April 3, 2017
April 3, 2017
boxing

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BACK to the ropes, nose pouring with blood, his head being bounced around by a pair of 10oz gloves.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to your fighter but it is.

So what do you do? He’s in uncharted territory, you have an idea of how he’ll react but you don’t know for sure, nobody does, not even him.

Do you stop it or do you leave him in there to see how he copes? Pulling him out will save him further physical punishment but it could also destroy his confidence; or rather, destroy his belief that you, his trainer, has any confidence in him. And that could be fatal for the relationship.

If you stop it there’ll be no positives to take. If you don’t and your man finds the resolve to finish on his feet then he’ll have something to hold on to. “I didn’t quit”, he’ll be able to tell himself. “I took a hiding but now I know: when it gets tough I don’t swallow it.” But if you let him carry on then he might not finish on his feet, he might finish on his back, on a stretcher, the worst scenario of all and then you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t step in and say “enough is enough.”

So how does a trainer decide when enough is enough?

I found myself asking that question last week after commentating on Marcus Morrison vs Jason Welborn.

Morrison had had it all his own way in his career up until that point and was being tipped as a future star. Welborn was a step up but Marcus was expected to deal with him and move onwards and upwards.

But that isn’t what happened.

Instead Morrison endured a brutal 10 rounds. My co-commentator Tony Bellew was calling for the fight to be stopped after six whereas I thought the towel could have come in at any time after the eighth.

But trainer Joe Gallagher didn’t stop it, and nor did referee Victor Loughlin, a decision that saw Gallagher the subject of a lot of criticism on social media. But was that criticism valid? At face value it appeared to be, as watching a young man getting battered and bloodied is not an edifying spectacle.

I haven’t spoken to Gallagher about this, I don’t feel he needs to defend his actions, but there would have been a reason why he didn’t stop the fight. These are not decisions that are taken lightly; the duty of care for his fighter and burden of that responsibility weighs heavily on a trainer’s shoulders but whilst his charge’s health is his primary concern, it’s not the only thing he has to think about.

Professional sport is about winning. A boxer’s career and his livelihood depend on results so the trainer needs to give his man the chance to win and at some point that will mean watching him absorb punishment before hopefully seeing him turn things around. But sometimes he won’t turn it around, the punishment will just keep coming, and in that instance he’ll be forced to assess whether there is anything to be gained through that experience.

Gallagher decided that there was something to be gained. Whether he was right or not, it’s too early to tell. Morrison could fade away, in which case I’m sure some will point the finger at the corner, but equally he could bounce back, win titles and in years to come talk about how his 10 rounds with Jason Welborn were the making of him. Will the people who condemned the trainer for not throwing in the towel then congratulate him for not doing so? No, they won’t.

It’s a scenario that brings to mind two fighters I’d seen in that same Manchester ring before Christmas. One was Frank Buglioni, the other Luke Blackledge.

I remember watching Buglioni’s WBA world super middleweight title challenge against Fedor Chudinov on TV and pleading with Paschal and Steve Collins, who were in Buglioni’s corner, to stop it. I just didn’t see the point of it going on after the tenth round because all that was going to happen, in my mind, was that he’d suffer another six minutes of potentially career-shortening damage. But they continued to send him out.

When I next saw Frank, I said as much; that they should have stopped it, that enough was enough. He disagreed. Going the distance with a fighter like Chudinov had, he said, proved to him that he would never, ever quit, no matter how hard it got in there. And that knowledge was instrumental in his win against Hosea Burton. In the build-up he spoke of taking Burton deep, to a place his opponent had never been to before but that he had. He believed he could take everything Hosea threw at him, which turned out to be plenty, and win the fight late on and that’s exactly what happened.

Would the outcome against Burton have been different had the towel come in after 10 against Chudinov? Would he have performed better even, or worse? We’ll never know. But in Buglioni’s mind going the distance against the Russian was significant.

On the same night Luke Blackledge was up against Callum Smith. Blackledge is a good fighter but not in the same league as Smith and after eight, Jamie Moore, who was covering the fight with me, said he thought Luke’s trainer Alex Matvienko could safely stop it without causing any embarrassment to his fighter. But he let it continue. Blackledge had a better ninth and it looked like he’d get through until Smith produced a stunning left hook towards the end of the tenth which left his opponent out cold and everyone at ringside fearing the worst. I haven’t spoken to Matvienko either but I’m sure that his reasoning for allowing the fight to go on would have been that hanging with Smith for 12 rounds would have made Blackledge feel bulletproof, that it would have been a big positive to take into the rest of his career. As it was, a potential positive turned into a big negative with one swing of a glove.

Three fights, in all of which the trainers could have pulled their men out but in all of which they didn’t.

So who was right and who was wrong?

At first glance it’s tempting to answer as follows:

‘OK, well Collins turned out to be right because Buglioni’s gone on to do well since, Matvienko was wrong because his man got KO’d and we don’t really know about Gallagher yet but the gut feeling is that he was wrong too because, well, just look at Morrison’s face at the end of the fight, how can that be good for anyone?’

So only one correct decision out of the three. But this is, deliberately so on my part, too simplistic a judgement to make because it’s based on what psychologists refer to as “outcome bias”, which is basically the temptation to judge the correctness of decisions based solely on their outcome. And in the Buglioni/Collins example the trainer’s actions have been judged here to be correct (some will disagree with that judgement) with knowledge of what then subsequently happened in the fighter’s career, something we don’t yet know with regard to the other two.

In all three instances the trainers had to make decisions in the heat of the moment, in very stressful circumstances. The easy thing to do for all of them would have been to stop the fight.

But being a successful trainer isn’t about doing what’s easy, what’s liable to attract the least criticism, if they were concerned about popularity then they’d be doing something else.

I’m not a trainer but it seems to me that deciding when enough is enough is the most difficult part of the job. I’d go as far as to say that it’s possibly the most difficult single decision anybody has to make in all of sport.

Now I’m not saying that means we should never criticise but before we do we should definitely try to empathise.