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Should the towel ever be rejected?

Lewis Ritson the towel
Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing
Matt Christie examines the implications of Steve Gray’s decision to reject the towel

THE towel is a long-standing symbol of surrender in a boxing ring. The thinking goes that when it’s thrown by a corner, that corner’s fighter must immediately be rescued by the referee. Last Saturday night in Newcastle, with Lewis Ritson down from a body shot, the Ritson corner threw in the towel only for referee Steve Gray to throw it back out and let the contest continue.

Ritson, after taking a steady pounding from Jeremias Ponce, was then dropped twice more before Gray stepped in to end the bout. The official was immediately criticised by the Sky Sports commentary team and, in the aftermath, promoter Eddie Hearn. Fans at home also felt that Gray had made an error. Yet the referee – without question one of Britain’s best – did not break any rules by rejecting the towel. In truth, it was Ritson’s corner who were not following the regulations.

“Every trainer is told that they must make it absolutely clear that they want the fight to be stopped,” Robert Smith, of the British Boxing Board of Control, told Boxing News. “They must stand on the ring apron and wave the towel and shout at the referee… A towel fluttering into the ring is not a signal to stop a fight. Steve Gray is an excellent referee and did nothing wrong. He did not break any rules.”

As per the Trainers/Seconds handbook, regulation 3.43 states: The boxer’s manager or, in his absence, the chief second, shall alone have the responsibility of retiring a boxer in a contest. An indication of retirement shall not be given while a round is in progress. This means that the white towel can be ignored during the progress of a bout as this could have been thrown into the ring by anyone.

It goes on: The referee alone can halt a contest. In the interval the referee needs to advised of the corner’s decision and the contest will be halted. This did not happen in Newcastle between rounds nine and 10 when it appeared that the Ritson corner, unbeknownst to Gray, seemed to be considering retiring their fighter.

Smith also explained that there have been occasions when white t-shirts have been thrown by members of the crowd in the past, causing confusion. There is also a suggestion that anyone with a white towel to hand can trigger chaos, or even fix a fight, by throwing it into the ring.

Perhaps the most famous recent example of a trainer doing it correctly would be Dominic Ingle, who left no doubt he wanted Kell Brook pulled out of his 2016 challenge to Gennady Golovkin by stepping on to the ring apron and alerting referee Marlon Wright that the bout should cease. However, whether rules were followed or not, Gray’s decision to allow Ritson to continue – because it was body shots that dropped him and not punches to the head – should be examined closely. Though the Board advise what the correct procedure is during the licensing process and reaffirm in their handbook, it’s perfectly conceivable that seconds will not remember this in the heat of battle. Smith admitted there is scope to look again at the rules as they currently stand. What could be considered, for example, is the moment a towel is seen by the referee the action is halted and the corner from where the towel is perceived to have been thrown is then consulted. Gray, though I don’t doubt his integrity for a second, had ample opportunity to check with Ritson’s corner if they wanted to rescue their man.

A towel coming into the ring mid-fight is a rare occurrence in British boxing. That towel being rejected by the referee even more so. But it has happened before. The esteemed Mickey Vann made headlines in 2007 when he dismissed the towel of Graham Earl’s corner in the second round of his bout with Michael Katsidis. What immediately followed – Earl stunning Katsidis and the Aussie being administered a standing count – is often citied as validation of Vann’s decision. However, that Earl then took a pounding before being rescued on his stool before the sixth round, and was frankly never the same fighter again, should perhaps put a different spin on that.

Overruling a corner is a dangerous business; trainers can be forgiven for stopping a fight ‘too soon’ but the potential consequences of referees stepping in too late doesn’t need any further explanation here.

  • KIRKLAND LAING passing away at 66 triggered memories of watching him fight when I was kid in awe. What an outrageous talent he was. His death is exceptionally sad but, I must say, speaking to his beloved daughter, Delene, (see here) was a truly wonderful experience. Our thoughts are with the Laing family.

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