The art of stopping a fight

Mark Butcher
18/04/2015 8:40am

In a sport synonymous with brutality, some of boxing’s most memorable moments are paradoxically associated with compassion.

Trainer Eddie Futch gently pushing down a near-blinded Joe Frazier as he rose to face Muhammad Ali in the 15th round under the 120 degree lights in Manila was boxing at its most stirring. But it usually rests upon an impartial observer, the referee, to decide the precise moment a fighter has had enough.

Stopping a fight is a fine art. There is often a thin line between fighter safety and cries of controversy. Referees are there to make the tough judgment calls, often in a split second. They exist because the nature of fighting men is not to quit or relent in the eye of the storm. Sometimes these brave warriors have to be saved from the greatest danger to their mortality – the man they face in the mirror each day.

The last 12 months have featured a number of high profile calls hinging on the judgment of referees. In March, Tony Weeks’ exquisitely timed stoppage of the outgunned Alfredo Angulo was greeted with derision and 10 minutes of booing from a bloodthirsty crowd at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas. Even opponent Canelo Alvarez shrugged apologetically at the intervention. Empowered by the crowd reaction, Angulo complained bitterly. Yet the brawler had spent the best part of 10 rounds as human target practice.

“I have never really experienced that totality in a crowd. The majority of fans venting their disapproval and frustration of the fight,” Weeks told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his Las Vegas home less than a month after the all-Mexican encounter. “I know I did the right thing. When people sit down and have a chance to watch a fight in a calmer state, to peel back the layers and look at the contest from a different mindset they can see and understand what the referee was looking at.

“The magnitude in which the fans were protesting did surprise me, their disbelief with the stoppage,” continued the referee, whose first professional refereeing assignment was Tim Witherspoon stopping Everton Davis way back in 1995. “They knew Angulo was losing and it was a pretty one-sided fight, but they thought I was stopping it on one punch. But it was the accumulation of punches throughout the entire fight. In the boxing arena where emotions and feelings are high, it is like someone coming in and yelling ‘fire’. Once one person boos then everyone joins in. But I know what I did was right and lot of other people understand that, too.

 “I don’t ever take the crowd pressure into consideration. When a crowd is a looking at a fight they are definitely not viewing it the same way as a referee. There are different motivations. They might have put a wager on the fight or it’s their favourite fighter or countryman so the focus, the mentality, is different. Being a referee, my total focus is what’s happening in that square ring and each of the two fighters in there. It’s a tremendous responsibility to have two guys lives in your hands. There are some very difficult calls you have to make during the heat of the battle. If those people on the outside of the ring had the same responsibility they would look at it very much differently.

“I have pretty good rapport with a lot of fighters,” continued Weeks who studied martial arts from the age of 13 onwards which he says helps him ‘deal with your inner calmness in the midst of confusion’. “When I stopped the fight with Angulo, my instincts drew me to his corner. Angulo basically told me he respected me as a referee but he disagreed with the stoppage that night. Just to have that respect means a lot. It has been an overwhelming, positive response from all the officials I’ve head from and I was told me about. Everyone totally agreed with the stoppage and what I did.” 

Yet fighter safety is paramount. The emotional investment of fans and inherent machismo of fighters should never influence the critical role of boxer welfare provided by the third man in the ring. Some referees are notorious for letting boxers go far beyond the comfort zone, others are more hawkish in their observance of fighter care. The sad irony is the referees who are perceived as stopping a fight ‘too early’ face heavier criticism than those officials who place a fighter’s safety in jeopardy.

Referee Howard Foster faced unprecedented fan ire last November after ending George Groves’ magnificent title bid in the ninth round. The WBA and IBF super-middleweight title challenger sagged briefly by the ropes under a frantic blitz of leather from a desperate Carl Froch and Foster dived in with Groves hurt but still on his feet and responsive. Many felt Foster’s was an over-zealous intrusion, especially given Groves’ above expectation performance and apparently healthy lead in the fight (a view mystifyingly not shared by two of the ringside judges who had the challenger a mere point ahead). Froch was arguably in far greater distress after being floored heavily in the first round.

“It was a situation where Howard could have let the fight go on and got away with it,” said John Coyle, the ice-cool calm former referee of over 100 title world title bouts and a ringside judge of countless others. “But at that moment in time his decision was two or three more shots unanswered and the kid could get hurt. Groves half-turned away from Froch, as I remember, and that is often a strong indication that the boy is saying, ‘that’s enough’. I’m not saying that was the case in that fight, but I wouldn’t criticise Howard on that call at all. I have had situations where I’ve stopped fights and I’ve had people say, ‘Why did you stop that – he wasn’t hurt?’ and I say, ‘Do you want me to wait until he is?’” 

