LAS VEGAS -- WBC super-featherweight champion Azumah Nelson of Ghana emerged last night with his crown shaky but intact after fighting a controversial 12-round draw with Jeff Fenech of Australia.
But the capacity crowd and ringside reporters at The Mirage, on hand for the Mike Tyson-Donovan "Razor" Ruddock" fight that was to follow, seemed to share the opinion that Fenech had been robbed of the title and loudly booed the decision.
Fenech, 27, a three-time former world champion making his American debut, dominated the last six rounds and staggered Nelson in the last two with a withering attack.
Nelson, 32, looked like a tired, beaten champion as he walked wearily to his corner after the final bell to the bout that was the semifinal to the Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock heavyweight match.
Unbeaten Riddick Bowe helped regain some of his luster as a heavyweight title hope last night by knocking out Rodolfo Marin of Puerto Rico at 1 minute, 45 seconds of the second round.
Nelson was relieved after the score cards were announced. After judge Jerry Roth, of Nevada, voted 115-113 for the challenger, Miguel Donate of Puerto Rico ruled in favor of Nelson, 115-112. Jay Moretti of New Jersey called it even at 114.
Fenech, 27, was distraught by the surprising decision. He had showed remarkable skill and stamina after brittle hands had caused him to quit fighting for 17 months.
It was his first professional loss in 27 bouts. The one-time street fighter from Sydney had ruled as bantamweight, featherweight and super-featherweight champion. His last loss came in the quarterfinals of the 1985 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The fight was marred by roughhouse tactics, and Nelson was admonished for punching after the bell.
Nelson's record is 33-2-1. He has owned the featherweight and super-featherweight crown, re-claiming the latter title by out-pointing Juan Laporte in November 1990.
Known as a brawler with little regard for boxing's rules, Fenech wrestled Nelson into the ropes in the first minute and drew jeers from the crowd.
Nelson, a slow starter, was content to counter. He landed several hard body shots and a left hook that forced Fenech to retreat to his corner. The Australian looked slightly stunned as the bell ended the round.
Nelson came after Fenech at the start of the second round. Fenech replied with a wild punch that resembled a kangaroo hop.
The champion continued to score effectively to the body and was growing in confidence.
The third round turned into a slugfest with the two fighters standing toe-to-toe for 15 seconds. Fenech shook Nelson with an overhand right, forcing him against the ropes. He landed seven straight punches before Nelson retaliated.
Nelson seemed content to fight off the ropes, and he opened a deep gash under Fenech's left eye. But that only made the challenger fight harder. He kept Nelson pinned to the ropes, and they fought furiously after the bell ended round three.
Fenech also had blood spurting from his nose as the fourth round began. Nelson used a jab to keep the blood flowing as Fenech swarmed inside.
But the momentum swung in favor of Fenech in rounds five and six, when his relentless attack began to take its toll on the older champion.
The Australian's cornermen had done an excellent job of stemming the bleeding, and Nelson failed to re-open the wounds in the middle rounds. By the end of the eighth round, Fenech appeared in control. Nelson, sensing his crown was in danger, changed his tactics in round nine, dancing and jabbing around the ever-charging Fenech. But the champion soon returned to his more familiar counter-punching style.
Near the end of the round, Nelson attacked more vigorously. He caught Fenech with a left hook well after the bell had sounded, and Fenech retaliated. Nelson drew a warning from referee Joe Cortez.
An extra minute of respite occurred between rounds nine and 10, as Nelson could not find his mouthpiece. It became more weird when Cortez got tagged by a Nelson punch while separating the fighters early in round 10.
The two fighters engaged in a heated exchange in the final minute of the round, but it was Nelson who first gave ground.
A body block by Fenech landed Nelson on his back as the bell ended the round.
Bowe was a controversial winner over former heavyweight champion Tony Tubbs in his previous fight, two months ago in Atlantic City, N.J. He needed to re-establish himself as a knockout artist.
Marin may not have been a formidable foe, but Bowe could not be faulted for his convincing performance. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who now fights out of Fort Washington, Md., jarred Marin with an uppercut. He followed with a right cross, and Marin sagged to the canvas.
Marin tried to raise himself but did not beat referee Carlos Padilla's count.
At first, the finishing blow did not appear that powerful. But Marin, helped to his corner, was bleeding from the mouth. A ring physician said he had suffered a broken jaw.
Bowe, who raised his record to 24-0, including 21 knockouts, is rated fifth in the world by the International Boxing Federation and sixth among the heavyweights by both the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council.
With the Tyson-Evander Holyfield championship negotiations at an impasse, Bowe, 24, could be in line for a title shot this fall, if that is what his trainer, Eddie Futch, wants.
With Bowe's manager Rock Newman now with promoter Don King, who handles Tyson, a Tyson-Bowe match seems likely.
"I see improvement in Riddick every day," said Futch, who has trained several world champions. "He has a lot of qualities that remind me of [former heavyweight king] Larry Holmes, but others that are strictly Bowe."
Bowe seemed more than satisfied with his effort.
"I knew it was just a matter of time, and I just tried to stay relaxed and focused," said the 1988 Olympic silver medalist. "Marin went 10 rounds with Tyrell Biggs, so I think this says a lot for my punching power.
"The right behind the ear shook him up. He tried to duck it, but I finished him with the uppercut. I said before the fight that he was too slow for me and I'd knock him out. I wasn't just boasting."
It was the second straight loss for Marin (17-2).