of Ajayi’s decision that night became clear to all who were watching. For it was then, once the dust had slowly started to settle, it became plain to see that what Ajayi had done, in stopping the fight when he did, was produce a moment of impulsive magic akin to what Marciniak produced in the 2022 World Cup final.
Outside that ring, while everybody else was focusing on the knockdown and either the attempted finish or recovery, Ajayi, the one most emotionally invested, was instead thinking of other things. He was thinking further ahead, into the future. He was thinking about his boxer’s wellbeing not only in that moment and in that fight, but in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
He was credited for this afterwards, with many saying, “Yarde was only going to get knocked out,” and yet the truth is, when dealing with someone like Artur Beterbiev, the risk is far greater than that. With someone like Artur Beterbiev “only getting knocked out” is often the best-case scenario.
This Ajayi, a divisive figure in British boxing, no doubt had in his mind when he decided to end our fun and disappoint his fighter. He did, too, you could see it on Yarde’s face, but this expression was to soon change once Yarde came to understand the degree of compassion and intelligence involved in Ajayi’s snap decision.
Because in the end a great stoppage, whether delivered by referee or corner, should always have an element of shock to it. Not a shock one associates with seeing something incorrect or premature, but instead the kind of shock that is shortly followed by a realisation – “Oh, yes, of course!” – delayed only because you are too caught up in the drama and, rightly or wrongly, wanting it to be prolonged.
In situations like this, when the stoppage is not only perfect but a masterpiece of timing, it is usually only once it has happened that we see the complete picture. We saw, in this instance, that Ajayi knew Yarde’s role in the fight was over the second his resolve was shattered by a Beterbiev right hand. We saw after that a willingness – albeit with reluctance – to give his charge the benefit of the doubt; to allow him to feel the pride of getting up and going again. We then finally saw, with just one more solid punch the trigger, a coach care enough about his fighter to intervene at exactly the right moment, no questions asked, with the rest of us, those lost in the action, the last to catch up.