The Dark Corner

Watching Guillermo Rigondeaux in the early hours of Saturday morning gave me mixed emotions.  A double Olympic champion who has sold his medals to feed his family, finally getting the breakthrough fight he has craved and chancing his arm two weights above his practiced division.  But it was the end of his arm that was his downfall, a hand that suffered bad bruising and meant he could no longer continue after round six.

A broken man, sat on his stool as the gloves were yanked indignantly from his damaged hand.  He hardly looked in excruciating pain and the world of social media was happy to lay waste to his reputation as a fighter, a warrior, with immediate effect.  Perhaps the pain was more internal.  Boxrec can’t record a damaged ego as the reason for losing, even if that was the ultimate damage that Vassyl Lomachenko had inflicted.

But why on the stool?  This was what I found hard to comprehend.  A fighter has 180 seconds of a round where inevitably the punches have come their way.  Boxing is renowned as the loneliest sport on the planet; it’s only you in there.  But for that brief period of time, it isn’t.  It’s you and your team.   If the heart of the boxer is broken, there will be an opportunity within those three minutes to ‘fall’, to end it on the canvas and make it look as painful as they choose.  At the end of the round though, the punishment has been absorbed and survived.  The body and face have taken the damage between the ropes, but it is in the 60 seconds of rest where the decision is finalised.  The peaceful 60 seconds, the 60 seconds of respite from the onslaught, pain and need for mental awareness.  
This should be the time to switch off, listen, replenish and regroup.  It isn’t always the boxer themselves, but their corner team, who make the decision. 

Perhaps for them, the opportunity arises to take stock of their boxer and assess the physical and mental wellbeing.  Being pulled out by a corner team is, to me, very different to choosing to stop the fight. 

Rigondeaux won’t be in the history books alone for making the decision.  There are many names that have taken the hardest decision in boxing while sat on their stool.  A bench may be more appropriate.  The often unhinged Victor Ortiz decided to call it a day versus Josesito Lopez while sat down after round nine.  Andrew Golota, the loose cannon from Poland, was a 6 foot 5 flood of tears after round two against Mike Tyson, refusing to continue the fight.  Mike Tyson himself ended his own career sat down in less than illustrious circumstances between rounds six and seven against Irishman Kevin McBride.

So what is it about those 60 seconds in the dark corner, that makes the boxer decide they can no longer go on?  As a fan, I can only comment on the possibilities.  Could it be that the adrenaline wears off when the legs are no longer taking the weight?  The realisation of the physical pain kicks in, the long training camp has taken its toll and it is now, while the mind is able to focus on something other than flying gloves, that it is realised?  Is it the dawning realisation that the fighter is out of his depth?  Plans A, B and C have been exhausted without success, there is no other option. 

I fail to believe it is the corner team that convince their man to quit.  They are there in part to protect their man, but they have a towel at hand to do so should things get out of hand.  They have the power to pull their fighter out, they don’t need to talk them into it.  Their justification will be made in the changing rooms.
  
The word ‘quit’ is emotive, and one that I have avoided to date for that reason.  Many boxers have had the perfect excuse to do so but instead battled through adversity to inevitably lose or be pulled out.  Kell Brook, maligned in some quarters when he took a knee against Errol Spence Jr, was battling through a broken eye socket.  Only the previous year he had broken the other against middleweight monster Golovkin.  He saw that fight through to the towel being thrown in, against Spence he made the decision himself.  But he didn’t wait for the end of the round, he did what would seem logical to most observers.  He took a knee, called a halt to the beating he was taking and the referee stopped the fight.  Completely understandable in the scenario.
 
Chris Eubank talks of the ‘Warrior Code’.  A set of ethics that only those who fight for a living can understand.  The concept that you put your health at the bottom of the priority list, that you fight on regardless of the scenario.  A penny for his thoughts on the Rigondeaux retirement on Saturday? 
 
I wanted the views of the professionals, the prize fighters who have taken the punches.  What is it about the stool that may make a fighter quit?  Why in those 60 seconds and not in the 180 seconds of a round? 
 
