Following last weekend’s Chris Eubank Jr vs Nick Blackwell, a lot of people are now blaming the referee for its tragic conclusion. But isn’t it about time we all stopped judging referees, pretending we know a goddamn thing about how to work a fight, and finally started fully appreciating the undervalued, thankless roles these individuals play in boxing?
Let’s recap. Nick Blackwell gave his all en route to losing his British Middleweight title. Thanks to a granite-chin and iron-will which allowed him to walk through walls, Blackwell was never significantly rocked by Eubank’s savage attacks; which is likely the reason referee Victor Loughlin let this fight go almost 10 rounds. Blackwell showed great mental strength, but his unusual ability to absorb great punishment perhaps became his worst enemy.
After a competitive beginning, the fight became increasingly one-sided and notably brutal, with Blackwell being tagged clean by Eubank’s signature uppercuts and blistering combinations. Loughlin finally halted the action after spotting a bulbous swelling over Blackwell’s left eye and, shortly after, Blackwell collapsed on his stool and was stretchered out of the ring to hospital. A bleed on the brain was discovered, and there he was medically induced into a coma.
Had Blackwell been unsteady in the fight, knocked down, or out on his feet at any point, I believe Loughlin, who has refereed 486 fights, would have stepped in sooner. You’ve got to feel for all the immediate parties in this bout, of course being Blackwell, his family, the Eubanks, but let’s not forget the third man in the ring. His job ain’t an easy one.
Had Loughlin stopped the action sooner, it’s likely Blackwell, his team, and fight fans – then unaware Blackwell would eventually collapse – would have still protested the decision. ‘Blackwell is known for coming on strong in the later rounds’, some would have said. Others: ‘He was still game’. Or: ‘It was a British title fight, ref! – Blackwell deserved another round’.
The problem referee’s face is this: they receive next to no credit for stopping fights at the ‘right time’, but are hung, drawn and quartered for stepping in too early or too late. The ‘right time’ couldn’t be more subjective, however, so it goes without saying that the moment to stop a bout has always been notoriously hard to call.
It’s not an exact science by any stretch. In fact, it’s not a science at all. When has a fighter really had enough? When does he need saving from himself? This is the unanswerable question referees face every time they clock in. People’s lives are potentially on the line, and the referee, unable to feel the damage and affects of the blows taking place before him, has an incredibly difficult decision to make.
Let’s also remember that fighters, working in the pain business, are taught to effectively mask emotions and feelings of ‘being hurt’, and especially to the referee who can derail a fighter’s career with a simple wave of his hands. Quitting in boxing is a shameful act, after all, which means a potentially concussed boxer (who wants to quit) would feel an overwhelming obligation to carry on fighting. He would have to hope somebody else – the referee, or trainer in between rounds – would say the one thing he is forbidden to: ‘enough’.
Perhaps that man was Nick Blackwell on Saturday night. Perhaps it wasn’t.
Personally, I don’t blame Loughlin, Blackwell’s corner, the ringside doctors, or anyone involved. This is the ‘fight game’, not a tickling contest, and there’s no doubt in my mind that concerns for Blackwell’s safety were paramount in every individual. Boxing may be known as the ‘sweet science’, the ‘noble sport’, or even the ‘sport of gentleman’; but however you dress it up, it’s two guys knocking each other’s brains around their skulls for up to 36 minutes. That’s a mighty long time.
The human skull, with its brain floating in spinal fluid, was not designed to withstand the heavy impact of an accelerating fist. A punch creates trauma, and when that trauma becomes multiplied beyond a hundred, being between the ropes is not a safe place to be. Boxing is a life-threatening, dangerous sport. Fighters know it when they step in the ring. So do fans. So do you.
That breathtaking danger element creates a profound level of drama unparalleled in other sports. Boxing is raw, primitive, a brutal ballet which has successfully captured the essence of life – the human struggle itself – for over a century. It just doesn’t get any more real than two human beings doing battle with their fists. Perhaps that’s why boxing, as they say, has always survived in spite of itself; its violence, its aggression, its grim reality that people can get seriously hurt.
I’ll now answer the question on everyone’s lips: Should the fight have been stopped earlier? Honestly, yes, I think it should have. As I sat there on my couch, during the 8th round I believe I uttered something like: ‘the ref needs to call this one.’ But I was sitting on a comfortable couch, in my home, far removed from London and the fight itself that night. Had I been there, actually in the ring, doing the referee’s job, would I have said the exact same thing in the 8th?
Well, I’d be lying if I told you I knew the answer to that question. Frankly, I’m pleased I wasn’t the one who had to make the decision in the ring. And who’s to say Blackwell wouldn’t have collapsed right after, or sometime later, following the 8th round? When was the ‘real damage’ done? How can we possibly know anything about what was going on inside Blackwell’s skull? None of us can.
I’m thankful there are people like Loughlin in boxing prepared to watch over fighters and take on that great responsibility most of us will never have to. Referees make mistakes. Sure they do. They’re human. But let’s remember their job isn’t as cut and dry as scoring a tennis match. They’re trying to determine how close a man can come to death – in a sport which celebrates violence, concussions, and is violent by its very definition – before saving them.
Without boxing’s third man there is no boxing. And I think it’s about time we started appreciating what these people do for the sport we all know and love.
The collective thoughts of the Boxing Base staff go out to Nick Blackwell, his family and those directly affected, and hope to see him make a fast, full recovery soon.