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It Is Always, Always, Always Better To Stop A Fight Too Early

BY Michael Woods ON June 24, 2010
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Being a degenerate boxing addict, Ive been known to seek out old issues of Ring, or other similar periodicals, from time to time. Last week, I was at a flea market and a vendor had some old Rings. I snagged a couple, took them home, and popped one, from August 1971, open. My jaw hit my chest when I saw the very first feature in the issue. Mercante Blasts Referee For Stopping Benvenuti Fight on Towel-Tossing, the headline blared. This was just a couple weeks after a towel tossing event stamped the first boxing event to be held at Yankee Stadium since Ali-Norton III in 1976 with a seal of eternal controversy.

The story, by writer Dan Daniel, concerned the May 8, 1971 Carlos Monzon-Nino Benvenuti middleweight clash, which unfolded in Monte Carlo. The fight was halted in the third round when Benvenuti’s manager, one Bruno Amaduzzi, threw in a white towel after his man was sent to the mat for the second time, the first occasion which occurred the round prior. The referee in charge was a man named Victor Avendano, and he accepted the towel, even after Benvenuti indicated he wanted to continue, by kicking the towel out of the ring.

Daniel wasn’t present at the affair, but he attempted to learn more about the controversial ending by talking to one Arthur Mercante, who was present at the bout in Monte Carlo. Mercante, in fact, flew in to referee the scrap, but was surprised to learn that an Argentine, Avendano, was in fact chosen to be the arbiter. So Mercante was tapped to be a judge instead. The New Yorker, who passed away on April 10th at age 90 and best known for being the third man in the ring during “The Fight of the Century,” Ali-Frazier I, weighed in on the ending of the Monzon-Benvenuti beef. That was a rematch from their Nov. 11, 1970 fight, a TKO12 win for Monzon which Ring called their fight of the year.

Senior didn’t pull a single punch: “Had I been the referee I would have thrown the towel back into Benvenuti’s corner and ordered the contest to continue. In my travels around the world as an official, in my assignments as referee in New York, I always have held to the unchallenged fact that only the referee, or the officially assigned doctor, can stop a fight. The New York Commission’s rule book says: ‘All seconds are prohibited from throwing any towel into the ring as a token of defeat,’’ Mercante told Daniel.

To refresh your memory, and to better enable you to compare and contrast the controversial towel goings on, you’ll recall that at Yankee Stadium on June 5, referee Arthur Mercante Jr, the son of the man going public in Ring with his dismay at the towel tossing in Monte Carlo, refused the presence of a white towel, meant to indicate submission, thrown in by Yuri Foremans corner in round seven. He followed the rules of the commission he works for, though he still drew heat from naysayers who picked apart his performance.

Youll recall that chaos reined on the night, as the towel was tossed in, but Mercante threw it back out, and allowed Miguel Cotto and Foreman, gimpy on a bum knee, to keep fighting. People spilled into the ring, thinking the fight was over, but the round re-started, as the stadium buzzed with confusion.

Only the referee may stop the bout, the sports unified rules state, and Mercante exercised his authority to the utmost. He said after the bout that he wasnt sure who threw the towel in, and besides, he believed that Foreman deserved a chance to fight on, and finish on his terms. Debaters weighed in after, citing Mercantes track record, arguing that since hed been involved in situations where it looked like a man took more punishment than he should have, the second generation arbiter should be extra wary of letting a fight go on one punch too long. This being the internet age, far different from when Ring ran a story on a fight which went down in May in their August issue (which likely would have come out in July), Mercante Jr was hit from all angles from people disagreeing with his handling of the situation. YouTube suggestions to view past instances when Junior was too slow on the hook were offered.

Mercante the younger’s attempt to explain what went down at Yankee Stadium wasn’t as successful as his father’s, it must be said. In defending his actions, he talked to the Daily News Tim Smith about a prior instance when hed been accused of being slow on the draw to call for a halt, the June 26, 2001 Beethaeven Scottland-George Khalid Jones bout. Scottland, a 26-year-old Maryland resident, absorbed frightful punishment at the hands of Jones, but was allowed to continue combat, before Scottland was driven to the canvas in the tenth, where he lay unconscious for several minutes before being transported by paramedics to a hospital. Comparing the Foreman deal to the Scottland tragedy, Mercante said, That was different. Its my understanding that he was injured more from being banged around in the elevator as they were trying to get him down to the ambulance.

Mercante was likely referring to this element of the tragedy, as recounted by Smith in a July 30, 2001 story in the News.

“Then, when Scottland was knocked unconscious in the 10th round, emergency medical technicians had trouble fitting his stretcher into the elevator of the World War II-era Intrepid.

It all goes to the issue of planning, said Cliff Stern, an attorney for the firm of Johnnie Cochran, who has been retained by Scottlands widow. When you have a boxing match, it should be assumed that someone might be seriously injured and might need a hospital. And we know now that he had a brain bleed, where every second counted.

Scottland died six days after the bout. To our knowledge, the folly in the elevator was never fingered as being the cause, or a clear contribution, to the brain damage which killed Scottland. That EMTs had difficulty fitting Scottland, on a stretcher, into the elevator was discussed as the possibility of a lawsuit on behalf of the Scottland family was discussed, but to my knowledge that tidbit never rose above a footnote in the sad saga. If Mercante Jr. assuages any guilt he feels for not halting the Scottland bout by choosing to focus on a delay in getting the injured man to a hospital, we can understand his method of coping. Or maybe it’s better to say, we understand as best we can without walking a mile in his shoes, that a man in his position could use assuagement. But I’d offer that to traffic in such willful self delusion, while perhaps helpful to his psyche, does the men who rely on him to gauge their fitness for combat no favors. I concede that it’s more than possible Arthur Jr was only in CYA mode because he perceived he was on the ropes as a reporter hammered away, that he in his heart of hearts has a clear understanding of what if anything he did wrong on the night Scottland died.

Three weeks after that Yankee Stadium fight, I am left with hopefullness, that the son fully comprehends the choices he has made in the past, and accepts his role in what went down, on the night Scottland died, and on June 5th. The son can perhaps take solace in the knowledge that his dad had to wrestle with many of the same questions he does; but his task is made infinitely more difficult by the memory, which will never fade, of what happened back on the Intrepid on June 26, 2001.

I can only speculate on what Arthur Sr might have said to Arthur Jr if they talked about the Foreman-Cotto fight, and the handling of the towel tossing. We both followed the rules as written, the father could well have said to the son in a preamble.

Senior, that Ring story makes clear, was quite intent on being the boss in that squared circle. Junior, too, has showed that quality since he began reffing in 1987, which could be seen as resolve, or stubbornness, depending on how you view his handling of murky situations. Please forgive me if you consider my speculating maudlin; but I’d hope the father would say something like this: “Son, it is always, always, always better to stop it too early, rather than too late. No one will talk about a fight you stopped “too early” in five, ten, twenty five years. Not so for a fight you stopped “too late.’”

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