Conlan landing a right on Nikitin
Michael Conlan landing a right on Vladimir Nikitin.

As Russian boxer Vladimir Nikitin and Irish boxer Michael Conlan prepared for the start of the quarterfinal bantamweight bout at the Rio Olympics, the announcers set the stage with perceptive foreshadowing.

“Let’s hope this is a fair decision. We’ve had some absolutely shocking decisions, including last night in the world’s heavyweight final. All we ask is that Michael Conlan is judged fairly.”

“Nikitin got a lucky decision against Chatchai Butdee from Thailand in his last fight. A lot of observers here in the press gantry couldn’t believe he won the fight.”

Yes, the announcers on the broadcast feed I watched were Irish.

In the first round, Conlan, in red, was quick, aggressive going both to the body and the head. Nikitin, in blue, appeared to me to land several successful blows to Conlan’s head. Prior to that Conlan was getting a few shots to the left side of Nikitin’s head, and you could see a welt getting redder on Nikitin’s close-cropped scalp. Apparently that had been opened up in the previous bout with the Thai boxer. At one point, the judge stopped the fight to wipe blood off of Conlan, but that was probably Nikitin’s blood.

In the waning seconds of the first round, the Russian appeared to me to land successive blows to Conlan’s head – six or seven maybe, to which Conlan replied with a right. The announcer described it this way: “Attempts from Nikitin not really scoring, and Conlan comes across with a right and another.” The “another” was blocked by Niktin’s glove in my view.

As the round ended, the announcer said, “It’ll be very interesting to see what the judges are scoring. Will they be looking for the aggression or will they be looking for the boxing?” Presumably the announcer meant that Nikitin was making a show of being an aggressor, while Conlan was boxing his way to a first round edge. “I hope the judges are seeing a fair fight here,” the announcer said, almost anticipating the judges to score it in Nikitin’s favor.

When the 1st round scores came up, all three judges had Round One for Nikitin 10-9. The announcers were incredulous. “10-9 for Nikitin! What! What are they watching? What are they watching?”

“We saw this last night with Tishchenko.”

“Yeah, another Russian boxer!”

Nikitin lands on Conlan

In the second round, Conlan appeared to be taking the fight to Nikitin, landing far more blows than the Russian. With a minute left in the of the round, the fight was stopped and blood was cleared from Conlan’s nose and Nikitin’s head. When the fight resumed, they came out swinging. And again the fight was stopped to clean up the side of Nikitin’s head. But when they came back out, you could see that Conlan had opened up a new wound as blood streamed from the area of Nikitin’s left eyebrow.

“He is beating off Vladimir Nikitin here. And if the judges don’t see that, you just give up for amateur boxing, because this is absolutely brilliant by Michael Conlan.”

At this stage, again with my untrained eyes, I would have to say Conlan won the second round. He landed more blows, and there were times when Niktitin looked like he was flailing in the wind. I wouldn’t say Conlan won overwhelmingly, but solidly yes.

The judges agreed, each giving the second round to Conlan 10-9. Two-thirds of the way through, the two boxers were tied – even steven.

Conlan starts off the third round landing five or six punches as Nikitin kept his blue gloves up around his face, where they had been throughout the entire match.

It’s as if the announcers were trying to contain their own anxiety and will Conlan to victory for Ireland, as it turns out, the last boxing hope for Ireland in the Olympics.

“He’s the last boxer left standing, arguably the best boxer on this Irish team, the most talented. Michael Conlan, boxing for a place in the semi finals.”

“I’m not sure what I’m seeing him do here. He’s boxing lovely. He’s making Nikitin miss, but he did this in the first round and it all went against him.”

But in the second half of the final round, the two boxers stood toe to toe, exchanging punches, although to my eyes, Conlan was more aggressive, and landed more frequently. Towards the end, you can see both fighters were exhausted, both landing punches here and there, but no one really establishing any semblance of dominance.

As they lined up with the referee, Conlan was looking confident, raising his hand as the voice intoned that the victory was unanimous.

“It has to be Conlan. Surely. Surely.”

