THE beating is relentless, but the crowd are feral. The damage appears too much to bear, but the fighter and their team are defiant.
The margins of error in deciding when to stop a fight are minuscule. Wave it off too early and the referee risks the wrath of vitriolic fighters, trainers and fans. But leave a drowning man in the water for too long and the rescue could become futile.
From an entertainment perspective here lies the conundrum. For while everyone in the sport wants the competitors to return home safely, we – the fans – equally demand our primal bloodlust be satisfied. And sometimes the balance between which we want more becomes skewed.
It is a testament to the professionalism of trainers, officials and medical staff that boxing’s brutality almost always ends safely.
But what about those rare occasions when focus for the combatants’ safety wanes while our thirst for knockouts catches fire in the heat of battle?
Tragedies weigh heavily on the sport’s legacy. We have seen deaths throughout history, including two in the last month, with serious injury and everlasting damage another cruel outcome in the journey of the boxer.
And yet boxing anoraks pray for the equivalent of a Matthew Saad Muhammad vs Yaqui Lopez every weekend, when the former recovered from 20 unanswered punches in a legendary eighth round to knock Lopez out and retain his world title, with both men finishing the night in good health.
Refusing to call a halt to such an onslaught is, of course, rare. But history has shown us that even the most proficient of officials and corners can sometimes get caught up in the romance of a heroic comeback, or the thrill of a spectacular finish. We take a look at five of the most infamous finishes that came much too late.
ROBERTO DURAN VS DAVEY MOORE (JUNE 16, 1983)
It had been a long and arduous two-and-a half years since Duran’s humiliation at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard in their return. With his reputation in tatters a weaker mind would’ve heeded calls to retire from the sport’s naysayers, particularly after failed comebacks against Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing.
Conversely, Davey Moore’s rise had been rapid, winning a world title in only his ninth professional contest. The 24-year-old New Yorker subsequently entered the ring a heavy favourite to continue his demolition of the super-welterweight scene.
“Hands Of Stone”, however, had other ideas. This was vintage Duran reminiscent of those masterful days at lightweight. With wolf-like finesse he stalked his prey, dizzying the champion as he pirouetted off the ropes, landing relentless body shots and blistering combinations. Moore had caught a stray thumb to his right eye in the first round and Duran pounced on the injury ruthlessly.
After four rounds the American was half-blind, yet the Panamanian was barely out of second gear. The blood began to flow as he turned the screw and by the seventh Moore was being torn apart, dumped to the canvas with a thunderous straight right seconds before the bell sounded. As a contest it was all over for him, not least for his mother and girlfriend who fainted at ringside.
As both men went into the eighth round the atmosphere transformed from enthusiasm to concern. Duran continued to batter his hapless opponent for another two minutes before the towel was eventually thrown in.
But if Moore thought his nightmare was over, he was mistaken. To the astonishment of everyone the referee, Ernesto Magana, allowed the onslaught to continue. Sanity was only restored thanks to Top Rank’s Jay Edson leaping into the ring to put a stop to proceedings.
Victory meant redemption for Roberto Duran and led to wild celebrations across Panama. For Davey Moore a defeat of such ferocity left him psychologically scarred. His brief peak disappearing behind him, he fought on, but was never the same again.
ROY JONES JR VS RICHARD HALL (MAY 13, 2000)
Roy Jones Jnr was a majestic craftsman at the peak of his powers when he stepped into the ring to face the teak-tough Richard Hall.
Finding opponents who could trouble the light-heavyweight king had become an impossible task, and the Jamaican was not expected to alter that trend. Nonetheless, as a tall rangy southpaw he had worked his way to WBA Interim beltholder, and in position to test his skills against the WBA, IBF and WBC champion.
Sadly for Hall the outlook was bleak from the very moment the champion stepped through the ropes, out-staring this mere mortal who had dared to believe he could share a ring with such virtuosity. Roy Jones Jr was in no mood for clemency.
What followed immediately after the opening bell wasn’t just a masterclass in boxing but an exhibition of the beauty that can sometimes lie within this brutal sport. Jones’ footwork was dazzling, his judgement of distance exquisite, his hand speed and combinations breath-taking. By the end of the first round Hall had already been dropped twice and any hope of a competitive matchup had been emphatically extinguished.
“You never know if a guy has a world-class chin until he takes a world-class beating,” proclaimed the commentary, and Hall was proving to the world that his was made of re-enforced granite. Time and time again Jones familiarised Hall’s face with his right hand, viciously battering him around the ring before spinning off to prepare his next assault.
Jones’ dominance became hard to watch, the beauty gave way to frightening brutality as Hall punched fresh air in hapless retaliation.
Finally, in the 11th round, the champion backed Hall up against the ropes and unleashed one salvo too many, with HBO announcer Larry Merchant voicing his disgust at the stoppage, “The referee ought to be pistol whipped for allowing that to go on.”
