Vintage BM: When enough is enough

Recent endings on corner retirements raised the question of when a point is reached in a fight that enough is simply enough.

Mike Alvarado told referee Tony Weeks that he had had enough after 10 brutal rounds in his fight with Ruslan Provodnikov. Alvarado was far behind on all three judges’ cards. Provodnikov had knocked him down twice. Alvarado looked wobbly going back to his corner at the end of the 10th. He had given his all, and with two rounds remaining he would surely have taken more heavy shots in a lost cause. I view this as an honourable surrender.

Curtis Stevens had given his best effort against Gennady Golovkin in their middleweight title bout and while he wasn’t as beaten up as Alvarado, he had suffered an early knockdown and was coming under increasingly severe pressure. With four rounds remaining, all Stevens had to look forward to was getting hammered some more. A stoppage defeat seemed inevitable. Stevens’s trainer, Andre Rozier, recognised this, as did Stevens himself. I don’t blame the trainer and fighter for pulling the plug. Stevens had taken his lumps, had lasted longer than generally expected, and there didn’t seem any point in sending him out for another round.

Then we had the all-southpaw heavyweight war between Mike Perez and Magomed Abdusalamov, and many of us are no doubt thinking that this was a fight when the Russian
boxer’s corner should have pulled their man out in light of Abdusalamov suffering a blod clot on the brain that required surgery and has ended his career. Although this was an exciting,
give and-take fight, Abdusalamov was clearly losing by the middle rounds and he was looking very much the worse for wear, with his left cheek swelling alarmingly (a fractured cheekbone, it was later reported).

I thought that, around about the seventh round, Abdusalamov’s corner could have told him: “That’s it for tonight.”

My yardstick in these matters is this: If I start to feel uncomfortable with what I am witnessing, then I think it’s time for consideration to be given to withdrawing a boxer from combat. Yet I can see why Abdusalamov’s trainer, John David Jackson, a former world champion in two weight divisions, kept his man in the fight. Abdusalamov had knocked out 18 consecutive opponents. True, he had landed his best punches on Perez and hadn’t been able to budge the

Cork-domiciled Cuban, but there was always the possibility that if the tough Russian fighter just kept hitting Perez, he could finally chop his man down.

The HBO commentary leaned towards the fight being stopped in the seventh round. “Not that Abdusalamov can’t end the fight with one shot or that he hasn’t won some rounds and maybe could still win the fight, but if you’re in CORNER RETIREMENTS his corner you’ve got to start thinking about this,” analyst Max Kellerman said in the seventh. “He’s taking a terrible beating the last couple of rounds.” Yet Abdusalamov seemed to buckle Perez’s legs slightly with a big left hand in the eighth, and seemed to be back in with a chance.

So, it’s a very fine line between whether a corner should retire a fighter or keep him in a fight in which he is taking punishment. However, what was worrying, to me, in the Perez-Abdusalamov fight, was that Abdusalamov was clearly concerned about the damage he had suffered. According to the HBO translator, Abdusalamov was asking his corner if his cheek was swollen, if anything had been broken. I have an awful feeling that Abdusalamov knew that something wasn’t “right” but just kept going.

This said, we’ve seen many fights in which a boxer has come through with a dramatic victory when bloodied and battered. There comes a point in a fight, though, when a boxer is taking more than he is giving, when we have to ask ourselves: “Is this really worth it?”

Yet it is the possibility of the seemingly beaten boxer turning things around that makes it difficult for a referee or a boxer’s corner to stop a fight, just as long as that boxer is still showing the will to keep fighting.

There are fights, though, that become painful to watch. The late, great trainer Angelo Dundee is well known for pulling out a badly beaten Muhammad Ali after 10 pathetically one-sided rounds against Larry Holmes. That fight came into the “painful to watch” category.

Really, Ali should have been saved from further punishment — and embarrassment — several rounds earlier. Holmes was landing virtually at will against the shell of a once-great fighter. “It was a disgraceful exhibition which can scarcely be described as boxing and which was sport only in the sense that fox hunting or cock fighting is a sport,” Michael Leapman reported in The Times.