Nikitin defeats Conlan

As soon as the announcer said, “In the blue corner…” Nikitin dropped to his knees and looked up to the sky in joy. As the referee, still holding the arms of both boxers, twirled them around 360 degrees to display the winner to the entire audience, Conlan probably felt he was being dragged around like a rag doll. The judges from Brazil, Sri Lanka and Poland all scored Nikitin ahead 29-28, which meant that all three judges scored round 3 10-9 in favor of Nikitin.

“It’s another shocker,” said the announcer.

Was it? OK, I’d give Conlan the edge in round 3, and I believe he should have advanced. But I’m not a boxing expert. I’m only a casual fan of the sport. I grew up adoring Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, admiring their skill, determination and confidence as they ruled as champions. And when I think of Olympic boxing matches absolutely stolen, the benchmark to me is superstar Roy Jones Jr, when he clearly won his bout with Korean Park Si-hun in the light middleweight gold medal match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, although the judges saw it differently, awarding gold to the Korean.

But may be I’m in the minority. After the decision, Conlan blew up in front of the press. Raising a nasty finger to boxing officials, shouting, “They’re f&@%ing cheats. They’re known to be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

Vladimir Nikitin Victorious

Conlan was referring to officials from AIBA (The International Boxing Association), who a day later recognized issues within their judges and referees. In a statement released soon after the Nikitin-Conlan fight, AIBA released this statement:

boxing helmets banned

I didn’t know this.

Olympic boxers are now banned from wearing protective headgear….in order to protect them from concussions.

Say what?

According to this article, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) enacted a rule that disallows “elite male boxers who compete internationally” from wearing headgear because “all available data indicated that the removal of headgear in Elite Men would result in a decreased number of concussions.”

Then I recalled a fascinating Freakanomics podcast, the renown show that features the writer Stephen J. Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt. This particular podcast was entitled “The Dangers of Safety“, and it essentially made the same case, citing the NFL as a case in point. Here’s an exchange between Robert Cantu, a professor of neurosurgery at Boston University, and Dubner explaining how the football helmet actually increases risk of injury.

Cantu: The way, for instance, in football in my opinion that we’re going to have to address this problem, is to eliminate the helmet as the initial point of contact in the act of tackling and even to a certain extent in blocking as well. Quite frankly, when people didn’t have the helmets of the security that there are today, didn’t have the face mask, and you had to worry about your nose winding up in your ear, from using your face in a tackle, you didn’t use your face, obviously.

Dubner: So as the safety equipment gets better, our behavior becomes more aggressive?

Cantu: Absolutely. Very much more aggressive, very much more violent. We’ve seen the same thing happen in ice hockey, as well. When you put face and head protection on people they’re not as worried about taking blows to that area. And so the aggressive nature of the activity is greatly enhanced.

freakonomics Dubner and Levitt

The economist Levitt even had a name for it – The Peltzman Effect, named after Sam Peltzman. “…it’s the idea that you can put in a safety device and people can then feel so much safer in the activity they’re engaging in, that they take more and more risk, to the point where you actually have the opposite effect, that by putting in the safety device, you actually lead to more people being hurt or killed. And the classic example people talk about is seatbelts in cars. And the idea would be without a seatbelt, you feel at risk, and with a seat belt you drive with a much more dangerous fashion, and that could lead to more deaths.”

So, does the Peltzman Effect in reverse come into play with AIBA’s decision? When boxers don’t wear protective headgear, are there fewer concussions as a consequence? The jury is still out. But there has been one unintended consequence – the number of cuts and incidences of bleeding has jumped significantly according to this article. Boxers who had always worn headgear now have to deal with facial cuts so bad they’re forced out of tournaments.

The problems of cuts has become such a concern that AIBA actually reconsidered the rule in 2014, but decided in the end to uphold the ban. So at the Rio Olympics next year, boxers for the first time in decades will not wear headgear…for their safety…or maybe…because it makes for better television viewing.

Brody Blair boxer
Brody Blair of Canada during his men’s middleweight fight against Benny Muziyo of Zambia at the Commonwealth Games.