Fight On, Or Fight Another Day?: Many Boxers Have Quit During Battle; Only Some Are Forgiven

(Photo: Tom Hogan, Golden Boy)

Lucas Matthysse lost to Viktor Postol in a junior welterweight fight Saturday night on HBO. After being dropped with a hard counter right hand in the 10th round, the normally menacing Matthysse got to his knees, rubbed his head with his gloves, and remained there until referee Jack Reiss counted to 10 and ended the fight. It was the first time Matthysse had ever been stopped. He wasn’t being pounded. He wasn’t out on his feet before falling. He didn’t stay down because he had to. He stayed down because he didn’t want to get up. He quit.

After the fight, Matthysse commented that he felt something pop in his eye. He told Max Kellerman through interpreter Jerry Olaya, “I could have gotten up, but I prefered to stay down.” I have no doubt that Matthysse felt something funny in his eye. I also have no doubt that he stopped fighting after he realized that he couldn’t win. Postol was too tall, too lanky, too difficult to overcome. And so “The Machine” decided to shut it down. There are few things worse in sports than to be considered “a quitter,” especially in boxing. But why do some fighters take more heat than others for not fighting on when they were capable of doing so?

Bill Dettloff, former senior writer for Ring Magazine and author of the fantastic “Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life,” tweeted an interesting question: “Can you imagine the crap Floyd Mayweather would be getting right now if he ever quit on his knees the way Matthysse did Saturday night?” The answer is simple: He’d get DESTROYED by fans and media alike. Obviously, Mayweather has plenty of detractors who are just looking for a reason to shred the guy. When you call yourself “TBE,” or, The Best Ever, you cannot quit a fight and walk away unscathed. But take Mayweather out of the equation. If Manny Pacquiao had not been knocked stiff in his fourth fight with nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez, if he’d instead been dropped only to make it to one knee before calling it a day, there’d be some intense heat directed his way directly thereafter.

So is it a question of stature? Are better fighters critiqued more harshly if they quit during a fight? Certainly Roberto Duran, one of the greatest fighters of all time, suffered from a badly tarnished reputation after he quit in his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard. He didn’t quit from pain, or a one-sided beating. He was frustrated. He couldn’t do what he wanted to do with Leonard, so he walked away from a fight that was ironically quite close on the judges’ scorecards.

Miguel Cotto is still unforgiven by some who watched him take a knee for the full ten count when he fought Antonio Margarito in 2008. Cotto fought well early on, but the effects of Margarito’s relentless attack coupled with the realization that Margarito was not only walking through Cotto’s punches, but welcoming them with a psychotic half-smile, became too much. After a wicked beating, with Cotto’s face a disgusting mess, he decided that he’d had enough.

But then there’s Erik Morales, the Mexican legend who fought Pacquiao three times. After winning the first and being stopped in the second, they squared off in a rubber match in late 2006. By then, Pacquiao had firmly established himself as a mini-monster. Morales was overwhelmed. He sat down, shook his head at his corner in a gesture that said a thousand different things, and let the count expire.

Morales quit that night. But calling Morales a quitter is exceptionally obtuse. And really, everyone knew that, which is why nobody seemed to mind when he didn’t get up. He wasn’t laughed at, or disregarded as some coward. People knew better. He’d prove just how much grit he actually possessed a few years later, when he fought grenade launcher Marcos Maidana. The fight was a complete mismatch on paper. Many fans and writers openly feared for Morales’ safety. Hospital beds were booked in advance for him. Morales then fought with an eggplant for an eye, giving Maidana hell for 12 rounds. Morales was no quitter.

These are all elite fighters, but what about Victor Ortiz? Brought up as Golden Boy’s next-big-thing, he fought Maidana in 2009. He dropped his opponent. But then Maidana got up, and he was able to convince Ortiz that maybe getting punched in the face wasn’t all that great. Ortiz quit halfway through the fight. He wanted no more of what was in front of him. He still hasn’t recovered from the character-pounding.

To me, the answer is a combination of things. Obviously, a better fighter, one who is considered elite, will be critiqued more than a so-so fighter. But there’s more to it than that — it’s what a boxer does before, and most definitely after giving up on a fight that determines how the public handles him laying down his sword. The perception of Ortiz is generally not a positive one because of stuff like this. He showed toughness in the ring against Andre Berto, but then acted like a moron against Mayweather. He’s had chances to recover. He probably won’t get another.

Vitali Klitschko was reviled for quitting on his stool, well ahead on points, when he injured his shoulder against Chris Byrd in 2000. Perhaps he could have continued, won a decision, and possibly done irreparable damage to his arm. He’d have never engaged in a spectacular fight with Lennox Lewis. He’d have never become an absolutely devastating heavyweight champion. He was able to erase that loss by redeeming himself in later fights. Better still, instead of quitting against Lewis when no one would have blamed him, he pleaded to continue despite fighting with what appeared to be a mostly empty eye socket.

On the other side, perhaps if Margarito had taken a knee against Pacquiao in their 2010 battle instead of desperately trying to survive until the final bell, his eye wouldn’t now look like a water balloon when hit with so much as a stiff breeze. Maybe his career wouldn’t have been cut short. Maybe that Cotto rematch would have gone differently…

Many athletes quit at one time or another. In other sports, it’s easier to hide. NFL players do it, either out of frustration or exhaustion. The results are usually nothing more than a lopsided defeat, one that can be straightened out the following Sunday. In boxing, there’s no team to hide behind. There are three guys in that ring. If one of them quits, people will notice.

It’s ludicrous to call a man a failure, or a quitter, based on one performance. Certainly, we can write about it however we please. But we aren’t in the ring. We aren’t tasting our own blood, watching our families gasp in horror as we take punches to the head. Most of us want our fighters to be something we’re not — superheroes. Obviously, it would look odd if Captain America dropped his shield during a battle, nodded over at the horrified onlookers and yelled, “Fuck this. You deal with it.”

If Matthysse is getting a pass from fans, it’s because he’s perceived as a badass. It’s also because he’s lost before. He’s not a top-10 fighter. To be blunt, he’s easier to forget. He’ll probably lose again. But he might come back in his next fight and absolutely destroy his opponent. He’ll get a chance to erase the loss, as he should.

Some boxers make the most of their redemption fights. If they’re successful, usually all is forgiven.

But some fighters prefer to stay down.