On Literally Throwing in the Towel

By Gordon Marino on January 7, 2013
On Literally Throwing in the Towel
When Joe Louis pummeled Schmeling in their rematch, Max's trainer threw 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.”

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Jack Johnson vs James J. Jeffries (1910)



Louis vs Schmeling 2 Boxing



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  1. pugknows 10:59am, 01/10/2013

    Nicely done.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 06:41am, 01/10/2013

    Gordon Marino-Thank God for “grizzled cutmen”....this is the best up close and personal boxing article I have ever read.

  3. AKT 05:46am, 01/10/2013

    What a piece! First time, I have ever seen it from a trainer’s perspective.

    Thanks for that mate.

  4. the thresher 06:18pm, 01/09/2013

    A compassionate corner is a rare corner.

  5. Gordon Marino 08:36pm, 01/08/2013

    Thanks Mike. “Top of the noggin to bottom of the toes”—well said. Love to meet you at Gallagher’s but I’m a Jersey guy who has been exiled to the tundra of MN.  Ugh. All the best.

  6. FrankinDallas 06:18pm, 01/08/2013

    Good job protecting your fighter.

  7. Mike Schmidt 03:45pm, 01/08/2013

    For anybody that has been there then you know—this one hits you from the top of the noggin to the bottom of the toes—GREAT GREAT READ—I will be at Gallagher’s 8pm next Friday night Sir—if you care to join the lads and the steak is on me—again—fantastic read… did I ever tell you about the time….............

  8. Gordon Marino 09:52am, 01/08/2013

    That is quite a story Jason. It was terrible to make the fighter have to quit. You were right to be enraged. Thanks.

  9. Jason 09:48am, 01/08/2013

    I seen a guy get beat inside of three rounds of a scheduled 4 rounder in the light heavy. The guy was NOT a light heavy no matter what the scales said. I saw that as soon as he took off his robe. He was fat, short, with skinny undefined arms. He was probably a welterweight in his early twenties. Why he fought, and why others let him fight, is beside me. He had no record to speak of. Something like 7-4.

    I don’t normally disrespect a corner by hollering at them to stop the fight, but I did that evening. He was fighting a guy way out of his league. He knocked him down twice in the first and the poor guy wanted to quit then. The ref wouldn’t let him. I saw him puke in a bucket. Yes, you read that right. He puked in his bucket after the 2nd. This guy had a head injury. I was furious.

    To get to the point, he quit. No fighter should have to do that to himself. He quit on his stool after the 3rd round. His corner actually tried to pick up by his arms and stand him up. I wanted to climb in the ring and work over his corner men. I’m not sure why I got so worked up but that fight really bothered me.

  10. Gordon Marino 07:53am, 01/08/2013

    Meinhard, Thanks for the excellent advice—walk more and bounce less is on the mark. Also, not getting into the Rocky mode is huge too. Much obliged.

  11. Gordon Marino 07:49am, 01/08/2013

    Thanks Brian. You are one of my all time favorite boxing writers and your words mean a lot to me. As Mike Tyson pointed out to me after this fight, in a few weeks the fighter will start thinking that it was the trainer’s fault that he lost—so you save the boxer’s ego as well as his brain cells. And there was some truth to that here. My guy is back in the ring and hasn’t lost his swagger. Thanks again.

  12. Gordon Marino 07:45am, 01/08/2013

    Many thanks Mike. The trainer knows the fighter better than then ref and I think he or she should stop the fight when there in next to zero chance of winning and the fighter is just taking a brain shaking pounding. Love your comment about easy to be brave from a distance!

