In Boxing, March Has Been the Month of Profiles in Courage

It is easy sometimes to forget just how much fighters, through the acceptance of pain as a necessary condition of their demanding trade, must endure to entertain spectators.

The determined nature of the most unyielding of the breed was again exemplified on March 10 at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. The main event of the ESPN-televised portion of the card was another entry in the thick March ledger of boxing profiles in courage, as Oscar Valdez (pictured on the right) retained his WBO featherweight championship on a 12-round unanimous decision over Scott Quigg. Valdez suffered a broken jaw in the fifth round of the two-way slugfest, but fought on despite the almost intolerable discomfort, blood spilling over his lower lip and pooling in his corner between rounds.

“I always knew this kid is special,” Valdez’s manager, Frank Espinoza, said of the two-time Mexican Olympian who was nailed on that broken jaw more than a few times and never backed off or even noticeably winced. “I’m very proud of Oscar. He showed a lot of grit. He went seven rounds with a broken jaw. I’ve always said he has the warrior spirit and he showed it against Quigg. There’s no quit in Oscar.”

Nor was there in Quigg, the combative Englishman who also knows a thing or two about what it takes to persevere through the agony of a broken jaw, having had his fractured in round four of his Feb. 27, 2016, super bantamweight unification loss to Carl Frampton. Despite falling increasingly behind on the scorecards, Quigg made it to the final bell against Valdez, trying to win to the last punch, despite suffering a broken nose and nasty cut to his left eye in the fifth round. Quigg’s gutty performance is all the more noteworthy in that he came in 2.8 pounds over the featherweight limit and would have not won Valdez’s title even if he had had his hand raised in victory.

“Both guys showed unbelievable heart,” said Eddie Hearn, Quigg’s promoter. “It was a brilliant fight. Both guys aren’t human.”

Near-superhuman displays of heart in the ring are a reason why fight fans are, well, fight fans. And March is a month when the authors of such demonstrations are especially celebrated. Valdez joins an exclusive club of never-say-die boxers who Marched on in fights in which they sustained and fought through levels of pain that most people can never comprehend. It is relatively easy to keep going when everything is going your way, not so much when every three-minute round seems an eternity, when an opponent’s blows must feel as they are being delivered with a baseball bat or tire iron instead of gloved fists.

Here, in chronological order, are three such bouts which I can never forget, and neither, I would imagine, can anyone who saw them:

Ken Norton SD12 Muhammad Ali, March 31, 1973

Everyone remembers the Muhammad Ali that existed prior to his being banned from boxing for three-plus years for refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. That Ali wasn’t impossible to hit, but nearly so, and his otherworldly mobility and reflexes caused many opponents to wonder if they were trying to capture wind in a bottle.

The Ali who came afterward was also a marvel to behold, but part of our continued fascination with him owed to his incredible penchant for soaking up and ignoring punishment in fights the earlier version of himself might have fared ever better. The post-layoff Ali still had a dizzying array of moves, but he was heavier, a smidgen slower, and his will sometimes put to the kind of test he seldom had to face in his earlier incarnation.

But while the resoluteness of that will was on display most memorably against George Foreman and in the epic rubber match with Joe Frazier, its wide introduction to the public came against a spectacularly muscled former Marine in a nationally televised bout in the San Diego Sports Arena, with Ali’s fringe NABF heavyweight belt on the line.

At 221 pounds, Ali looked a bit sluggish, even before Norton fractured his jaw with a right cross over a left jab in the second round. That might have been because he undertrained, wrongly believing that Norton, a former Joe Frazier sparring partner who came in as a 5-to-1 longshot, was easy pickings, and it might be because Ali had opted to proceed on the scheduled date despite having sprained an ankle in training a little more than a week earlier. Making matters worse was the badly swollen knuckle Ali incurred in the sixth round, causing him to throw it infrequently and with understandable caution.

“I’m so great I still went on,” Ali, his grotesquely swollen jaw wired shut, told Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule in a story that appeared in the magazine’s April 23, 1973, edition. “I’m fighting with a broken jaw and a bad ankle and a sore hand and people say I look bad. But in that last round (Norton) looked bad.”

Did Ali, at any point, think the broken jaw – he had to realize what had happened when, in the corner between rounds, there was “dark red, bluish blood comin’ out of my mouth” whenever his mouthpiece was removed – consider simply telling his corner to signal referee Frank Rustich that he could not proceed?

“I didn’t want to quit because there were too many people involved, all them people paid to get in to see me and all them people on television everywhere,” he told Maule.

No wonder the guy, with much justification, dubbed himself “The Greatest.”

Arturo Gatti KO 6 Wilson Rodriguez, March 23, 1996

Trying to select Gatti’s most thrill-packed fight is akin to Queen Elizabeth II checking out the crown jewels in the Tower of London and singling out a particular gem as her favorite. The choices are so plentiful, it’s like what ice-cream loving Americans faced when a newly launched Baskins-Robbins went beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry to offer consumers 32 options for satisfying their sweet tooth.

