• Steve Bunce

It takes heart to deal with the hurt

Steve Bunce May 14, 2013
Jose Gonzalez was on top against Ricky Burns before the champion dug deep and broke his heart © PA Photos

Injuries are part and parcel of boxing, simple as that. It's how a fighter deals with those injuries, both inside and outside of the ring, that can make or break a career.

Take Kell Brook, for instance. He's injured his ankle, or hip, or shoulder, or big toe, or little finger, or eyebrow - he's injured something, and he's not dealing with it very well. Rather than stepping into the ring to fight for the IBF welterweight belt in Atlantic City on Saturday, he'll be watching Lee Purdy take on Devon Alexander in his place. Brook is still the IBF's mandatory challenger, but having called for two of the three postponements already he can surely see his chance slipping away and that is not good.

The experience could be the making of Brook - he could use this latest disappointment to turn his career into something special, get back in the gym and really concentrate. But Brook's been in that gym since he was seven year old, doing acrobatics when Prince Naseem Hamed was world champion. After all those years of sacrifice he must be wondering if he's ever going to get his world title shot, and that can break a man. It all depends how he reacts to the setback.

It's the same in the ring. Back in October 2000 in a British heavyweight title fight, Danny Williams dislocated his shoulder against Mark Potter. Early in the sixth round he unleashed a right cross, missed, and from that moment the arm simply hung limp by his side. It was grotesque - I watched that fight through my fingers - but he stuck in there. With Potter taking no prisoners and the referee panicking, Danny Williams knocked him out with his one good hand. He swung his left about 10 times and finally got lucky in the very same round he'd thrown the shoulder out.

There's a famous picture of Williams with arm taped to his side after the fight - it emerged later that his corner had already put the shoulder back in a couple of rounds earlier! That image, and that performance, forged the legend of Danny Williams: the guy who just won't go away. And I'm not using legend lightly, trust me.

There are boxers that have fought with broken hands, ribs, even jaws - Arthur Abraham defended his IBF middleweight belt against undefeated contender Edison Miranda on points with his jaw so grotesquely broken he looked like he had a theatrical prosthetic attached to his jaw and the blood ran claret-thick. Having survived a brutal fight, he battered Miranda in the rematch.

Of course, over the years there have been plenty of fighters who have been pulled out of fights by the referee or their corner, even themselves. Barry Jones piped up with the memory of Carl Thompson's 1995 defeat by Germany's Ralf Rocchigiani in their WBO cruiserweight world title fight in Manchester, where Thompson dislocated his shoulder in the 11th and retired. And let's not mince our words here: there are also those guys who look for a way out. They get cut, then after four or five rounds when the points can be tallied up they try to get out of the ring and nick it on points.

Kell Brook has been in the gym since he was seven years old - but is he still convinced it is all worth it? © Lawrence Lustig

Then there are guys like Jose Gonzalez, who retired on his stool at the start of the 10th round to hand Ricky Burns his third successful WBO world lightweight title defence. Fellow boxers are understandably disgusted with this, as are the fans, but I take a slightly more lenient view. The standard thinking is that you don't quit until the referee pulls you out, or counts to 10 over you, or until your corner screams that it's over. I agree with that - but there are circumstances attached to everything.

First, the kid had never been where he found himself as he sat down at the end of the ninth round. I know he's unbeaten, but he's also untested and unknown - he'd only been 10 rounds once before in a fight he had dominated on all three judges' scorecards. Barry is convinced Gonzalez is a bully, a typical big puncher who had only faced hand-picked opponents before being handed a world title shot. Given what happened in Glasgow, it's hard to disagree.

However, after controlling the first half of the fight Gonzalez injured his left wrist in a tough seventh round. Now, admitting that you've injured your left wrist is like admitting you've injured your toe: you just don't do it. You've either fractured your hand or you have broken your ankle, otherwise you just don't bring it up - it's not part of civilised conversation in boxing!

From that moment, Gonzalez seemed to lose a bit of desire. He lost the eighth and ninth rounds, but it's not like he's bleeding, bruised and falling all over the place. He sits down at the end of the ninth, possibly weight-drained as Billy Nelson suggested on this week's podcast, but certainly heartbroken. Ricky Burns may not have been on top but he was dogged, and after surviving the first six rounds he's been chasing Gonzalez, giving him the first real fight of his career. Asked to go where he's never been before, Gonzalez decided, 'my left hand hurts, but my heart hurts more - I'm gonna quit'.

I just don't think he had anything to offer after that point. Perhaps the kid just thought, 'I haven't got nine minutes left in my legs'. If he was weight drained, then fair enough - we know from serious head injuries over the last 30 years in this country that all but one of the 25 or so guys that have either died or had brain surgery after fights had been suffering at the weight and were in fights where making the weight was crucial. That is a factor.

Do I think he was right to quit? No. I think he should have gone out in the next round. If he had backed onto the ropes, put his hands up and let Burns open up on him for 30 seconds with the Glasgow crowd going mad, it would have been stopped anyway. Perhaps the corner should have told him that.

Now it's up to Gonzalez to work out what type of fighter he's going to be going forward, just as it's up to Kell Brook to decide whether or not he wants to put himself back in world title contention. As for Lee Purdy, he is certainly lucky to get a shot at Alexander, but he's also a former British champion and always keeps himself in good shape.

You can't really give Purdy much chance of an upset, but Devon Alexander is not a devastating, savage puncher. It's not like Lee is stepping into the ring with an in-form Miguel Cotto as Michael Jennings did in 2009, or with the brilliant Adrien Broner like Gavin Rees did earlier this year.

What's more, Alexander will have underestimated him. He probably resents the fact that he is no longer the main attraction - that will be the Lucas Matthysse-Lamont Peterson fight. There's every chance he will have taken his foot off the gas and will arrive underprepared. In contrast, Lee's had a good bit of time to prepare for this - it's a good three or four weeks since we've known that Brook was out of action. Guys with inferior records have had later call-ups and done themselves proud.

Lee will do the same, and he deserves every penny he makes on Saturday. He's a good, honest pro who has never conned anybody. Sure, he's a late sub, but not too late - and you know what? Stranger things have happened...

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.