Daniel Dubois’ decision to ‘take a knee’ against Joe Joyce has reignited an age-old debate about the ethics of ‘quitting’. Luke G. Williams traces the history of the concept and argues it may be time for boxing fans and writers to banish the word to the history books…
“A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.” – Saying of unknown derivation (often credited – incorrectly – to Vince Lombardi or Napoleon Hill)
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” – W.C. Fields
No one ever accused Jack Broughton of being a quitter.
But had the ‘father of English boxing’ been plying his trade today he would have been crucified on Twitter for the events surrounding his defeat against Jack Slack on April 11, 1750.
The sobriquet of “quitter” would have been hurled in his direction by keyboard warriors, as well as by many of his fellow prize fighters.
When Broughton entered the contest against Slack he was the undefeated and undisputed prize fighting champion of England. Anticipation ahead of the bout was acute, with the victor guaranteed about £600 – a massive sum at the time.
“No doubt [the contest] will be attended with much loss of blood, if not life,” observed one newspaper expectantly, a description that aptly summarises the brutal and unforgiving social climate against which the early days of British bareknuckle boxiana were played out.
Boxing in the 18th Century possessed a bloodthirsty dimension unimaginable to those of us accustomed to the sanitised and regulated form that prize fighting assumes today.
Life was cheap and fights were to the finish.
Yet – by the modern interpretation favoured by keyboard warriors as well as boxers such as Carl Frampton, David Haye and Chris Eubank Jr. – Broughton ‘quit’ against Slack.
After establishing early dominance, the champion was struck by a powerful Slack counter-punch which detonated “directly in [his] eye”. The eye puffed and closed alarmingly quickly and after a few minutes of fighting “half-blind”, the injury “compelled” Broughton “to yield”.
The injury Broughton endured was eerily similar to that suffered by Dubois against Joyce prior to his tenth-round ‘surrender’ in their British, Commonwealth and European title fight on 28 November. Contemporaneous accounts indicate Broughton probably fought while injured for a shorter time than Dubois did, yet there was no opprobrium hurled at him for his decision to ‘quit’ the contest.
Quite the opposite in fact – Broughton’s courage and willingness to fight as long as he did with such a horrific injury saw him lionised and reinforced his position in the annals of pugilistic history.
How, then, did it come to this?
How have we arrived at the stage whereby a 23-year-old man who has climbed into the unforgiving confines of the boxing ring only to suffer severe injury has had his courage and ‘cojones’ questioned for retiring from a contest that – had it continued – could have permanently curtailed his sight and his career?
According to promoter Frank Warren, Dr Vickie Lee, Dubois’ eye consultant, assessed that her patient “was fortunate the fight was stopped when he sustained a fracture, otherwise there was a risk of further trauma”.
Had Dubois continued he would have risked “more orbital tissues” while the “extra ocular muscles that move the eyeball” could have become “entrapped into fractured fragments” causing “potentially career-ending double vision”.
By all rational standards, Dubois showed considerable courage and bravery against Joyce and did the right thing for his health and future career prospects by ‘taking a knee’.
Yet boxing does not always operate in the realm of the rational and the manner of his defeat sadly left Dubois open to vituperative criticism.
Particularly voluble was BT Sport summariser Carl Frampton, who declared: “I thought he quit there. Let’s call a spade a spade. I’d rather be dragged out of the ring.”
David Haye was of a similar mind, stating: “I was very unhappy with the way that he took a knee, after taking a shot to the eye.” Another to criticise Dubois, albeit without naming him, was Chris Eubank Jr, who posted a message to his Twitter page declaring: “Quitters never win & winners never quit. Congratulations Joe Joyce.”
Frampton – in his weekly column for the Belfast Telegraph – has since elaborated on his initial response, making it clear he believes Dubois “quit” but is “not a coward”.
But why was the issue of Dubois’ courage ever raised in the first place?
A brief examination of boxing history reveals why.