More disgusting than that was that both fighters tested positive for steroids in the aftermath and no action was taken.
JACK DEMPSEY VS JESS WILLARD (JULY 4, 1919)
“This will be the easiest fight of my career,” vowed Jess Willard. He did little training and would soon pay for it. Even so, the reigning champion and former cowboy had garnered a ferocious reputation in the boxing ring, pummelling Jack “Bull” Young to death in 1913 before taking the revered Jack Johnson’s belt over 26 rounds. Dempsey, on the other hand, was just beginning to establish his own name, and a first-round knockout of big Fred Fulton sent a warning that Willard failed to heed.
The crowd on that scorching Ohio afternoon had barely 30 seconds to wait before the assault began. Dempsey landed a hellacious left hand to not only floor the champion for the first time in his career but also to break his jaw in several places. The fight was as good as over at this point, and yet Willard rose up on tottering legs and met his foe.
His challenger, however, was not one to rest on his laurels, and the repercussions for Willard’s courage resulted in one of the most infamous and one-sided rounds in boxing history. Seven times the champion tasted the canvas, inexplicably battling on despite sustaining fractured ribs, permanent hearing loss and spraying numerous teeth into the stands.
Somehow his pugnacity dragged him out for two more bloodcurdling rounds, but it was clear by the end of the third round, when cornerman Walter Monahan carried his demolished frame back to his stool, that continuing the contest had been a cruel and unnecessary spectacle. Willard’s career was effectively over after one of the most savage coronations in heavyweight history. But the new king’s dynasty was only getting started.
DENIS LEBEDEV VS GUILLERMO JONES (MAY 17, 2013)
Blood comes with the territory, but the type of Hollywood gore on display in Russia rarely makes its way into the noble art. On this fateful night in Moscow, however, Denis Lebedev, courtesy of Panama’s Guillermo Jones provided a horror show of his own in a battle for the WBA cruiserweight title.
Though age and inactivity were against him, Jones prospered from a significant height and reach advantages to land an effective jab from the very start, opening up a grisly cut over the Russian’s right eye before the first round was even concluded.
From then on, the wound swelled, as Jones’ long right hand pulverised the side of Lebedev’s face to leave him increasingly disfigured.
But this was far from one-way traffic, the mangled mask of claret not enough to make the home fighter retreat. The Russian was having genuine success, throwing an implausible volume of bombs despite only having half of his vision intact.
The competitive blood-and-guts nature of the fight seemed to give everyone involved licence to prolong the devastation, but Lebedev’s injury was hideous in the extreme. Protecting his fighter’s health seemed to be nowhere near the mind of trainer Kostya Tszyu, electing to continually throw him back into the field of battle as he sensed, correctly, that Lebedev was up on the scorecards.
How referee Stanley Christodoulou allowed the fight to continue into the 11th round remains a mystery, but Lebedev was finally made to pay as a left hook dropped him to the canvas. Exhausted, and now bleeding from his other eye, he failed to beat the count, leaving the Panamanian and his team enraptured and Lebedev’s fans relieved that the wreckage wasn’t more severe.
BEAU JACK VS IKE WILLIAMS (JULY 12, 1948)
Fans of a certain age might point to heavyweight Ray Mercer’s 1991 pummelling of Tommy Morrison as one of the most brutal finishes they’ve ever seen. Well, it was nothing compared to this.
Beau Jack’s best days were behind him. An illustrious career had earned the penniless former shoe-shiner world titles and unforgettable nights at a packed Madison Square Garden, but most thought him too shop-worn to threaten Ike Williams’ grip on the lightweight world title.
Williams had used boxing to drag himself up from the hardships and prejudices of Brunswick, Georgia, and he quickly found he possessed a rare talent for the noble art. His power was devastating, obliterating the likes of Bobby Ruffin and Bob Montgomery as he took the lightweight division by storm.
With the result seemingly certain, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park was half empty as both men entered the ring. Yet for the first three rounds Jack looked as if he might upset the odds, startling Williams with his high-pressure style, slipping under his jab and landing a fierce left hook to great effect.
By the fourth, however, Williams had started to find his range and began imposing his superior size on an already tiring Jack, stopping him in his tracks with a wicked counter right. Jack threw one final roll of the dice as the fifth round began but was now being badly hurt in every exchange. With nothing left in the tank he struggled off his stool and into the fight’s bloody conclusion.
The knockout was now in sight and Williams launched a devastating flurry to send his opponent reeling against the ropes. Jack was unconscious on his feet, hands dropped to his sides and completely defenceless. Sensing calamity, the champion paused his barrage and looked at referee Charlie Daggert to halt the fight. Inexplicably, he instructed Williams to continue the assault. Jack’s head snapped back four more times before the fight was finally waved off.