“I think they will rather blame an injury on them pulling out rather than have their pride dented by getting counted out if they took a knee” is the view of Ramez Mahmood (5-0), the featherweight from Essex.  “Rigondeaux would’ve rather blamed the injury than allow himself to get counted out I think, it’s a pride thing for them, no one wants to get counted out.” 
 
Michael Devine, Prizefighter finalist and two times Southern Area champ, is no stranger to wars in the ring.  16-5-1 in his career, he has been bloodied and damaged in gruelling fights.  The two times he has been stopped were both via TKO, both times Michael had got himself off the canvas in the process.  As he puts it, it’s a mental state.
 
“I personally don’t have that in me. I’m a fighter, there have been times in my career when the fight wasn’t going my way and shots are hurting, but for me I’d rather go out on my shield and get knocked out. Lots of fighters are different and think logically putting their safety first or haven’t got the heart to go to the trenches and carry on being beaten up.”  Warrior Code.  It's echoed by Scottish super middleweight John McCallum.  "Ive never felt personally about pulling out in a fight but defo felt frustrated with not having a clear vision because of the eye injury (against Leon McKenzie)" he tells me.
 
Matthew Legg (7-2-0), a middleweight from Bournemouth and Southern Area title challenger, has twice dropped points decisions but never been stopped.  His view echoes those of Devine.  “If I am honest a boxer should never pull out in the corner!! I do completely agree that boxers need pulling out but I think the mentality of a boxer should be to fight until the final bell. My lip was hanging off and I wouldn’t allow my corner to pull me out!! What you have to think is to be a boxer you got to have more in you really than the average man, there’s loads of examples.  In boxing you go down and get up if that makes sense.”
 
What is evident is that most boxers don’t see a difference between quitting on their stool or quitting in the ring.  It’s almost incomprehensible to consider either.  I asked Connor Wright, a successful amateur from Milton Keynes who recently made his professional debut at York Hall for his views.
“To be honest as a fighter I’d never back down id never want to sit on the stall and not want to get back off it, I think my mindset is you’ll have to kill me for me to stop wanting to have a fight. Your corner team have your best interest at heart and at the end of the day, we’ve all got a family to go back to and if they think you’re in too deep and you could get seriously hurt then it’s the right call. I don’t blame any coach for pulling their fighter out; it’s their job to look after a fighter so we can fight another day.”  So does he think that view will carry on through his career?  “That’s my experience so far, I’ve never been beat to a point I think ‘nah fuck this I’m staying on the stool!’  But if I do, ask me then and I’ll tell you what goes through my little ginger head!!”
  
David Allen is a man who has taken his fair share of punishment.  The heavyweight, 12-3-1, has shared the ring with Luis Ortiz, himself one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet.  The fight was halted by the referee in round seven, by which point Allen had bitten through his own tongue, an injury that took months to heal properly.  He has gone the distance with Dillian Whyte, who himself has troubled world champion Anthony Joshua.  In other words, Dave Allen has shared the ring with legitimate threats.  Through all of it though, has it ever occurred to him that he could just end the fight himself on that stool?
 
“I have been in a few hard fights now and the thought of quitting has never crossed my mind” he tells me.  “But Ortiz was hitting me so hard I was becoming numb to the pain ha ha.  I think it's more of a mental pain than a physical pain when a fighter quits, if that makes any sense.  Rigo quit because he didn't want to be shown to be inferior to another fighter.  His pride was dented and he would rather quit then be outboxed.”
 
So does he think that the corner would have been a place of solace for Rigondeaux, a place where the harsh truth set in?  “When you go corner that's when you get chance to think and when I boxed Ortiz, only time I thought ‘fuck this is really hurting and I'm knackered’ was in that corner.”
 
It is telling that of the 24 minutes that he fought Ortiz, it was those minute rests that gave him the time to reflect on the pain he was in.  Still, his resolve was strong enough to get himself off that stool and back into the action.  For Nicky Prez (@NickyB4Prez on Twitter) his view on it shows again the fighter state of mind.
 
