As sweat dripped unremittingly from the steaming torso of Joe Frazier, venerable trainer Eddie Futch made the reluctant decision to pull him out. “I want him, boss,” pleaded an exhausted ‘Smokin’ Joe, but Futch would have none of it and replied solemnly: ‘It’s over’.
Frazier would never forgive him for this public act of compassion towards a fighter that he’d nurtured and loved since his early days in a Philly gym. Frazier wanted to win or at least fall on his own terms. Even a potential Banzai chargeinto total defeat was preferable to meekly surrendering in his corner.
This may have all happened in 1975 in a faraway ring in The Philippines in what just so happened to be one of the greatest fights between any combatants anywhere, but it’s a story as old as boxing. Too many times we have seen cornermen lost in the preservation of a dream, whose reluctance to intervene has allowed their fighter’s destiny to transform into the stuff of nightmares.
Perhaps Kevin Cunningham felt the cold hand of Eddie Futch on his shoulder when he made the decision to remove Erickson Lubin (24-2, 17KOs) from a barnburner of a battle with Sebastian Fundora back in April amid the blinking neon of Las Vegas. At the time Lubin was narrowly ahead on the cards, in their super welterweight matchup, but with his face hideously swollen and his body hiding a catalogue of unseen injuries, Cunningham had seen enough.
The following day the internet revelled in pictures of Lubin’s facial injuries and the statistical data that coldly noted he had absorbed 255 punches from his hard-hitting opponent. Two-bit click-bait websites emblazoned ‘before and after’ pictures of the athlete with titles like ‘The worst injuries in boxing’ for voyeurs who’d probably never previously heard of Lubin, Fundora, Cunningham, or even seen the fight, to rub their hands with glee over.
When Cunningham pulled the 26-year-old out at the end of the ninth, he did so unilaterally. There was no discussion. No touching ‘How do you feel, son?’’ moment. The trainer would have known the hopelessness of such a line of inquiry. Boxers by necessity live a life of focus, but one often tinged with dream-like romanticism. It is no coincidence that they talk routinely of destiny as though they were Greek philosophers or Fortune Tellers at some hayseed funfair.
Their job is to keep going whatever the personal cost. To chase the dream, corral it, and wake up battered and worn into the cool morning to do it all again. But the person in the corner should always be a pragmatist. In a sport of hot-air, hokum, lies, and bullshit, where even the alleged blind Lady Liberty of officialdom cannot always be relied upon, they should be the last honest men in the room, their fighters’ final line of defence against the inscrutability of their heart.
And despite Lubin being certain that he had enough left to continue the fight, he carries no Frazier-like bitterness towards Cunningham. “I understand that there was just a lot for Kevin to consider,” he reveals via a telephone conversation with Boxing Social.
“I think it was around round seven that I swelled up really bad and when I went back to my corner my Cutman said there wasn’t really much that he could do. He kind of like panicked a little bit about how swollen I was. I pretty much entered the corner and left the corner the same way. There was just nothing he could do about it.”
But these were not the limit of Lubin’s injuries. “You know, my shoulder was out?” he confides. “I had to take round nine off as it was feeling really bad, so I got on the ropes a lot.” This proved to be the final straw for Cunningham to remove his charge from the fight.
“Yeah, I think he’d seen enough,” agrees Lubin. “And I understand why he didn’t tell me. There were all these conversations in the corner, and he’s being told by the Cutman that there isn’t much he can do to reduce the swelling. I totally understand it.
“But, yeah, I had the energy to keep going. Anyway, it was a great fight. We gave the fans what they wanted,” he says positively.
For the man nicknamed ‘The Hammer,’ it marks the second setback of a professional career that began just one month after his 18th birthday back in 2013. In his home state of Florida, the son of Haitian parents dispatched the unfortunate Eric De Jesus in just 35 seconds of the opening round.
Early, brutal finishes became a hallmark of the hard-punching Lubin’s rise through the ranks as he amassed an 18-fight unbeaten record over four years ahead of challenging Jermell Charlo for the WBC title at 154 lbs. It ended badly, with Charlo eviscerating the wunderkind with one perfect right-hand in the first round.
It was the type of public execution that some fighters can struggle to recover from, but Lubin categorises it as little more than “a hiccup”. He ponders that maybe the fight was too much too soon. “At the time I felt like I wasn’t prepared like I should’ve been. I had a really short camp. These days I do 8-10 weeks, but that camp was horrible; less than five weeks.
“It was like the opportunity just presented itself and I felt like I had to jump on it. But I make no excuses. Charlo is a great fighter. It was just a little setback that’s all.”
But for a fighter who had previously cut a swathe through the division and had won 143 out of 150 amateur contests and was surely destined for the Olympics, defeat was something that he had little experience of. In the past, it had always been the other guy struggling to locate his gumshield and being helped back to his corner. But this first real taste of very public, emphatic defeat led to a change in Lubin’s approach.
“Leaving the arena, I felt sad. I just wasn’t used to losing at all. But I knew I had the talent and will to get back in that position again. I just had to get things right outside of the ring. I had to switch things up,” he admits.
“I needed to get my focus right. I used to be home in Orlando, and I’d be around people that weren’t really benefiting me. I moved to Miami, I met up with Kevin Cunningham and the rest is history.”
This change in approach brought immediate benefits with six straight wins against mostly highly rated opposition prior to him facing off with Fundora. For Lubin, it was a fight he was convinced he could win against his almost freakishly proportioned and unbeaten opponent. “I was confident going in. I knew the game plan he would come with,” he says.
But as previously outlined, injury quickly put paid to the 26-year-olds pre-fight tactics. “It forced me to make a few changes in there. I had to switch my game plan. Kevin was telling me to do certain things: to box him more. It was definitely working but my shoulder was blown out.
“Once I’d separated my shoulder, I pretty much had to just fight Fundora because if I was on the outside trying to throw a jab my shoulder was hurting me too much. But when I threw a hook, it wasn’t hurting as much, so that had to be the plan.”
It may ultimately not have proved to be a winning tactic, but by its nature necessitated an up-close war of a contest that featured two knockdowns, including Lubin dropping his 6”5 opponent late in the seventh round. But ultimately, he was forced to leave the ring with his face swollen like a heavily pumped beachball and his lips stained a deep crimson. It had been a night that started with so much expectation yet was destined to end with an emergency visit to the hospital.
Over two months on from this seismic encounter Lubin is still recovering from his injuries. Unable to go to the gym he contents himself with daily runs on his treadmill and thoughts of what would be a heavily anticipated rematch. “Yeah, I definitely want it,” he responds when Boxing Social asks if he would love to do it all again. “He’s one of the top guys in the division. It’d be a great fight for the fans.”
Not chastened at all by defeat, Lubin is energised by what he and the watching public, considered to be a warrior-like show in defeat. With or without a rematch with his long-limbed nemesis The Hammer’ is targeting a world title fight by the end of the year.
“I don’t want no tune-ups,” he says definitely. “I am still looking to fight the top guys. You’ve got to beat the best, so who’s next doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not one of those guys that will duck people or look for an easy route.
“You know, Fundora he’s avoided by most people. I think me fighting him just shows what my heart is. I’m only interested in fighting the best. That’s what I’m about. I’m hungry. I want to fight the best and get titles across the divisions.
“That’s what I’m working for. That’s why I am so motivated.”