LAS VEGAS – Eddie Mustafa Muhammad is one of boxing's great trainers. The former light heavyweight champion is also a strong and outspoken advocate for boxers. He's long supported the formation of a union to protect the interests of boxers who don't have a voice and have frequently been exploited.
Muhammad has an interesting philosophy about his career that he shares with every fighter who hires him as a trainer: fire me.
He's one of the trainers who is willing to lose his job in order to save his fighters. Muhammad will stop a fight whenever he thinks his boxer is in trouble, regardless of what the fighter and/or his family might say.
"Things happen in this sport, but my job as a trainer is to protect my fighter and to do whatever I can do to reduce the risk of him getting hurt," Muhammad said.
Mexican boxer Frankie Leal died Oct. 22 from head injuries he suffered in a bout with Raul Hirales on Oct. 19 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. On Saturday, heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov suffered a blood clot in his brain and underwent surgery following a loss on HBO to Mike Perez in New York. He remains in stable condition.
And in Hermosillo, Mexico, Hernan "Tyson" Marquez was taken from the ring on a stretcher on Saturday after his bout with Giovani Segura. Marquez didn't need surgery and promoters said later he was simply dehydrated.
The incidents are isolated, but they point out the necessity of vigilance from all those involved with a fighter's career in order to promote safety.
Boxing is a violent sport, and there is a risk of injury any time anyone is hit in the head. But the risk can be lessened by knowing when enough is enough and knowing some history about the fighters.
Referees have to be willing to stop a fight, no matter how significant or meaningful it might be, if one of the fighters is taking too many blows to the head.
"Everybody in a fighter's corner is always so damn brave, but they forget sometimes that it's the fighters who are taking the punishment," longtime elite referee Richard Steele said. "It's easy to be brave and to be tough when you're not the one getting hit in the head. My number one duty as a referee when I got into that ring, no question about it, was to think about the safety of the fighters.
"As a referee, I know I can't please everyone, and so I don't worry about that. Fighters are taught since they were kids to never give up and keep going. That's where I came in as the referee. I sometimes have to protect the fighter from himself. As an official, I want to stop a fight if a guy is in trouble so he can come back another day if he wants."
But referees only have control of a fighter for a short period of time. Many times, a fighter may be hurt during sparring sessions in the gym.
Muhammad said it is critical for trainers to be with their fighters as much as possible and to communicate extensively with them to understand as best as possible their level of risk.
"Some of these gym wars are brutal and sometimes they're worse than the actual fight," Muhammad said. "A guy gets hit in the head, maybe knocked down or knocked out, and he's back to do it again the next day. You can't let that happen. When you get that kind of head trauma that you're getting knocked out, you need to get away from the gym and take time to let yourself recover and heal.
"I've seen guys in these wars in the gym and then they go fight four or five days later and get killed. I've seen that happen. It shouldn't happen, but it does."
Retired Hall of Fame referee Joe Cortez said he tried to know as much about a fighter as he could. He praised the performance of Tony Weeks, the referee who stopped the Oct. 19 Mike Alvarado-Ruslan Provodnikov fight.
"Tony got in the corner and the corner guys were all saying, 'He's OK. He's OK,' " Cortez said. "But Tony pushed through and got right in front of Alvarado and asked him twice, 'Do you want to continue?' He didn't respond and Tony stopped that fight, which was the right thing. That's an important thing.
"I don't think the referee should have to pick up the scorecards from the judges after a round. Those 10 or 15 seconds are often critical and if a fighter seems hurt, letting the referee get into the corner and keep an eye on him can make a significant difference. Safety is the No. 1 thing and allowing the referee to be there the whole time evaluating a fighter is crucial."
In the corner during a fight, it's a trainer's job not only to give instructions, but to evaluate the boxer and know when to say when.
Trainer Andre Rozier did a magnificent job – as did referee Harvey Dock – on Saturday in New York, stopping the Gennady Golovkin-Curtis Stevens bout at the end of the eighth round.
Stevens was hurt by a body shot from Golovkin in the eighth and retreated to the corner, where Golovkin pinned him and was winging hard shots to the head and body. Dock was only feet away, watching closely and clearly on the verge of stopping the fight.
As the round ended, Rozier, who is Stevens' uncle, walked up the steps, hugged Stevens and told Dock the fight was over.
Sadly, there are a lot of trainers who would have allowed the fight to go on and tried to revive Stevens in the corner. It was the biggest fight of Stevens' career and he punched hard enough that it was not inconceivable that he could catch Golovkin with one well-placed shot and end the fight.
Trainers need to pay their bills, too, and often are fearful that the fighter or the fighter's manager will fire them if they opt to do as Rozier did and stop a bout.
"Of course that happens. Are you serious?" Muhammad said. "Of course there are guys who worry about [getting fired]. That fighter is their meal ticket. The fighter will argue with you and tell you that you reduced his market value by stopping the fight. He's going to be angry. Guys have been fired for that and they know it.
"But a big part of the job is knowing your guy. You have to tell them you're there to protect them and you're not going to let anything happen to them. I tell them, 'Go ahead, fire me. Go ahead and do it. We'll still be friends later.' I've always been that way."
Sometimes a boxer is too tough for his own good and is willing to absorb any amount of punishment in order to win.
The referees need to be on top of those situations, but so, too, do the trainers.
If all trainers acted as Rozier acted on Saturday, and as Muhammad regularly acts, there would be far fewer incidents in boxing.
A great fight is a wonderful thing to behold.
It's not worth it, though, if it's at the expense of the boxer's long-term health.