Courage in the face of adversity has always been cherished in pugilistic circles. From the sport’s inception as an organised spectacle in 18th Century England through to the peak of its early popularity in the early 19th Century, the qualities of ‘gameness’, ‘bottom’ and ‘pluck’ were highly prized and often referred to by writers of the day, such as Pierce Egan and Henry Downes Miles.
By the same token, boxers who displayed a lack of courage were said to possess ‘a white feather’ – a metaphor for cowardice borrowed from cockfighting, when the appearance of such a feather indicated a bird of ‘lesser’ fighting pedigree which was “not of the true game breed”.
At the same time, however, the dialectic surrounding ‘quitting’ was complicated by the fact that – as still exists today – there was a debate about precisely what sort of sport boxing and its proponents and supporters saw itself as.
In simple terms, some saw the sport as a macho spectacle, in which the only way to prove yourself was through attack, and the ability to give out more punishment than you took.
Others – responding to the moral arguments against prize fighting that have surrounded it since its inception – argued that pugilism was a more refined endeavour. To thinkers such as William Hazlitt and William Cobbett boxing was a ‘science’ or ‘art’ founded on the principles of self-defence, the practice of which enabled its participants to elevate themselves morally and spiritually.
This latter approach was summarised by the great bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond, one of the pioneers of boxing ‘on the retreat’, who once declared: “A gentleman, sir, only uses his hands to defend himself, and not to attack; we call the pugilistic art, for that reason, the noble science of defence.”
As the sport grew in popularity in the United States, however, it was the more uncultured, rock ‘em, sock’ em conception of prize fighting which came to dominate how boxing was viewed, as embodied by the hard-drinking, hard-swinging and unapologetically macho form of the country’s first great sporting hero John L Sullivan.
“He had a natural genius for fighting,” observed trainer Mike Donovan of Sullivan. “He never stepped back.”
The unvarnished machismo of Sullivan’s perpetually attack-minded style struck a chord with the United States’ desire to dissociate itself from the genteel and pretentious airs and graces of its former colonial masters across the Atlantic.
Sullivan scoffed at science and self-defence, and so did his legions of fans, which is why they were so aghast when he was deposed by the more measured and cultured style of ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett. The state of almost national mourning which greeted Sullivan’s defeat in 1892 was repeated when the technique and caution of Gene Tunney twice outwitted folk hero and warrior par excellence Jack Dempsey in 1926 and 1927.
‘Fancy Dans’ such as Corbett and Tunney were dismissed by many among the masses as ‘unmanly’, and their decision to box rather than brawl, led some to question their courage, or even label them ‘quitters’ by virtue of their unwillingness to engage in toe-to-toe action.
Jack Johnson – heavyweight champion from 1908 until 1915 – saw his defensive genius similarly derided – although in his case hateful racial prejudice and stereotyping was also responsible for the frequent charge levelled by his critics that he possessed a “yellow streak”.
Tommy Burns – who lost the heavyweight title to Johnson – advanced the following definition of a quitter in his 1908 book ‘Scientific Boxing and Self-Defence’, whose publication preceded his humiliating loss to Johnson the same year.
“This is the man whose main idea would appear to be the avoidance of anything resembling a genuine contest, and who confines his efforts to getting out of your way. One has to be very careful with these gentry, for they are almost invariably very skilful boxers and past masters in the wiles of Ring Craft. They must necessarily be so, or otherwise, with their distaste for fighting, they could never have attained the reputation and position which would qualify them to oppose anyone who was bent on climbing the championship ladder.”
In time, the label of ‘quitter’ came instead to be associated not with defensive-minded fighters, but instead with those who were adjudged in the court of public and media opinion to have retired from the scene of combat prematurely, or while they were still capable of offering some form of resistance.
The most famous example of ‘quitting’, of course, was that of Roberto Duran, whose decision to utter the words ‘No Mas’ and surrender his welterweight titles to Sugar Ray Leonard in November 1980 left many aghast.