“Ali fought Ken Norton with a broken jaw for 15 rounds and they're heavyweights. Leonard could have quit against Duran in the first fight but kept going.  It’s not physical, it’s mental. The adrenaline and what not doesn't really wear off until next day.  I also think Rigondeaux at 37 is less likely to feel it necessary to continue than a Rigondeaux at say 27 or 29 like Lomachenko is. In my experience I was out on my feet once and just used the old "bite down head down swing" technique rather than quit!!”
 
Jamie Speight is a man who has been through the wars.  A tough career that has seen him win Souther Area belts in multiple division has also seen him fight the very best domestically; Josh Warrington, Isaac Lowe, Reece Bellotti to name a few.  He’s been stopped, but mainly on his feet.  Again, his mentality wouldn’t allow him to stop the fight from his own corner.
 
“I would never quit and I’m sure you get the same reply from most fighters; that mentality is what makes us fighters I guess. The only way I would retire on my stool or during a round would be if I genuinely felt my way of life was threatened or at stake.”  The first to acknowledge there is a chance, given the choice of life or death, that he would choose life. 
“I’ll always be a fighter but underneath that hard exterior there is a sensible human who values his life and quality of life a damn site more than the sport of boxing.  Don’t get me wrong I love boxing, I owe a lot to boxing, it’s given me a great life and some of the best people I’ve ever met are through this sport, but being physically fit and healthy and being able to live life that way is a true gift and if that was ever threatened or hindered by the sport I love I’d pick life”
 
It isn’t a weakness of Speight to admit that.  He’s never taken that option.  But he knows it is there.  Tyler Goodjohn, a come forward warrior who has pleased fans all through his career while capturing the English title, sees it as the mental side of the sport that leads a fighter to

“For me & the style of come forward fighter I am I pride myself on never giving up & sticking in there until the end whatever!” Goodjohn tells me.  “I’ve fought with a busted hand & damaged ribs & it never crossed my mind to quit. That being said the only way I can see someone quitting, especially with a fighter like Rigo who prides himself on being a skilful technician and is known for his beautiful boxing, the only I can see him quitting is because he’s been beaten at his own game.  He’s borderline embarrassed and has quit rather than allow his boxing ability legacy be damaged anymore. I’d rather be carried out that quit but then, I’m not a fantastic boxer so who knows the thoughts that ran through his head during the fight!”
 
It’s an honest assessment from Goodjohn.  The old adage of there being ‘levels’ to the sport may be true, however you sense that the mentality to pull out on the stool sticks with a fighters from the bottom to the top.  Dave Allen was facing the best in the world, admits that the pain and the tiredness kicked in and at a time when many would have found a reason not to come back out, he got himself off that stool and carried on fighting.  Rigondeaux could have done the same.  It isn’t to say he should, but he could.  He may have shortened his career in doing so, he made that choice while sat on that stool to end the fight. 
 
As a fan, I will never understand the mentality of a Goodjohn, Speight, Legg, Allen, Devine, Wright, Mahmood or McCallum.  That ability to carry on regardless.  But then, I am not sure I will ever understand the Rigondeaux approach either.  It almost seems nonsensical.  The 180 seconds where you take the pain would always seem the logical window to pull yourself out of the fight.  Those physical punishments that are taken happen during that time.  From the view of those that have been in the ring, it is the mental punishment that happens when you walk back to the corner.  The dark corner.  Those moments may never heal for a boxer. 

Nearly all of those questioned say it isn’t in them, they couldn’t do it.  Rigondeaux said he would never do it.  “Unlike Walter I won’t quit and I will hit back” are the words of his Tweet from November 2016.  The mental crack opened though, and he pulled out of the fight on his stool.  I suspect that is a crack that can never be fixed.  He knows now that it is in him to pull out of a fight, something which no doubt he would resolutely deny before. 
 
It may be that Rigondeaux will never be the same, he knows there is someone who can beat him and he knows that he can pull himself from a fight.  It is a dark corner to get out of.