On Literally Throwing in the Towel
Sentences, like news bulletins, were lighting up behind my brows, “He doesn’t have health insurance. He has a family…”
While boxing may have seeped to the bottom of the back pages of the sports section, it still provides some of the most potent metaphors for capturing the hurly-burly of life. We encourage those who have absorbed a blow “to get up off the canvas” and praise others for never “throwing in the towel!”
“Throwing in the towel” is a symbol of surrender in the stylized war that is the prize ring. It is a gesture that goes back to bare-knuckle days when a combatant’s corner, judging their man to be beaten and in danger, could fling in the sponge in the midst of the action and end the contest.
In 1909 the corner of the “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries ran up the white flag when their man was being thrashed by Jack Johnson. Max Schmeling’s trainer did the same, when Joe Louis brutally pummeled his fighter in their 1938 encounter.
Few people have had the experience of literally throwing in the towel. Unfortunately I have, last weekend—and it felt like a left hook to the liver.
On the local circuit in professional boxing there are two dressing rooms: one for the local favorites and another for those, who like my boxer, were basically being paid to get fed to the young lions. For most fighters, the most challenging part of the fight is that last couple of hours when you are waiting to go into the ring. We were parked a floor below the ring level in a men’s room turned locker room. It was like being in the belly of the beast. You could hear the mad roar of the crowd erupting as some near decapitating blow landed. One after another of our dressing room comrades came back panting and in sullen defeat.
A lanky welterweight returned with a long angry gash over his eye came back and plopped in a folding chair. He sat shaking his head and repeating “I have to train harder, have to get back to work.” Another came back with welts all over his sizable belly and a broken rib. He didn’t have his ego eggs in boxing. The loss was no big deal. His trainer pulled a couple of cold ones out of their ice bucket. They laughed the beating off and talked of getting an MMA booking in a few weeks.
But for us it was dead serious. We were the co-featured fight. It was a televised bout and the chance of a lifetime for my fighter, a 30-year-old guy, who after long days in a factory would come home, help with his kids, and train at night. For him the $2500 paycheck was nothing to sneer it.
It was my first experience as a head trainer at this level of the bruising art and though I worked to look the picture of calm I was getting clocked by combinations of worries. ”What if the other guy has a left hook that I never saw on tape? What if my guy can’t get inside?” I tried to channel my mentor, the late Angelo Dundee, praying and thinking, “I can handle anything but please don’t put me in a position where I have to think about stopping the action, about ‘throwing in the towel.’”
When we stepped into the ring, the undefeated and bankrolled opponent, who was four inches taller and 10 years younger, now looked to be about 10 pounds heavier. Boxers weigh-in the day before a bout but in the next 24 hours can easily pack on pounds.
The first stanza went well, but in the second the other kid was starting to find his range with the jab and straight right. When my guy came back to the corner, I put my hand on his legs, looked intently into his flashing eyes, and exhorted, “Get inside, get the angles and let your hands go—attack!”
However, this wasn’t the movies, and that is not quite how it went. Our opponent was closing the gap, timing big shots. In seconds, matters went from manageable to five-alarm. Even though my fighter was in great fettle, the stress of having to cope with this bigger and younger fighter was getting to him. He was pushing his blows, feather punching.
A minute into the third, a left-right combination landed square. You could see the silver beads of perspiration fly, as my fighter fell back and his knee hit the canvas. After an eight-count, my man was back in the fray, bravely punching away, but getting drubbed with big punches down the middle.
Suddenly, amid the din, my grizzled cutman whispered, “Throw in the towel, this kid is too strong and he is too tired.”
“He can make it to the end of the round. I’ll see how he is,” I muttered without looking away. But just then another thudding shot exploded on my fighter’s forehead. Now, both his eyes were swollen and he was breathing through his mouth—a sure sign of exhaustion.
Like sweat, the thought was starting to drip, “There are three rounds to go—and no chance of winning.” In the world of the ring there is endless palaver about never quitting. Throwing in the towel is a radical move, almost taboo. As though I were getting ready to pull the lever on the electric chair, I clutched the white towel, watching, waiting, hoping that I could put it down, then another gloved fist came crashing through the gate.
Sentences, like news bulletins, were lighting up behind my brows, “He doesn’t have health insurance. He has a family.”
Robot-like I stood up and let the white cloth fly into the night and over the ropes. Just as I let it go my guy landed a hard jab. It took about a half second for that towel to shift the scene, but fast as a dream, the mad frenzied action screeched to a halt.
My boxer came back to the corner with his arms extended, gloves up and his face squinched up like a 10-year-old boy. “What? What are you doing?” He kept shaking his head in disappointment as though the man who had been with him five to six days a week for the last two years had suddenly put a shiv in his back. Maybe I did, I didn’t know.
As I was cutting off the gloves, the ref slid over and assured, “Great stoppage.” A few minutes later, the doctor said the same. They could see what I had seen. But the crowd moaned for being cheated out of the coup de grâce. Our opponent, now 11-0, felt so cheated that he broke a cardinal rule and didn’t even come over to shake hands.
In boxing, at least in the US, whenever you get trounced but take a brutal beating, people slap you on the shoulder and praise you for having a certain part of the male anatomy. It is as though the crowd gets its red badge of courage with the fighter’s blood. Oddly enough, boxing people love to quote Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Not always so. I have been around boxing long enough to know that those hurricane blows can shake the hinges off the world behind the brows. And if the bout has gotten out of hand and there is next to no chance of winning?
A few minutes later down in the locker room, we were alone and I was holding ice packs on both my boxer’s eyes. There was a long uncomfortable silence and then I said in a hush, “I love you man, you’re family. I couldn’t let you get hurt.” There was a moment of silence, and then choking back tears he burbled, entiendo, entiendo, I know…I know.”