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The Third Man in the Ring: One Punch Too Early, One Punch Too Late

There could be no doubts, discussions or complaints this time around. It was one of those were the ref didn’t even bother taking up the count. Charlie Fitch was jumping in before George Grove’s body had come to a complete rest on the canvas floor. All of us watching could see the left leg folded under his body and the right arm hanging listlessly on the bottom rope, but Fitch could see more. He could see into his eyes. The challenger was gone, the fight was over, and Carl Froch had retained his WBA and IBF Super Middleweight belts by way of vicious eighth round knockout.

Six months previous was a different story of course. The end to the first Froch Groves battle left a taste in my mouth that lingered for days. What remained was not so much sour or bitter, (I watched the bout for free and from a position of total neutrality and thus feel no sense of financial or emotional robbery) but rather, confused and conflicted.

I decided to watch it again the whole way through, this time with all commentary and crowd reaction muted. I like to do this when the dust has settled following a controversial fight or disputed result. With one of your senses taken out of the equation, the others often heighten and in the cold, silent light of day, you invariably see more. More punches that landed and, conversely, more that were slipped. With sound removed, the action appears fractionally slower as well. A trick of the mind of course, but real enough to allow a more accurate analysis of blows that were thrown. Free of misleading and distracting aural stimuli from numerous competing partisan sources, it becomes easier to see what truly hurt and, just as importantly, what didn’t. It is in many respects a purer way to view a boxing match. It is never, however, how a referee watches a prize fight.

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Howard Foster stopped George Groves too early in Manchester last November. You will hear precious little contrary to this point of view from any boxing source outside the Carl Froch camp and I am not about to contradict the statement here. In the build up to the rematch, Groves never missed an opportunity to highlight Foster’s premature gesticulation. He went as far as to call it a stonewall robbery, and most had sympathy with his point of view. What troubles me, however, is why exactly we are all so certain that the ref jumped in too soon.

It is not putting too fine a point on it to say that a boxing referee has two lives in his hands when he is doing his job. It is a pressure and a responsibility that a Premier League ref cannot even imagine. Individual human existence, rather than merely the bonuses of obscenely rich footballers, are at stake between the ropes. It is an arena in which objectivity must dominate subjectivity. In the same sense that a red card tackle is a red card tackle whether in the midst of a meaningless lower league game or the first minute of the World Cup final, a boxer in serious trouble is a boxer in serious trouble whether in the first round of an inter-club tournament in the local gym or in the 9th round of WBA and IBF super-middleweight title fight. If George Groves should have been allowed to continue, it is not because of the occasion. Foster should not have been thinking: there’s a belt on the line here, this is this kid’s shot at the big time.

Neither should Groves have been allowed to continue on account of the amount of punishment his opponent had already absorbed in previous rounds. Those who base their criticism of Foster on an argument that Froch was afforded a lot more leeway in taking, and recovering from, sustained and damaging assaults from Groves earlier in the fight are also missing the point. Firstly, two wrongs cannot be allowed to make a right in a boxing ring. This is not akin to giving each team a soft penalty to even the score. It is dangerous folly to argue that the referee should allow a fighter to continue hitting an opponent to the extent that he himself had earlier been battered. The old law of an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.

Secondly, there is no way that Howard Foster could accurately and reliably compare the effects of the right-hand bombs that Groves landed, seemingly at will for most of the contest, on Froch’s chin with the impact that Froch’s 9th round barrage had on Groves’s senses. And neither should we expect him to attempt to. The safety of fighters demands that we never encourage boxing referees to allow such subjectivity or experiments in comparative studies to influence their decision making. Foster had to make a split-second decision on Groves’s ability to continue based on what he saw in front of him in round nine and round nine alone.

He didn’t do that of course, and herein lies the crux of my confusion and conflicting emotions. Every boxing referee enters a ring with a knowledge and appreciation of, and sensitivity to, the fight game that far surpasses that of the average fight fan. And, on a subconscious level at the very least, the weight of this enhanced understanding leans on him throughout the contest. He’ll be influenced by the two men sharing the square circle with him. By the warrior Froch or the chinny Groves. But more than that, he must surely be influenced by history.

While the names of Richard Green and Richard Steele may not ring many bells with the majority of the millions that tuned in for Froch Groves last year, you can be sure that Howard Foster knows who these men are. Or were. If I connect Green with Ray Mancini v Kim Duk-Koo and Steele with Julio Cesar Chavez v Meldrick Taylor, some of you may now recognise the names as well.

In the 1990 Chavez Taylor championship bout, referee Steele deemed Taylor unable to continue just two seconds from the end of a brutal fight in which he was ahead on the judge’s scorecards but wilting under the weight of a savage late assault from the Mexican champion. As the title of Taylor’s book says, he was Two Seconds from Glory before it was snatched away from him. But he kept breathing and he maintained a fuzzy less coherent version of the consciousness each of us are currently in. And in time the facial fractures healed, he stopped urinating blood, the dizzy spells all but disappeared and he got back in the ring and won a WBA belt barely a year down the line.

Unlike Steele, Richard Green stepped in too late. By the 14th round, Kim had already been to hell and back before the referee decided enough was enough. Within minutes the South Korean was in a coma and four days later he was dead. The tragedy led to a raft of rule changes in an attempt to make the sport safer for its protagonists but this was scant consolation to Green who took his own life less than nine months after watching young Kim lose his.

Recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, Steele believes that “God gave him a gift to see when a fighter has had enough”. Articulating his role as a protector of boxer’s health first and foremost, he maintains he was right to stop Taylor when he did. Such a stance failed to shelter him intense criticism and among the insults hurled his way were accusations of being in Don King’s pocket. Steele received abuse from fight fans for the remainder of his career for his trouble. But unlike Richard Green, he is still alive today. And unlike Kim Duk-Koo, so is Meldrick Taylor.

Only Howard Foster can tell you what goes through his mind during a fight and the extent to which the ghosts of fallen fighters and referees haunt his thoughts and cloud the theoretically objective lens through which he must view and rule on a contest. Did he see flashes of Eubank Watson or Benn McClellan as Froch landed repeatedly in round nine? Is that why he stopped it? We don’t know.

We also don’t know what his opinion is on the performances of Steele and Green in their most famous bouts or whether he thought of those two men as Groves’s hands hung low and Froch cocked his right. Maybe he did so involuntarily and instinct made him jump between the two and end the fight. Maybe his subconscious was telling him it is better to be Steele than Green – better to be accused of stopping a fight one punch too early than one punch too late. And if so, who can blame him? I truly hope that he, and every other boxing referee out there, does feel this way and yet herein lies the confusion and conflict and contradiction in my reaction to Foster stopping Groves. I still believe the stoppage was too early. But I perhaps only feel this way because I daren’t consider the outcome had it been another one which arrived one punch too late.

Paul Gibson
@BallsOfWrath

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