BEFORE every fight I had during the second half of my career I used to tell my trainer on the way to the ring, “Whatever you do, no matter what happens, do NOT stop this fight! If I get hurt, then I get hurt, but, if it has to be stopped, let the referee do it.”
I meant it, too.
I can trace my thought process back to the morning after Muhammad Ali fought Larry Holmes in 1980 and I read in the paper before I left for school that Muhammad had gotten stopped. I was just 13 years old, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that he didn’t make it the distance. I wasn’t even boxing yet but I thought to myself that if I was ever a boxer I would never want to be stopped. That image of the great champ surrendering on the stool stayed with me for a long, long time.
Now I’m a trainer myself, I still remember how I felt as a fighter. It makes it much harder to stop a fight on your fighter’s behalf. I’ve only stopped two of them and one of the boxers, even now after many, many years, probably hasn’t forgiven me. But it was a fight that had to be stopped. And as trainers, that’s what we must do if we know our fighter is on the brink of being savagely knocked out – exactly like Mark Breland did when he saved Deontay Wilder in the Tyson Fury rematch.
However, I always think like the fighter and, even when the fight is going against us, try to work out how we can turn it around. Maybe the opponent will get tired, and we can overcome him. Maybe we hurt him with a body shot and slow him down. Any possibility of a change in course is enough to keep me going and, even when a fighter is in distress, I tend to believe he is thinking in a similar fashion. I know how distressing it is to not go the distance and as a fighter who wants to win, getting stopped can haunt us for a long time. It’s a sickening feeling, really, and I’m going to give the fighter every chance to not ever have to experience it.
We often hear fighters say that, to lose, then they’d need to be killed. It’s a shocking statement on the surface but it’s exactly how a fighter feels.
In 1993 I fought top contender Tony Thornton on a USA Tuesday night fights card at The Blue Horizon in Philadelphia and all my cuts from my previous fight opened very early in the fight. It was really bad. I was bleeding profusely. At one point the referee Rudy Battle came over to the corner and said if the cuts got any worse, he was going to stop the fight and I remember telling him that if he stops the fight I’m going to kill him and he told me to relax and chill out.
The fight went the distance and after the bell rang to end it he came over to me, laughing, and told me I had big, big heart. I am utterly convinced that if I didn’t verbally come at him like that, he would’ve stopped the fight a couple rounds later. My show of extreme desire is what kept me in the fight. He was a good referee and he recognised that.
In my mind, even in fights I was clearly losing, I always felt that I should be given until the very last bell to figure something out. I always felt I could outlast anyone on earth and, even if I was losing, I felt sooner or later, when you got tired, I was going to turn it around. It didn’t always work out that way of course but that was absolutely the mindset.
I often thought that I would rather die than get stopped and I’ve had several fights where I was in dire straits but even the referee and my own trainer didn’t realise because I hid it very well. I even had a fight where I was thinking I might very well be going through the same things that Gerald McClellan went through in the rounds before his collapse against Nigel Benn. In the middle of battle, though, my focus was on hiding it the best that I could.
You are actually training your mind to work in sync with your body to do things, if need be, that go against every idea of human self-preservation that there is. You will feel pains and experience feelings and thoughts that you’ve never dealt with before, the kind that would strike terror into many, but as a fighter you reject all these things and keep trying to move forward and, if possible, win the fight.
To a degree, you have to distance yourself from the potential of disaster.
It’s like playing Cops and Robbers when you’re a kid and you shoot the bad guys and they go down and pretend they are dead. Then when that’s over they get up and keep playing. I’ve seen personal friends of mine get knocked out badly in ways that had people in the audience gasping in disbelief, but I used to just stand there thinking to myself, “It’s just part of the game. It happens. But he’ll be okay. He’ll get up.” So, when I was telling trainers never to stop the fight, no matter what, I meant it.
Now older and wiser, and after being present at several ring deaths, I realise how insane that mindset really is, to prefer the thought of death to defeat.
I understand much more now as a trainer how much we don’t want our fighters to get hurt. As a fighter, though, it is a completely different mindset for sure. I’ve had severe cuts during fights, suffered from hallucinations, severe dehydration, a torn rotator cuff and my mindset never wavered – Do not, under any circumstances, stop the fight.
I am in a tough spot now sometimes because I might be working with a really focused fighter who also means it when he says he would rather die than get knocked out and I’ll absolutely give you every chance to get through it but, at the end of the day, it’s not my job to let you get knocked out if I know it’s coming.
Like my father told me one day when I was 14 years old in 1981 while talking about the Gerry Cooney-Ken Norton knockout, “You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to be a professional fighter.”