“There is no referee who intentionally stops a fight for the sake of stopping it,” added Weeks. “We have the safety of the fighters on our minds. We tell the fighters you have to show me that you are able to continue to fight. And you have to do that in the way you can effectively defend yourself and or effectively punch back. We have these fighters’ lives in our hands and we are trying to do the best job that we can. We’re only human and prone to mistakes like anyone else. We have to be right every single time out. And that is a very high standard. I don’t know if anybody could live up to that all the time in life. I would rather stop it too early than too late. Nothing goes above the safety of a fighter.”

Coyle explained his judgment when a potential stoppage is on the horizon. “The criteria is that a man must be in a position to defend himself,” said Coyle. “If that is diminished to any reasonable degree that is the point you must be ready to step in, if required. You get situations where a guy is, just for a fraction of a second, not in a position to defend himself. You have got to give it that fraction of a second because they do recover very quickly these lads. Stoppages are very much an instinctive thing. Just the demeanour of a man in that fraction of a second prompts you to act. The loser nearly always wants to carry on because they are invariably to brave for their own good. It is a very finite decision and instinctive thing. You very often tell by the eyes but there again you gave t be in the right position to see that. I think it’s the body demeanour more than anything. 

“A good fight to watch which sums this up is when I refereed Mike Tyson and Lou Savarese and ended on the floor myself! Savarese gets up off the floor and beats the count, frankly I didn’t think he would, but he beat it easily. He said he was fine and put his hands up and responded straight away. The fight continues and Tyson was all over him, driving him along the ropes and, to a point, he was defending himself. Then one left hook gets through and Savarese’s hands drop. He’s offering no defence whatsoever and that fraction of a second is when I leaped in and said ‘stop boxing’. Unfortunately, it was the only fight in nearly 40 years when I stopped the fight and the winner wanted to carry on!”

Suggestions in one tabloid newspaper that Foster had to be smuggled from ringside under a coat for his own safety were wide of the mark though the referee was subjected to vile abuse from angry fans on the doorstep of his home.

“I don’t know why, but it’s becoming more common for officials to receive abusive threats,” British Boxing Board of Control General Secretary Robert Smith told Boxing Monthly. “I’ve even seen people scream at a referee who hadn’t officiated the fight! Emotions get the better of people sometimes.

“Referees don’t get another opportunity in boxing. Whether you thought Howard was right or wrong is your opinion, but he thought he was right and made the call. And you have to respect that. Howard was criticised by people who were lucky enough to look at a monitor two or three times. He didn’t have that luxury. One thing that doesn’t seem to be highlighted is I received as many emails supporting Howard as I did criticising the stoppage.”

Dangerously late stoppages, bewilderingly, cause less controversy. Last December, previously unbeaten 154lbs prospect Glen Tapia was battered from pillar to post by James Kirkland, one of the most dangerous punchers in world boxing, yet was allowed to ship record-breaking punishment. Compubox stats later revealed that Kirkland had landed four times the light-middleweight power punch average - a head-jolting 54 a round. The 73 shots landed by Kirkland in round four constituted a Compubox record in the weight class. Fights are typically stopped long before these numbers are in touching distance.

Anyone who possesses the courage to enter a professional boxing ring possesses an inner steel lacking in most mere mortals. Occasionally, this innate bravery is allowed to touch quite ludicrous extremes. The courage displayed by the insanely game Denis Lebedev in his WBA cruiserweight title defence against Guillermo Jones in May 2013 bordered on the suicidal.

With his right eye hideously swollen shut after an injury sustained in the first round, the Russian resembled the nightmarish vision of a Hollywood special effects department by the seventh as the contest departed the realms of professional sport down a far darker corridor. Soon the entire right side of Lebedev’s face was swollen to the size of a small grapefruit. Inexplicably, referee Stanley Christodolou, the ringside physician and Lebedev’s trainer Kostya Tszyu all saw fit to allow the macabre contest to progress into the 11th round before the exhausted Lebedev sagged to the canvas and was finally rescued from his own mad bravery. Five months after their first x-rated encounter, the Russian disturbingly admitted: “My eye still hurts.” 

The role of a sporting arbiter is often a thankless one. In boxing, referees are freely criticized for saving a boxer from what they perceive, from a close-quarter’s view which no other person is privy, as a potentially life-altering blow. Stopping a fight too late can present dire and potentially tragic consequences. An early stoppage can, at least, potentially deliver a lucrative rematch and extend a career and preserve a fruitful life.

“If we wanted to be popular we wouldn’t be referees – would we?” laughed Coyle.