Did Mercante do the right thing?
Referee Arthur Mercante has been both praised and vilified after the strange fight between Miguel Cotto and Yuri Foreman on Saturday in New York City.
Those who defend his actions after a towel thrown into the ring triggered chaos during the eighth round essentially point to two things: One, he followed the rules and, two, Foreman continued to defend himself even after he twisted his knee in the seventh round.
Those who criticize Mercante say Foreman’s injury — which turned out to be a torn meniscus — made him easy prey and are baffled by Mercante’s refusal to defer to Foreman’s trainer Joe Grier when he clearly wanted to save his fighter from taking unnecessary punishment.
One longtime observer for whom I have tremendous respect called Mercante’s performance “disgusting.”
Frankly, both arguments have merit.
Mercante clearly followed the rules as set forth by the New York State Athletic Commission, which prohibits throwing a towel in the ring for any reason. And only the referee, ring doctor or member of the commission can stop a fight. The corner can request a fight be stopped but can’t actually stop it unless he steps into the ring during the action, thus disqualifying his fighter.
Should Mercante have deferred to Grier, who obviously knows his fighter better than the referee? That argument can be made. Grier, who reportedly tried again to stop the fight after the eighth round but was rebuffed by Mercante, genuinely believed his fighter was in danger of being hurt.
I was surprised Mercante didn’t defer because such a decision is so rare.
“I wanted to stop it but Arthur made it very clear to me that only he could stop it,” Grier told the New York Daily News. “ÔÇª Mercante didn't want to hear anything from anyone. I didn't know if it was ego, him saying that only he could stop the fight or if he was affected by the fight being in the stadium, but it was very confusing. Who knows the fighter better than the corner? He was fighting on one leg. I was trying to protect him from getting seriously injured.”
Again, though, it’s Mercante’s call. He believed that Foreman — though hobbled — was still able to defend himself and had not taken a prolonged beating, which I believe are the primary criteria in determining whether to stop a fight.
And remember: Foreman, clearly upset when the towel landed in the ring, told Mercante with conviction that he wanted to continue. The fighter, who sometimes is too brave for his own good, doesn’t necessarily have the last word but he deserves a vote.
This doesn’t mean that Mercante would’ve allowed the fight to continue beyond any point at which Foreman began taking an inordinate number of hard punches. He demonstrated this by stopping it when the Israeli went down to a knee after taking a vicious left hook to the body in the ninth.
Mercante simply allowed Foreman a little more time to either find a way to remain competitive or lose his title on his own terms.
Retired judge Chuck Giampa, who has worked thousands of fights, understands the criticism of Mercante but was impressed overall.
“I was impressed that Arthur took firm control of the fight,” he said. “He was the main arbiter. … No one knows what's going on in ring like a good referee. And Arthur is a good referee.”
Such sentiments won't wash with those who have been critical of Mercante’s performance. That includes the observer I mentioned earlier, who will remain nameless here because he expressed his feelings in a personal e-mail.
“Mercante was correct to allow the fight to continue?” the observer wrote. “He had charitably won one round on two good legs. With his knee giving way, and unable to escape Cotto's pressure, he became a sitting duck for Cotto's power shots. Fortunately, he was done in by a body shot and not a more dangerous head blow.
“The referee's job is to protect the welfare of the athlete, to not allow him to be seriously hurt. To allow an athlete to show his courage when he had no chance to win is not his job. Personally, I found Mercante’s performance disgusting.”
I don’t believe Mercante had a perfect night.
First, as the observer pointed out, he gave Foreman time to test his knee after he injured it by walking around the ring even though a fighter is entitled to recovery time only in the event of a foul. And, second, he should be reprimanded if he told Foreman to “suck it up.” That’s coaching, which isn’t in his job description.
That said, I still think he got it right when he gave Foreman a chance to continue fighting because he based his decision on what he saw — a determined fighter who continued to defend himself.
And a positive thing came out this: debate. Boxing officials and referees around the world undoubtedly were given pause after witnessing the bizarre eighth round and will be better prepared to deal with a similar situation in the future.
That includes Mercante, whether he was right or wrong in this instance.
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]