The issue of quitting

After Billy Joe Saunders’ retirement loss against Canelo Alvarez at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston analyses the thorny issue of ‘quitting’ and looks at other, more complicated cases of when boxers have chosen not to carry on in a fight.

When Billy Joe Saunders didn’t come out for the ninth round against Canelo Alvarez on the weekend there was inevitably a rash of “quitter” jibes on the various social media platforms. Things calmed down when it was revealed that Billy Joe had suffered severe damage to the orbital bone of his right eye.

It now seems that it was the corner and not the fighter that pulled the plug, although as Billy Joe slumped on his stool, an ugly, spreading bruise under his right eye, it seemed clear that he had had enough. And in view of the damage to his eye, no one, surely, would have wanted Saunders to have answered the bell for another round. He had been taking a hammering in the eighth, the eye was a mess. What would have been the point?

This does raise the matter of ring retirements, though, and whether a fighter should be expected to, as the saying goes, go out on his shield.

What was particularly unfortunate in Billy Joe’s case is that last year he strongly criticised Daniel Dubois for taking a knee against Joe Joyce. Saunders basically averred he would never quit, under any circumstances. The remark has come back to haunt him.

And what about Dubois? He gave up against Joyce, true, but his left eye had basically swollen shut, and Dubois took a punch directly on the eye in the ninth round. Dubois had fought well but the tide of battle was shifting against him.  The eye had been worsening for several rounds. He was in effect a one-eyed fighter by the ninth round. It’s not as if Dubois capitulated at the first hint of crisis.

Most followers of boxing will accept that oftentimes there comes a point where a bout really should be stopped, either by the referee or the corner. But it looks bad when a fighter takes it upon himself to call it a night.

It will forever be a stain on Guillermo Rigondeaux’s ring  reputation that he retired on his stool without seemingly having taken much punishment against Vasiliy Lomachenko. Same thing with Nicholas Walters against Lomachenko. While Walters was losing every round, he hadn’t been dropped or severely rocked. Walters wasn’t cut and there were no obvious contusions. He just decided he didn’t want any more.

Let’s face it, Rigondeaux quit, as did Walters.

But then, should a non-combatant throw out the word “quit”?

Let’s put it this way. When it comes to top-level boxing, with a championship at stake, a fighter is held to a higher standard than a civilian.

It sounds cruel and unfeeling, but a fighter is expected to take his lumps. 

Frank Bruno was rescued by the referee in his two fights with Mike Tyson and also against Lennox Lewis but he was on his feet. He didn’t retire in the corner and he didn’t take a knee. He took his lumps.

Bruce Seldon, on the other hand, seemed to dive for the canvas twice in the first round when Tyson appeared to graze his head with punches. Referee Richard Steele waved the finish when Seldon tottered back a few steps after the second knockdown. 

Boos cascaded down on the ring from all sides of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. A chant of “Fix, fix” arose. Editor Glyn Leach used the heading ‘SHAMELESS” in huge capital letters in Boxing Monthly.

“Yes, of course, the fans were not the ones getting hit,” I reported from ringside. “Nor were the members of the media who tried, long after the affair was over, to make sense of what they had witnessed.

“But one must say it did not look as if Seldon had been hit hard enough to cause such a dramatic collapse.”

Veteran Philadelphia reporter Bernard Fernandez quipped that Tyson should change his nickname from Iron Mike to Hurricane Mike because “now even the wind from his punches is knocking guys out”.

So the overwhelming body of opinion was that Seldon took the easy way out.

And there are ways in which a fighter can bail out. 

One is simply to cover up until the referee intervenes, then spread his arms in the “What!?” manner.

Another is to stay down just long enough to be counted out, getting up at “nine and three quarters”. Cue the mock outrage. 

Then we have the situation where a fighter appears to doing an acting job to try to nab a “win” by DQ. 

We saw Nagy Aguilera dropping to the canvas as if clubbed after Frank Sanchez had thrown a right hand that didn’t even seem to connect properly last weekend. 

Aguilera had been complaining during the fight that Sanchez had been hitting him behind the head. 

But it’s difficult to sympathise with Aguilera, seeing the identical thing happened when he lost to Sergiej Werwejko in Poland in 2017. 

The Polish referee wasn’t buying it and waved the finish when Aguilera refused to get up, awarding Werwejko a TKO victory.

Then we have the case of a boxer deliberately fouling an opponent to get out of a fight, which is another way of quitting.  

This seemed to happen when Andrew Golota bizarrely persisted in hitting Riddick Bowe below the belt in their two meetings even though the Polish heavyweight was clearly winning both bouts. It was as if Bowe’s sheer stubbornness unnerved Golota. Then we had Golota capitulating after two rounds against Mike Tyson. 

But Golota showed guts in fighting with one eye swollen shut to win a decision over Mike Mollo. I recall trainer/ringside analyst Emanuel Steward saying something like: “Tonight, he’s my hero” after the way Golota stuck to his guns against Mollo.

Tyson himself appeared to be looking for the exit in the “bite fight” with Evander Holyfield but he stayed around for eight rounds when outclassed in the Lennox Lewis fight.

All this leads us to the conclusion that this business of a fighter quitting — or appearing to do so — isn’t as simple as it might seem. 

Sonny Liston was as tough as they come but he retired after six rounds against Cassius Clay, ostensibly with a shoulder injury,  and then seemed to fold from a “nothing” right hand in the rematch with the now Muhammad Ali. Was it a case of the previously all-conquering Liston being mentally destroyed in the first fight and fearing embarrassment rather than physical hurt in the rematch? 

There’s more. No one would ever accuse the great Roberto Duran of lacking intestinal fortitude but he turned and walked away in the rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard. And Vitali Klitschko, having quit with a shoulder injury when ahead on points against Chris Byrd, showed a fighting heart when angrily arguing to be allowed to continue despite being cut over the eye and suffering a lacerated lip in his fight with Lennox Lewis.

Of course, sometimes fighters are too game for their own good and are too proud to surrender. In such cases it is incumbent on the referee or the fighter’s corner to save the fighter from taking unnecessary punishment. We don’t want to see a boxer suffer long-term effects from a fight going on too long.

Bearing this in mind, it’s not really appropriate, then, to call Billy Joe Saunders a quitter, just as it wasn’t appropriate for Billy Joe to level that accusation against Daniel Dubois. In each case, the boxer was injured and victory seemed out of reach, certainly in Saunders’ case. 

Going back in time, there were those who felt that former heavyweight champion Max Baer quit when he lost in four rounds to the then-undefeated Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium in 1935. But, as veteran boxing writer Bob Waters noted in an article entitled “The Fine Art of Quitting” in Boxing Illustrated: “Max had given all he had to give but it wasn’t enough. He had taken what Louis had to give and it was too much.”

Waters quoted Baer as saying: “I could have gotten to my feet, but what was the use?”

It’s not the attitude many fighters would have taken, but, nonetheless, perfectly understandable. Sometimes, enough is enough, which is no doubt what Max Baer was thinking as he knelt on the canvas all those years ago in New York City.

Main image: Michelle Farsi, Matchroom Boxing.