Throwing in the towel?

ESPN recently uploaded a short video on this question and I wanted to address it here. I have linked the URL to the video down below if you wish to check it out. This topic enters the brutal and darker aspects of the sport that we enjoy for entertainment and crosses into the reality of what the competitors go through. Though boxing is hand to hand combat it is a sport and not a fight to the death. The video draws examples from UFC with Max Rohskopf’s attempt to quit on his stool blocked by his coach Robert Drysdale and Anthony Smith telling his corner his teeth were falling out. The video also highlights the graver of consequence from the boxing ring in 2019 with the death of Maxim Dadashev which was followed only a few months later by Patrick Day. Deontay Wilder also created headlines when he fired long time trainer Mark Breland for tossing in the towel in his rematch against Tyson Fury back in February. So this beckons the question of when is it time to throw in the towel?

I really enjoyed the insight given by Buddy McGirt in the ESPN feature given he has some history in difficult corner scenarios. Aside from the aforementioned Dadashev tragedy that he did stop in between rounds he in recent memory has pulled out tough fighters in big fights. Flashback to the mid 2000’s and McGirt had Lamon Brewster seated in front of him in between rounds six and seven of an IBF championship fight. Just a few years prior Brewster had upset Wladimir Klitschko to win the WBO heavyweight title after absorbing a horrible beating as the HBO crew implored Robert Byrd to call off the contest. Out of nowhere Brewster roared back and stopped Klitschko in dramatic fashion and earned a reputation as a tough heavyweight who could absorb and persevere. In Cologne, Germany McGirt could see the toll the fight was taking on his fighter and the difference in scenarios that night and wisely pulled Brewster from the fight. McGirt also withdrew the ever tough Arturo Gatti from his massive opportunity against Floyd Mayweather Jr in Atlantic City. Known for his defense, Mayweather administered his best offensive performance of his career and completely dominated Gatti with pinpoint punching. Hopelessly behind on the cards and being hit by seemingly every punch Floyd threw it looked like it was going to spell disaster. Despite a history of punching his way back from similar scenarios, McGirt again pulled his fighter out.

I think the McGirt example is the right formula to the equation of fighter safety. When a fighter is hopelessly out of the fight, tiring, taking excessive damage, and in distress it is up to the corner to save their fighter. Fighters cannot be expected to quit. Being a fighter is about having pride and they cannot see what the trainer sees in the corner and are too in the moment to think of quitting. These injuries are invisible as cuts and bruising are obvious, the brain is unseen. Therefore, even when an experienced and caring trainer like McGirt decides to call off a fight it can be too late as we saw in the case of Dadashev. There are also the many examples of a fighter losing and taking punishment but effectively fighting back like we saw in the case of Patrick Day and Magomed Abdusalmov. These scenarios can make it very difficult to determine how much a fighter has left and whether or not to pull the plug.

Most examples of tragedy that I can recall all occur over the course of many rounds like Duk-koo Kim 13th, Benny Paret 12th, and Michael Watson 12th. Occasionally you have the early round tragedy in the case of Joey Gamache who was brutally knocked out in the second round of their fight and was hospitalized and retired from the sport. Though there were controversial factors there, its hard to see many fights needing a towel thrown in that early and nothing is going to stop a sudden one punch KO coupled with a nasty fall to the canvas.

Quitting in this sport for a long time was taboo and fighters who quit were mocked and ostracized by the industry and by fans as well. However, over the years it appears that this black mark is starting to be less damaging. I think some of this has come in part to the overall awareness of brain injuries and phenomenons like CTE and the deaths of several high profile football players. As for hardcore boxing fans many have grown over the years to seeing many of their heroes reduced to a shell of their former selves and a legend and ambassador of sports like Muhammad Ali unable to speak and move in the way that he used in his older years. Some will say “well these guys knew what they were getting into”, “boxing is brutal” or some other common phrase when defending guys going on in fights they are totally out of. I get that deep down these fighters sign up for the danger that is not a mystery to any grown adult. However, throwing in the towel is not done by the fighter but for the fighter by responsible trainers. And as previously stated this is a sport not Roman Gladiators. For further reading or viewing on the subject be sure to check out:

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