Fight fans who loved the blood-and-guts approach “Thunder” Gatti brought to his work have a similarly wide selection from which to choose. There is, of course, the legendary trilogy with Micky Ward, the two transcendental if losing clashes with Ivan Robinson, and the one-off wars with Angel Manfredy and Gabriel Ruelas.

But the fight that helped establish Gatti as the action hero of his era and an absolute must-see attraction, a white Matthew Saad Muhammad if you will, was his classic war of attrition with Rodriguez in the Theater at Madison Square Garden in which Gatti successfully defended his IBF super featherweight title. But it certainly was no walk in the park; Wilson, a tough customer from the Dominican Republic, was fighting for the second and final time for a world championship, and he threw himself into the effort with obvious relish.

Gatti had been in bigger and seemingly more significant fights. Four months earlier in the Garden’s big room, he had outpointed Tracy Harris Patterson to capture the IBF super featherweight belt. That victory earned him a long-term contract with HBO, whose decision-makers had correctly identified him as a future fan favorite.

Against Rodriguez, on the undercard of a Boxing After Dark tripleheader headlined by WBO super bantam champion Marco Antonio Barrera’s rousing 12th-round stoppage of Kennedy McKinney, Gatti gave a glimpse into the many seemingly improbable comebacks with which he would soon be associated.

Not known as a particularly devastating puncher, the technically proficient Rodriguez scored early and often in a first round which ended with Gatti already sporting a mouse under his left eye, a vision-limiting situation that was compounded by an ugly, purplish hematoma which would appear a bit later on and swell his right eye nearly shut, rendering him a barely defensive Mr. Magoo.

Faced with the very real possibility of his title reign ending after just 99 days, Gatti knew it was time to forget pondering Baskins-Robbins’ other 31 flavors. His only path to victory was to get Rodriguez out of there, and quickly, before referee Wayne Kelly gave him the rest of the night off for humanitarian purposes.

Fighting with desperation, Gatti, his face resembling that of a medieval gargoyle, floored Rodriguez in the fifth round, but was behind by three points on two of the official cards and up one on the other, going into the sixth where Gatti landed a crushing left hook, crumpling Rodriguez onto his back where he was counted out.

“I have the heart and I have what it takes to be a champion – and I did it,” Gatti told HBO analyst Larry Merchant during the in-ring post-fight interview.

Charles Brewer TKO10 Herol Graham, March 28, 1998

A fighter attempting to defend his world championship while nearly blinded is one thing; trying to do so while hopping around on one good leg is still another. And that’s what Brewer, the IBF super middleweight titlist from Philadelphia, gamely succeeded in doing against Graham, the clever British southpaw who was again bidding for a world title after two previous opportunities had come up short.

Brewer-Graham was on the undercard of a card in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, the prime attraction being WBC heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis’ fifth-round stoppage of Shannon Briggs, but there are those who would say that the show put on by the gallant Brewer was the most memorable effort of the night.

Gritting his teeth most of the way after badly spraining his right ankle, an injury that initially was thought to be broken, Brewer dragged himself off his stool round after round to encounter the 38-year-old Graham, who had to imagine his long quest to gain that elusive bejeweled belt was about to end on a winning note. And although Brewer stayed upright and was trying as valiantly as he could, referee Earl Morton and the attending ring physician seemed increasingly hesitant to allow him to hop his way to almost certain defeat.

“I couldn’t move like I wanted to,” Brewer said later during an in-ring interview in which he needed assistance from his cornermen to keep from falling down. “I couldn’t put any pressure on my right foot.”

But despite being floored twice in the round three – it did seem like the first trip to the canvas could have been ruled a push – a hobbled Brewer was giving a good enough account of himself to be down by only 86-84 through nine rounds on two official scorecards, and was even at 86-86 on the third – the window of opportunity seemed to be closing fast for the man known as “The Hatchet” to chop his way to a win. Also working against him was his dubious history against southpaws, two of his losses coming to Robert Thomas, who had handed the then-14-0 Brewer a six-round split decision loss on Sept. 20, 1991. Thomas was then 16-49-4, and he reprised his upset in a Jan. 12, 1992, rematch with an eight-round split decision.

Graham had poured fuel on the fire at the final pre-fight press conference, either intentionally or not, seeming to forget the name of the champion he hoped to unseat. “I’m going to stop … what’s his name? Oh, yeah, Charles Brewer,” Graham had said.

But Brewer marshaled however much energy he had left in the 10th round, hurting the surprised Graham with a flurry of big shots that would have been even more impactful had Brewer been able to plant both his feet. What did connect proved enough, however, and the winner and still champion left the ring with assistance, another example of what can happen when determination overcomes adversity.

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