  13. Meinhard Schmidt 04:08am, 01/08/2013

    I’m sure “throwing in the towel” was the right thing in that case. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe you shouldn’t ´t have accepted the fight first… but I understand it was good money and everything. My advice for being an “opponent” is, that you know how to lose a fight without getting hurt and/or embarrassed. Main problem with that we all got our Egos involved! The way you describe the situation in the dressing room and before the fight sounds desperate and almost like being on a suicide-mission… it doesn’t have to be that way in my opinion! Losing a fight can also be competitive and done in a professional, business-like way! Let me give some advice how losing is done :
    1. Make sure you train hard, eat right and sleep enough (like a winner)
    2. Look at fights like that like a tough sparring match, not like a “real-Rocky” fight—try to double your jab, emphasize on footwork and off-balancing the stronger, faster and better boxer! You can even try to provoke him a bit so he loads up on his shots making it easy for you to avoid his punches.
    3. Walk more and bounce less, the nervous energy is what really exhausts you in fights like that.
    4. Don’t care for hitting his chin or knock him out, just hit what you can get, like arms, shoulders—better than hitting air, which is more exhausting and off-balancing.
    There is some more i could say of losing… tell your fighter he has every right to hold his head up high and try to get him a winnable fight or two before the next “paycheck”-bout !

  14. Brian Doogan 01:32am, 01/08/2013

    Gordon, brilliant insight as ever! How you doing? The world is full of brave cornermen and brave observers of those who do battle. We’re not so blessed with brave decision-makers and those who have the nous and strength of character to make the right decisions. Your fighter understood he has a good man in his corner. We all know that about you. Really hope you’re keeping good. Speak soon. All the best, Brian

  15. Mike Silver 10:34pm, 01/07/2013

    I wish more seconds had the COURAGE to throw in the towel when it’s clear their fighter cannot win and is just absorbing needless punishment. The fighter did not quit—his second acted rationally. As Aesop said many eons ago, “It is easy to be brave from a distance.”
    You did the right thing Gordon and I commend you. Let’s hope others follow your example. Reading you is a real treat.

  16. David Matthew 12:15pm, 01/07/2013

    Excellent piece of writing, & moral insight.  #Salute

  17. Gordon Marino 11:52am, 01/07/2013

    Many thanks Tache and Peter! He is back in the ring and doing well. All the best!

  18. The Tache 11:33am, 01/07/2013

    Nice article, always good to get a peek at the unglamourous side of boxing. For what it’s worth, you did the right thing. But you knew that anyway.

  19. peter 10:48am, 01/07/2013

    Nice article. Keep them coming.

  20. Gordon Marino 09:37am, 01/07/2013

    Many thanks Rick.

  21. Rick 09:36am, 01/07/2013

    Great article.

  22. Gordon Marino 09:30am, 01/07/2013

    Thanks Gianni. Tough night but my man’s career is back on track - and his brain and ego are in good shape!

  23. Eric 08:08am, 01/07/2013

    If the measure of how strong a man is how he picks himself up after being knocked down then Floyd Patterson might have been the strongest boxer ever. Floyd was trounced by Ingo in their first fight, but came back to defeat the Swede in two subsequent fights both by knockout. Shortly thereafter Floyd was dispatched by the beastly Liston in short brutal fashion twice, both fights ending in first round knockouts. Then Ali followed with a sadistic mean spirited one-sided affair by giving the much smaller Floyd a prolonged lashing. Floyd would comeback once again and give Quarry two tough fights, get robbed in a title match against Jimmy Ellis. Floyd would even go on to defeat the man who had gave Ali and Frazier fits, the Argentinian strongman Oscar Bonavena in 1972 when Floyd was in his late thirties. Floyd’s career looked like it was over more than once and each time he bounce back, becoming the first man to regain the title and in all fairness he should have been the first man to win the title three times with his fight against Jimmy Ellis.

  24. Gianna Garbelli 08:04am, 01/07/2013

    THROWING TOWEL means in my language—boxing’s language—SAVE LIFE
    love your article GORDON.

  25. Gordon Marino 07:36am, 01/07/2013

    Thanks Bro. It was a painful night! Hope you have a great 2013.

  26. THE THRESHER 07:31am, 01/07/2013

    EXCELLENT STUFF, GORDON. GUYS LIKE YOU ARE RAISING THE BAR FOR THE REST OF US.

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