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The right to surrender

When exactly do boxers have the right to give up?

Boxing at O2 Arena Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Good chess players resign all the time. If you calculate that you are destined for defeat and you knock your king over, everyone sees it as the rational move. Why waste time prolonging a contest that’s effectively over? Of course, boxing isn’t chess. In the ring, there has always been dishonour in conceding.

When a boxer accepts a fight, he agrees to do more than just turn up. We have all witnessed boxers who know they don’t have a hope, hit the canvass on first contact and get out of town fast, with their pride lost but money gained. These sham fights cheat fans and discredit the sport. And yet the question of how much commitment is enough commitment is murkier than it first appears. As fans, our scale often seems to be based on visible injuries. If we can see a fighter is hurt, we are often willing to accept their retirement; the blood is gory proof that they’ve done enough.

This sort of judgment has no place in a sport and boxing, for all its warrior mythology, is still a sport. We should not be judging based on injury suffered but on effort expended. If a boxer has made a sustained effort to win the fight but no longer believes they can, that boxer has the right to concede rather than risk serious injury. They owe the fans a performance, not the sight of them being knocked out.

“Stop it, I’m done. Stop the fight. Stop it. Stop it. I want it stopped. It’s my leg. My leg’s bothering me. Stop it.”

5 “Stops”. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr had had enough of Andrzej Fonfara. The crowd responded to his decision with deafening boos and thrown beer cups. There’s plenty to criticise about Chavez Jr and maybe his leg really hurt, maybe it didn’t. This, however, felt like an eminently reasonable decision. He’d gone hard at Fonfara over nine rounds and found himself thoroughly outclassed. For the booing fans, this was just further proof of the lack of commitment Chavez Jr has shown throughout his career. In the context of the night though, this was a man who’d tried, been beaten and chosen to avoid further harm.

Some boxers do not believe they have the right to give up. When during his fight against Thurman, Luis Collazo’s corner asked him whether he wanted to continue, he replied by saying "That's up to y’all, I can't see.” He seemed to be suggesting that, even with his swollen eye leaving him almost blind, he’d still go back in the ring if that’s what they wanted. This is a matter of pride, an attitude that means you don’t want to be the one to give up. Nicholas Walters, in explaining his retirement against Lomachenko, also left the decision to his corner but for different reasons, saying “they see the fight better than I do, I was fighting the fight.” This is instead a question of judgment, the belief that an adrenaline-fuelled fighter isn’t well-placed to judge their own prospects.

In those situations where the referee has not seen enough to justify stopping the fight but does have concerns, he can play an important role in reminding the troubled fighter that they do have a choice. During Andre Ward’s victory over Chad Dawson, Steve Smoger twice asked Dawson if he wanted to continue. On the second occasion, Dawson declared “I’m done.” When Daniel Geale got up for the second time against Miguel Cotto, referee Harvey Dock’s “Are you ok?” was met with a sad shake of the head. These exchanges work for everyone. Referees protect themselves from accusations of ending the fight too early while ensuring the fighter is protected. The boxer is able to escape further harm but the referee’s prompting somehow makes the decision more acceptable in the eyes of many fans. Both gain from sharing the burden of the decision.

The role of the corner and referee though should never detract from the fighter’s fundamental right to walk away. Boxing will always have warriors who refuse to accept defeat and they will always receive fans’ adulation. We do, however, need respect for those mere mortals who put in a shift but know when it’s over.

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