Amazingly, there were members of the Ali entourage — including cheerleader Bundini Brown — who wanted Ali to continue. Dundee might have acted belatedly in withdrawing Ali from what had never really been a contest, but I believe he yanked Jose Napoles from his fight with Carlos Monzon at exactly the right moment. Monzon, the great middleweight champion, was too big and too strong for Napoles, a wonderful welterweight champion whose best punches were having no effect. After six rounds, Dundee had seen enough. Napoles hadn’t been dropped, but he was swollen and cut over the right eye, his nose was bloody, and Monzon was starting to batter him with heavy right hands. The ending to a much-anticipated fight was anticlimactic, but Dundee surely saved Napoles from getting bludgeoned needlessly.

Eddie Futch’s decision to retire Joe Frazier with one round remaining in the Thrilla in Manila against Muhammad Ali was a classic example of a trainer putting his fighter’s safety above any other consideration. Frazier had fought a tremendous fight, but both eyes were swollen and closing and he could no longer see Ali’s right hands coming. The 15th round could have been sickeningly one-sided.

All three judges had Ali clearly ahead, but as I recall most of the American reporters at ringside had Frazier winning. Yet the 14th round had been so one-sided that nobody was arguing about Futch’s decision. Even legendary columnist Red Smith of The New York Times, who had Frazier winning eight of the first 13 rounds, had no objection. “Frazier’s $2-million guarantee wasn’t enough to compensate him for another round like the last,” Smith wrote.

Naturally, the big-hearted Frazier wanted to continue the fight, but Futch,
Sports Illustrated reported, consoled him with the words: “No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Another instance of a trainer pulling out a fighter with one round to go came when Ricky Hatton overwhelmed Kostya Tszyu in a lightwelterweight championship upset. Hatton fought at a high-energy pace that the 35-year-old Tszyu was unable to match. Although Tszyu was never floored in the fight, he had been worn down and was being bullied and banged around in the later rounds. At the end of the 11th round, Tszyu’s veteran Australian trainer, Johnny Lewis, called over referee Dave Parris to inform him that he
wished to surrender on behalf of his fighter.

Tszyu had seemed to be on his last legs in the 11th round. “The exertions of another round would not have been worth the obvious risk to his health,” John Rawling reported in The Guardian. Tszyu “was a broken fighter, pinned to his stool,” Paul Hayward reported in The Daily Telegraph. “We needed a knockout to win, and Kostya just didn’t have a knockout in him,” Johnny Lewis told the press afterwards, inexplanation of why he pulled Tszyu out of the fight.

There are times when a fighter’s retirement is deeply unsatisfying and can even be viewed with a certain suspicion — we looked at examples of this in our “Surprise Surrenders” feature in the July issue. Then we have fights where no one with an ounce of compassion can fault the fighter or the corner from calling it a day — fights such as Jack Dempsey’s massacre of Jess Willard on 4 July 1919, in the first heavyweight title fight in which the defending champion lost the title sitting on his stool. Willard had taken a fearful hammering in the three rounds the fight lasted, barely getting through a multiple-knockdown opening round and suffering a broken jaw among other injuries. His handlers threw the towel into the ring at the end of the third round.

In those far-off days it was considered very bad form indeed for a champion not to, as they, “go down fighting”, a euphemism for getting knocked out. Willard didn’t get knocked out, but he absorbed a fearful hammering. “When a bird gets knocked for a goal seven times in one round and comes back and took what Jessie took for two more rounds you can’t exactly call him yellow,” ringside reporter and humourist Ring Lardner wrote in a syndicated column on the big fight. Lardner’s light-hearted description of Willard’s suffering might not go down too well in today’s more enlightened times — but at least he never called Big Jess a quitter.

Fighters who take their profession seriously don’t like to abandon a contest and to those fighters who demand to be allowed to battle to the bitter end, we salute you — but, with the plight of Magomed Abdusalamov in mind, let’s not lose sight of the reality that there are times when surrender is sensible.