By Elliot Worsell

LIKE anything rewarding, to win a fight in its closing stages when down on the scorecards requires more of the victor than any other kind of win. By its very nature, it suggests the victor has, until the point of victory, been losing, and struggling, and worried both that they have surrendered too many rounds and left it too late for any attempted comeback. No doubt in great pain as well, plus wracked with uncertainty, for them to then unexpectedly turn things around results in an outpouring of emotion the likes of which you see only in classic stage plays – scripted, always.

This was proved again on Saturday night (March 2) when Raymond Ford prevented a first career defeat by stopping Otabek Kholmatov with just seven seconds to go in their featherweight fight. Behind on the cards at the time, he dramatically rallied late, knowing only a stoppage would do, and he attacked Kholmatov with all the urgency and desperation required in that moment. He was then duly rewarded to the tune of a last-ditch stoppage win and a WBA title; while the rest of us were rewarded with maximum drama and a Fight of the Year contender.

Ford celebrates his dramatic win (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)

Immediately, of course, the sight of Ford rallying in this manner brought to mind similar scenarios from the past. It brought to mind fights like the 1990 super-lightweight title classic between Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor, for example, remembered not only because it was a huge fight between unbeaten fighters but because it concluded with Chavez, the one trailing on the cards, finishing Taylor with just two seconds left to run on the clock.

As big a talking point as boxing has ever seen, there is still much debate today as to whether the referee, Richard Steele, made the right call that night in Las Vegas. Some say he did. They say time left in a fight is irrelevant at the moment at which a wounded fighter is counted and that the only context a referee needs is on the face of the wounded fighter. They also say Taylor was hurt, badly, and that, despite getting to his feet, allowing him to continue in the fight would have been detrimental to his long-term health.

Others, however, of the belief Steele panicked and acted in haste, were not quite so forgiving. They said Taylor should have received the benefit of the doubt and been trusted to hang on for the remaining seconds of the fight and therefore claim his win. They said he deserved the opportunity to go out on his shield, if indeed that was to be his fate.

“I made the right call at the right time,” Steele told me a few years back. “I only wish I could have made the call earlier to save the young man. Because of that fight, he was never the same again.

“This kid was a great fighter and a gold medallist at the (1984) Olympics. Not only was he winning the fight, I thought he had a chance to finish it.

“But Meldrick was winning rounds as if it was an amateur fight – on points – and Chavez was the one doing bodily harm. He was breaking bones. Meldrick swallowed four pints of blood. Man, that is something. All the bones were shattered in his right eye. He took a beating.

“When he got hit by that right hand, it was over. He didn’t know where he was. He couldn’t answer me.”

In many ways Steele’s decision to protect Taylor in round 12 was vindicated by Taylor’s subsequent demise, both in terms of form and physical health. Yet the harsh reality of this demise has done little to stop the criticism aimed at Steele, who has since had to accept that fans who watch the fight on YouTube will see only what they want to see and will never be able to share his viewpoint.

“At first, I was sick of it,” Steele said of the backlash. “But I had the privilege of getting some medical reports which explained why he couldn’t answer me. Not only was his body dehydrated, his brain was dehydrated. He had no liquids in his body or in his skull. That’s why he couldn’t answer me.

“After I got that information, I was very proud of what I did. Wherever I go, people ask me about that fight. But now they understand I did the right thing. It took the world a long time to realise I did the right thing.”

Julio Cesar Chavez nails Meldrick Taylor with a right hand during their 1990 fight

To find yourself on the receiving end of a last-gasp stoppage is about as painful a feeling as any boxer can experience; the sinking feeling of so-near-yet-so-far only compounded by the throbbing of your head, the aching of muscles, and the blood on your tongue.

On the flipside, however, you will find no euphoria as great as that experienced by the winner in this kind of fight. Though it’s true their body will also ache and beg for mercy, the emotional release, and the relief of transitioning from loser to winner in seconds, is probably unmatched by any other feeling in the sport.

After all, such is the swiftness of the about-turn, they are one thing in one moment and then something else in the next. They have died and been reborn within a three-minute round, blessed now by a perspective they hitherto lacked; an appreciation, that is, of what it truly means to win.

This certainly rang true in the case of Carl Froch when he met Jermain Taylor in Mashantucket in 2009. That night, Froch struggled getting to grips with Taylor early, even finding himself decked in round three, before going on to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat with 14 seconds left in the 12th round.