Certainly the appellation of quitter is more understandable when assigned to Duran – who did not suffer serious injury against Leonard – or to the likes of Nicholas Walters and Guillermo Rigondeaux, who retired on their stools against Vasiliy Lomachenko in in 2016 and 2017 when severely outgunned and outclassed but not physically damaged to any great extent.
However, even in these cases it is a label whose negative connotations do not sit well with me, given the extraordinary courage required to even climb into a boxing ring in the first place.
In the case of a fighter such as Dubois, who has sustained a serious injury while in the ring, I believe that to use the label of ‘quitter’ is – to be frank – an abomination.
The rush by many to criticise Dubois also raises unpleasant memories of the way that Gerald McClellan’s decision to take a knee against Nigel Benn was immediately received with disapproval by television commentators on both sides of the Atlantic on that fateful night at the London Arena in February 1995.
The commentary teams – of course – did not know when they spoke of the sad fate that was about to engulf McClellan. Promoter Don King had a good idea, though, when he reportedly said, as McClellan lay stricken in his hospital bed: “Gerald quit, man … He quit like a dog.”
In no other sport are participants roundly and routinely criticised and humiliated by their peers and the public for saying they have had enough when seriously injured.
Yes, boxing is a unique sport that requires unique and uncommon bravery, but by encouraging a culture of fighting through extreme pain and injury, might it be fuelling the claims of those who are campaigning for its abolition?
Luke Griggs, the deputy chief executive of brain injury association Headway – who advocate for the abolition of boxing – believes so.
“I think that boxing has an increasing problem here,” he told Boxing Social. “We’ve seen an outcry recently about a potentially concussed footballer being allowed to continue playing.
“And yet in boxing when a boxer receives a count they are allowed to continue. There’s a hypocrisy here: football and rugby are criticised if concussion protocols aren’t followed on the pitch and yet boxers are praised for continuing when they are clearly injured or concussed.
“The bottom line is you need to have a tremendous amount of bravery to step into the ring and be a boxer in the first place. That’s beyond doubt, whatever your views are about boxing. The reality is that whenever you get into the ring you are risking suffering severe and lifelong neurological damage or becoming a fatality. So to accuse somebody [like Dubois] of not being brave is ludicrous, quite frankly.”
Certainly, the landscape against which boxing is now operating is fast changing. As Griggs points out, concussion protocols and precautions across all sports are now being discussed in a more detailed and public way than ever before.
Furthermore, the debate concerning the long-term effects of head trauma in sport is also assuming a much higher profile, as evidenced by the frequent cases, highlighted in the media, of former footballers and rugby players who have suffered in later life from dementia.
Even within the last 24 hours it has been revealed that a group of 70 former rugby players are planning to sue a series of governing bodies for damages, having suffered various after-effects of concussion.
For the majority of boxing’s existence the issue of the long-term effects of blows to the head sustained by boxers has been skirted over by those within the sport. Avoided even.
But boxing cannot expect to remain immune from this discussion forever.
With such issues now firmly on the news agenda, it will be interesting to see how the boxing community views and responds to the publication next year of Tris Dixon’s book Trauma: The Untold History of Brain Trauma In Boxing. I have no advance knowledge of the book’s contents or central thesis, but based on the title alone it seems set to be a book which poses questions that many within boxing might be uncomfortable answering.
The case of abolition will – I believe – be encouraged if fighters, along with members of the media and public, continue to question the heart and courage of fighters who concede defeat when seriously injured.
In short, ‘quit’ rhetoric it is not a good look for the sport.
Let me be clear: I am not an abolitionist. I love boxing and I believe that the social benefits of the sport outweigh the risks. I also believe in the intrinsic right to free choice of all human beings to participate in whatever sport they choose.
But if we are to successfully defend boxing against the inevitable accusations from abolitionists that it is savage and barbaric, then the hyperbolic and insensitive label of ‘quitter’ should be banished from our shared vernacular.
No fighter who suffers a serious injury like Daniel Dubois should be subjected to the sort of unwarranted and insensitive opprobrium we have seen in the last 10 days or so.
Main image: Queensberry Promotions.