Hanna Gabriels was indisputably the better fighter in the ring Saturday night. In her third defense of the World Boxing Organization super welterweight championship belt, the 28-year-old Costa Rican star danced around 42-year-old opponent Dakota Stone at the Palacio de Deportes in Heredia, north of San José, repeatedly stinging her with left jabs and right-handed hooks across the face.
By the seventh round, Stone, a U.S. fighter in her third attempt to capture the world title, was battered. Her face was inflamed and bloodied, her right-eye was cut and nearly swollen shut, and as a tenth round judges’ decision neared, a ruling favorable to Gabriels seemed inevitable.
But in the eighth round, referee Genaro “Gino” Rodríguez inexplicably stopped the fight.
After Gabriels landed a quick flurry of punches near the center of the ring late in the eighth round, Rodríguez stepped between the two fighters, waived his hands above his head and declared Gabriels the winner. At the time, Stone was still sparring and landing punches, was yet to be knocked to the mat, and had given no indication that she was unable to continue the fight.
“I was robbed,” Stone said in the post-fight press conference. “I was still fighting and landing punches. That was one of the worst rulings I’ve ever seen. It’s disappointing that he ruined a good fight.”
After the match, Rodríguez, who has refereed more than 80 international boxing matches and is the president of the referee association for the World Boxing Association, defended his decision.
“I stopped the fight because Dakota Stone was taking repeated punches to the head,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times as he walked out of the arena. “Stone had been losing every round and my job as referee is to look after the safety and health of the fighters. I decided that it was better for Stone to spend the night in her hotel than the hospital.”
Rodríguez added that he thought Stone’s “robbery” claim was far-fetched.
“She was punching, yes, but she wasn’t hitting Gabriels enough to have a chance to win,” he said. “She was receiving many more punches than she was landing. As the referee, it is my decision to determine when the fight gets out of hand, and I felt this fight had reached that point.”
Al Bernstein, the famed announcer for The Boxing Channel who was ringside for the fight, sided with Stone.
“It was an awful decision,” he said. “Both fighters were still fighting, standing in and landing punches. I don’t know how (Rodríguez) can honestly say that he made the correct call.”
Despite the controversial ruling, Gabriels, the humble, sinewy beauty who has reached national heroine status during her world title run, was characteristically gracious after the fight.
“(Stone) is a great fighter. She is strong physically and tactically. I would have liked to continue the fight until a decision or eventual knock-out,” she said. “I talked with her after the fight and offered a rematch because I think that all the Ticos, fans, and myself, would like to see what would have happened if we had completed all ten rounds.”
Gabriels added that she was pleased with her performance, and despite Rodríguez’s decision to stop the fight prematurely, was confident that the judges would have ruled in her favor.
“I feel good because I won every round. I think that if we would have continued the fight, there wouldn’t have been a difference in the result,” she said. “The decision of the referee is something we can’t control and have to live with. If he ruled that I won the fight, then I won the fight and am still the champion.”
Gabriels’s win capped a long, colorful night at the Palacio de Deportes. Several fights preceded the championship bout, which started after 11p.m., and more than 1,000 fans kept the arena rocking throughout the night. During the Gabriels-Stone match, the crowd noise was deafening as fans incessantly shrieked and chanted “Hanna! Hanna!”
“I am so proud of the support I received from all the fans and Costa Ricans tonight,” Gabriels said. “Soccer is the national sport, but I think that boxing is gaining popularity as I continue to defend the world championship belt.”