Bradley's Move Was Hailed As Brilliant: Not So, Says Kimball

BY George Kimball ON April 06, 2009
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Since boxing is a sport that trades on its legends, we’re generally not disposed toward debunking myths, particularly those that support an otherwise plausibly good storyline, but since this one appears to be taking on a life of its own it might be a good idea to nip it in the bud, lest it spawn an entire generation of puglists suddenly disposed to crawling around on their knees for all the wrong reasons.

In the first round of last Saturday night’s 140-pound unification fight in Montreal, Kendall Holt unleashed a left hook that looked capable of taking Timothy Bradley’s head off. Bradley went down like he’d been popped with one of those stun-bolt guns they use in slaughterhouses, but then, amazingly, bounced right back to his feet.

A second later he reconsidered that hasty rise and deliberately took a knee while referee Michael Griffin continued to count.  At ‘eight,’ Bradley sprung back to his feet, and not only lasted the round but went on to win a unanimous decision, despite the knockdown and a later trip to the canvas in the bout’s waning seconds.

Al Bernstein, calling the fight for Showtime, credited Bradley’s “quick thinking” after the knockdown as a critical factor in the eventual outcome. A quick survey of that night’s coverage reveals that the boxing media seems to have bought wholesale into the notion that Bradley’s decision to take a knee either won, or helped him win, at the Bell Centre that night.

Depending on whose account you’re reading, “some quick thinking by Bradley in the first round saved his night,” or Bradley “intelligently took a knee,” or that “the Californian wisely elected to get back down.”  Another online scribe – the same guy who called me “stupid,” by the way – referenced Bradley’s “clever” move.

But it occurred to us that night that, far from being a brilliant tactic, it may well have been a foolish one, and that at best it was irrelevant. Bradley, after all, was going to get a mandatory eight-count from the referee. Once he was up, it seemed self-evident that it required a greater expenditure of energy to (a) go down on his knee and (b) get back up again than if he’d simply composed himself while he took the count on his feet.

When I brought this point up at the post-fight press conference, Bradley, his trainer Joel Diaz, and his promoter, Gary Shaw, all looked at me like I had two heads. Bradley confirmed that he had gone back down at the direction of his corner. Shaw waved the query away, dismissively grunting his assurance that Bradley “did the right thing.”  

By then it was nearly 2 am, and since there obviously wasn’t going to be a dialogue on the matter, I allowed it to drop, though in a report filed that night I did note that since Bradley was going to get a count either way, “it didn’t seem particularly material whether he did it on his feet or on his knee.”

No one else seems to have given it much thought at all, judging from the almost universal praise heaped upon Bradley for his “brilliant” move, but a random survey of top trainers and officials undertaken over the past few days confirms that far from being “the right thing,” it was almost assuredly the wrong thing.

That it came at the behest of his trainer only compounds the transgression. To be sure, in an earlier age of boxing – one that had ended before Joel Diaz was even born – the trainer’s directive would have been meritorious, but you have to wonder about a trainer who would dispense that instruction in 2009. Does he also feed his boxers steak and raw eggs for breakfast – after they’ve finished chopping all their wood for the day?

The ancient axiom upon which this time-honored theory relied was summarized by Rocky Marciano’s trainer Charlie Goldman, as quoted by the great A.J. Liebling in The Sweet Science:  

“If you’re ever knocked down, don’t be no hero and jump right up. Take a count.”

Goldman’s logic was impeccable -- under the rules of the day. In the absence of a mandatory 8-count, as Liebling put it, “hostilities were de regle as soon as the fallen man got to his feet.”  

And since a boxer was penalized no more for a knockdown that lasted nine seconds than one that lasted two, it made perfect sense for a man who might be buzzed to stay down and take advantage of the respite while he gathered his wits.  A guy who jumped up at ‘three’ marked himself as a novice, since he would be fair game a second or two later.

But the theory was already edging toward obsolescence even in Liebling’s day. The New York commission, for instance, had already adopted the mandatory 8-count by the mid-1950s. Liebling, incidentally, was no great fan of the then-new regulation, which he described as “a foolish, though well-intentioned rule.”

“Whenever a boxer is knocked down, the referee must stop the fight for eight seconds, even if the man is back on his feet by ‘One,’” wrote Liebling. “This is designed to protect boxers from the effects of their own imprudence, but has resulted merely in atrophy of their estimative powers. Formerly boxers stayed down as long as they could when they were truly hurt. When they were undamaged, they got up as quickly as possible, in order to minimize the seriousness of their mishap. Now they all bounce to their feet as if conscious, secure in the knowledge they will get the eight seconds anyway. This substitutes a reflex for the exercise of reason. It is also hard on the fellow who, after staying on the mat until “eight’ or ‘nine,’ might have decided to remain there.”  

More than half a century later, the mandatory 8 is with us to stay. It is incorporated into the rules of the WBA, the WBO, and the IBF, and while the WBC does not specifically require it, it obtains in virtually all of that sanctioning body’s title fights as well. The mandatory 8-count is used in every state jurisdiction, and is incorporated into the Unified Rules that obtained last Saturday in Montreal.

Whether Bradley might have just stayed down in the first place is at best a debatable point, but once he was up, the experts seem to agree, taking the knee was just plain dumb.

Three-time Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach, who is training Manny Pacquiao for his May 2 encounter with Ricky Hatton, watched Bradley-Holt with some interest, since Bradley looms a future rival for the winner, and had the same reaction we did.

“Why would you go back down again?” wondered Roach. “He was already up, so he should have stayed up.”

“Taking a knee after getting up is a bad idea,” said Randy Neumann, a top-echelon New Jersey referee. “It involves too much activity, at what is not a good time.”

“With the mandatory eight, I’d rather have all my boxers get to their feet if they can,” said Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. “But once he was up, getting down on his knee was, as you say, not only a big waste of time and energy, but it could have been dangerous. What if his legs had been shaky when he got back up? The referee might have stopped the fight.”

(How many times have you seen that happen? A boxer goes down from a punch, stays there to collect his thoughts, gets up late in the count, and then when the referee asks him to step toward him he lurches ever so slightly and all of a sudden the ref is waving his arms.)

“How is a fighter going to even know if his legs are all right if he’s still on the canvas?” asked Steward. “The legs recover best if he’s on his feet.”

“If a guy looks like he might be dazed when he gets knocked down, you might want him to stay down a little rather than struggle to get right back up,” said Goody Petronelli, who trained Marvelous Marvin Hagler. “But going back down when he’s already up? I agree; it sounds like a rookie move. It makes no sense at all.”

One other point might be made about the efficacy of the tactic. Freddie Roach recalled an episode at Foxwoods half a dozen years ago. Mohamed Abdulaev, the 2000 Olympic champion from Uzbekistan, was unbeaten as a pro and well ahead in his bout against Emmanuel Clottey when he was decked in the 10th and final round. Abdulaev got to one knee and looked over at this corner, where his trainer was motioning him to stay down while Mike Ortega administered the count.

“Trouble was,” recalled Roach, “he didn’t speak English, so he just stayed there on his knee and got counted out.”

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