Vernon Forrest deflected the pointed question more deftly than he had many of the punches that had come his way all night.
"First of all I'd like to thank God for giving me this victory," he said. "I'd like to dedicate this fight to my son, Vernon Jr., my sister and Benny Heard. What's up, man? Welcome home, baby."
Veteran fight analyst Larry Merchant countered quickly.
"You ought to thank the officials as well," Merchant said.
After taking fellow former welterweight champion Ike Quartey's best shot for 10 rounds on Saturday night, the Augusta native turned Atlantan had to spar with his HBO hosts under a chorus of jeers. The Madison Square Garden crowd saw things a lot differently than the three judges who credited Forrest with a unanimous decision in their junior welterweight bout. Forrest handled the angry taunts and sharp questioning well, landing a final punch line before leaving the ring.
"Thanks for having me back on HBO."
After practically disappearing from the scene for two years to surgically take care of various injuries in the aftermath of his consecutive defeats to Nicaraguan slugger Ricardo Mayorga, Forrest was at least back in the limelight at age 35. HBO promoted the Saturday night main event against another aging comebacker as "Now or Never." The show was peppered with unveiled references to the dimming attraction of the headliners who were "senior citizens in this game" trying to make a "last stand" in the "winter of their careers."
Maybe that explains the Viper's keyed-up attitude. Forrest signaled the throat slash during introductions and refused to touch gloves with his opponent, drawing an early scolding from referee Arthur Mercante Jr., who would later deduct a point from Forrest in the ninth round for a low blow.
With everything at stake, it's no wonder Forrest dropped to his knees when the judges' decision was announced while Quartey's joyful expression collapsed in disbelief as he went begging around the ring for answers. The crowd in the Garden's Theatre - where Forrest scored his sweetest victory four years ago in his first title bout against "Sugar" Shane Mosley - rose to their feet and boisterously shouted the favorite barnyard chant of displeasure. That it was directed against an American against a foreign fighter from Guana, Africa, carried a little more weight.
A despondent Quartey said he was "disappointed big-time."
"Today you see what happened," he said. "I won the fight, easy.... All the fans are disappointed because they know I won the fight."
I must confess to a deep misunderstanding of how boxing is scored. In the eternal quest of every sportswriter to understand things foreign, I am closer to getting a grip on cricket than I am to having a clue what it is that ringside judges see.
But it's easy to get a "sense" of who wins or loses in boxing, and my sense of Forrest-Quartey veered well off the line of homerism. While Forrest certainly was neither bowed nor beaten by Quartey's consistent offensive, it seemed obvious to even the casual observer that he had won nothing.
The final punchstats seemed to side with the loser. Despite throwing 337 fewer punches, Quartey landed more (201 to 184) and with nearly double the accuracy (42 percent to 22). He landed more jabs (82 to 50), with Forrest connecting on what was described as a "pathetic" 12 percent. The only stat that seemed to favor Forrest at all were the power punches, as he landed 15 more than his opponent, though his foe connected on an impressive 53 percent to Forrest's 34.
HBO's ringside analyst Harold Lederman scored the bout 97-92 in favor of Quartey, crediting Forrest for winning only three of the 10 rounds.
"A mild surprise," HBO commentator Jim Lampley said, even noting the look of surprise on ring announcer Michael Buffer's face as he read the verdict. "Maybe a little bit more than a mild surprise.... A unanimous decision. So all three judges seeing something that quite frankly Harold Lederman and I did not see in the fight."
Lampley had a theory about the outcome.
"Maybe the three judges are soccer fans who were incensed by Ghana's rampaging win over the United States in the World Cup," he said. "That's about the best explanation I can think of for the decision we just saw."
Seeking a local expert's opinion, Forrest's original amateur trainer Tom Moraetes of the Augusta Boxing Club was the obvious choice. Though the two are estranged, Forrest's success still reflects kindly on his hometown fight scene.
"It could have went either way," Moraetes said diplomatically after hemming and hawing for a couple of seconds. "It wasn't a spectacular fight."
That's the real reach of Saturday night's performance. After two years of surgeries and recovery to make a last run at something special in boxing before it's too late, Forrest seemed to need a spectacular showing against another name fighter if he wants another good money match with some hardware on the line. Instead, all he got was a questionable victory followed by backhanded compliments from the experts.
"Regardless what you think of the decision, Vernon now has a 'W' on his record against Ike Quartey," Lampley said. "It's quite a credential to take forward, but is that performance good enough to get him a huge fight in this division?"
The answer is a resounding maybe.
"Vernon needed to make a big statement," Moraetes said. "At this stage a win is not a win. You're looking at impressing other people and impressing the networks and impressing the people that might want to buy a pay-per-view. He needed to have an impressive fight, even if he lost.... To get really back in the big-time he needed to have a spectacular showing, and that didn't happen."
That said, Forrest didn't scare anybody off with his performance either. His physicality, toughness and technical skill created a rep that actually held him back in the screwed-up logic that guides championship boxing.
"It could make it easier to get a world championship fight now - if the money's right," Moraetes added. "It's a big ticket fight because of his name. There might be people who give him a title shot and he's too old to wait on these guys to give him a shot. To them, Vernon Forrest has always been too big of a risk. That was always his problem coming up."
Even at 38-2 for his career and still tough and technically sound, Forrest didn't look like the risk he once was.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.