“I panicked against Jermain Taylor because it was the first time I’d ever been put down and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Froch explained. “I got hit by the shot, put down and thought to myself, Bollocks, so this is what it feels like to be knocked down.

“It wasn’t a shot that particularly hurt me. I have been hurt – not as in ‘ouch’ hurt, but mind scrambled – by other shots in my career and stayed up from them. There have been times when I’ve felt dizzy and my legs have gone from shots that people haven’t even picked up on.

“The Taylor one put me down because it was a hurtful shot in a sense, but was also more of a balance thing. I was just about to chuck a right hand of my own, my body weight twisted and changed, and Taylor hit me at the point where my leg bent. I went over fairly easily as a result, but not because it was the biggest shot I’d ever taken in my career. It was more of a circumstantial thing.”

Up at the count of seven, Froch glanced in the direction of his corner, seeking both reassurance and ideas. “My head was totally clear when I was on the floor,” he said. “I looked over at Rob (McCracken, trainer) as if to say, ‘What the hell just happened there?’ I took the eight count, stood up, and as I was standing I thought to myself, Are my legs gone right now? Remember, I’d never been here before, so I wasn’t entirely sure how you were supposed to feel at a moment like that. Everybody talks about how you need to cling on and buy time after a knockdown because your head isn’t clear and your legs are unsteady, but I wasn’t sure what state I was in. I felt reasonably good. I did a little bounce just to make sure, smiled and then beckoned Taylor in for some more. It was at that point I realised my legs were okay and I’d got off lightly.”

Somehow galvanized by the experience, Froch grew as the fight progressed and did his best work down the stretch. Better yet, the stoppage he managed to eventually execute in round 12, with just 14 seconds on the clock, was spared all of the controversy that marred the stoppage of a different Taylor back in March 1990. This one, unlike Meldrick’s, was conclusive and very much on the cards by that stage. As dramatic as it was, it was something to which Froch had been building, albeit slowly, for some time.

“I like being in a fight where I’m well on top of my opponent and I sit down on my stool at the end of a round knowing he, my opponent, is feeling a million times more tired and hurt than I am,” Froch said. “You look across the ring and you know you’ve got him. You can’t wait to get out there and put it on him again. When I had Taylor hurt and on ‘queer street’ in round 10, I couldn’t wait to get out there again in round 11 and then round 12 and really put it on him. I needed to finish him off to win the fight.”

Carl Froch

Carl Froch

Interestingly, when discussing this fight with me two years after it happened, Froch would just as soon renege on what he had moments ago said in order to take a different approach to explaining the emotions involved that night. Doing away with the cliches and the soundbites normally offered to television, he proceeded to now be true to himself and say exactly what was on his mind – both in conversation with me and while sitting on the stool looking across the ring at Taylor.

“To be honest,” he said, “if against Taylor I was given the choice of having those final two rounds or just stopping after 10, I’m not sure what route I would have taken.

“The winner in me wants to reverse the scorecards and knock this man out, but the hurt, tired and bruised fighter in me just wants to go home – so long as I could still claim a win. If his corner had pulled him out at that stage and the ref waved it off, I would have been elated not to have to go through with those final two rounds, despite the fact I was on top and beating him up.

“Really, even when you’re in the ascendancy, it’s not fun fighting three minutes from bell to bell, well aware that one punch can change everything. Fighters like to say that they want to finish fights of their own accord and score a conclusive knockout or stoppage, but, if given the choice, I’d always take the other option and get out as quickly as I could. If I’m honest, I wasn’t really enjoying it at that late stage in the Taylor fight. Obviously, I was happy I was turning it around and had him hurt, but I wasn’t enjoying it in the same way a footballer might enjoy a game of football or a tennis player enjoys a game of tennis. I didn’t want to prolong the action just because I was dominant. You’ll never get that in boxing. If somebody offers you the chance to get out early with a win, you take it every day of the week.”

Often, in boxing as in life, the line between something you enjoy and something you hate is so fine it is hard to determine on which side of it you stand. Similarly, a line just as fine can be found between pain and pleasure, two things diametrically opposed yet still always in conversation with each other; one either goading or enhancing the other; both needed for a complete understanding.

This is never truer than in the case of a final-round stoppage, of course, for it is then everything is not only experienced but required: love, hate, pain, and pleasure. It is usually then that a boxer understands what it is to be alive.