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A night in which Sonny Bill Williams won his biggest challenge in the ring descended into controversy and anger in Brisbane.
Williams claimed the vacant WBA International heavyweight belt with a unanimous points decision (97-91, 98-94, 97-91) over South African Francois Botha last night but he was out on his feet at the end and was saved by the final bell which many in the arena thought came two rounds too early.
The bout also included two points deductions, allegations of sharp practice, dirty fighting and more.
Many of the 4000 crowd at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre booed the result. Williams' victory speech was drowned out.
A fight which began with levity and Botha hopping and dancing to the ring to Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier descended into farce and bitterness, with Williams literally holding on for a victory which went 10 rounds when almost everyone else expected the fight to go to 12.
Botha, behind on points but beginning to turn the fight in the ninth round, rocked Williams with several big right hands in the 10th. The former All Black could only hold on, for which he was deducted one point. It is likely that another clean punch would have finished Williams, a point the Botha camp were only too happy to make.
In the ninth round the "White Buffalo" was deducted a point for hitting after the break.
Botha's corner man Hardy Mileham said: "If the referee had allowed Francois to stand back, he [Williams] would have fallen. You guys could see that.
Botha added: "I've never heard of fighting 10 rounds. At the beginning of the 10th round, Hardy said: 'You've got to go because they've cut it down to 10 rounds'. I said 'what?'
"I got screwed. He was out on his feet. All I had to do was push him away and he would have fallen down."
Afterwards Williams sounded groggy and unsure about his future in the sport, although he claimed he would be happy for a rematch in Cape Town, which Botha had suggested.
Many among the crowd and media contingent were surprised when in the 10th round the ring announcer said over the public address system there were only 90 seconds to go in the fight.
There were even suggestions that the final round was 15 seconds short.
Khoder Nasser, Williams' manager, was having none of it. Striding down the corridor with the WBA International heavyweight belt over his left shoulder, he walked into Botha's dressing room and shouted at him and his entourage.
"Who won the fight? You know who won the fight," Nasser shouted. "Ah, wake up."
"He could not stand. One more round, the fight was over," Mileham responded.
Security staff were poised to intervene before Nasser walked out.
Nasser said later: "My understanding was that it was a 10-rounder. Now if it was a 12-rounder, that's just a total misunderstanding."
Asked about the allegations the 10th round was short, he said: "I haven't seen that but the TV will tell you. If you think that I'm dictating that bulls**t, well you can check that out. From our side of the camp we feel that there were a lot of things happening in the ring that were totally illegal.
"You saw it for yourself. Double handed [punches] at the back of the head, hitting after the break. That was happening in the 10th round because the guy got desperate and very dirty."
He added: "If there was a misunderstanding, it's a misunderstanding. Sonny would have prepared totally different [for 12 rounds]. And Sonny wouldn't have been like that in the last 30 seconds if he wasn't hit in certain positions as well that were totally illegal. You could see how dirty the fight was getting."
Asked if he thought Williams was out on his feet, Nasser replied: "If you're getting punched in the back of the head it's illegal and you're going to get knocked out. Start using your brains."
Pressed again about the time keeping in the final round, he said: "Who's got the belt, mate. See you later."
The controversy overshadowed Williams' performance, which was impressive. In easily the toughest fight of his short career, Williams had poise, power and ring craft.
His sharp left jab opened a graze on Botha's nose and a cut above the South African's eye. After an even first round, Williams appeared to take the next four, then Botha, who often laughed at Williams' combinations, admitting he was offering advice, came back to go narrow the gap in the sixth, seventh and eighth rounds before taking the last two in a dramatic finish.
- Patrick McKendry of APNZ in Brisbane