HBO WCB - Jun. 23, 2007

Ricky Hatton vs Jose Luis Castillo

Holding: Strategy, Cheating, or Both?

For some fighters, it's the difference between good strategy and bad, while some equate constant clinching with the mark of a cheater. Of course, everyone has an opinion on the rules of the game. Bill Dettloff dusts off the rule book...

A clear majority of fight observers will testify that the contests least pleasing to watch are not those between the unskilled laborers of the game, or the less gifted. Earnest effort and willing acceptance of risk will always beat out casual displays of technical acumen. Nor are the worst fights those between the strange geniuses whose talents lie in their knack for avoiding damage - even if witnessing the accumulation of damage is the principle reason we watch. Slick guys can be fun.

The worst fights are those that involve endless holding and clinching. Nothing brings an actively contested fight to a halt more readily than does a fighter who has decided that in the absence of a cohesive game plan, success at punching, or wind, he will get as close as he can to his opponent and stop him from punching by wrapping him in a bear hug. Not once, not twice, but as a repeated means of survival, of delay, even of eventual victory if his skill level or resoluteness is not up to the task otherwise.

As paying customers we watch a fight grind to a halt this way and wonder why it is allowed, why many referees appear to accept as part of a fight what we understand to be a foul. There must be rules around holding, right? It can't all be up to the whim of the referee, can it? When is holding permissible, and when isn't it?

"There's a real simple answer," said Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial boxing judge. "If a guy gets punched in the jaw and gets hurt he's going to grab and hold so he doesn't get punched and hurt again. That's not illegal; that's human nature. You grab and hold so you don't fall down. There's nothing wrong with that and the referee has to understand that. The referee cannot say that that's not allowed."

As an example, Lederman cites the wild brawl in 1998 between Dana Rosenblatt and Terry Norris, in which Rosenblatt was badly hurt in the final round and made it to the bell only by grabbing Norris and holding on for dear life. Lederman and the two other judges scored the fight for Rosenblatt but wouldn't have been able to had the referee, Steve Smoger, disqualified Rosenblatt for excessive holding. The question becomes stickier when the fighter doing the holding does not appear to be hurt.

"It's the job of the referee to keep the fight moving and it's really a judgment call when to penalize a guy," Lederman said. "The referee has an obligation to keep the fight moving. He has to come to some sort of a decision: is it because he has to get his head on straight or is he looking to hold as some sort of ploy or to keep the other guy from doing something? That's the difference." In other words, it's not necessarily the amount of holding that determines if a fighter gets penalized, but the reason behind it.

Recently retired world class referee Richard Steele concurs. "You take points away when the fighter is affecting the fight and has stopped the other fighter from staying busy and not doing anything himself. He's committing a foul - which is too much holding."

And how much is too much?

"It's too much when there's no action, when nothing is going on other than holding - then it's a foul. If the fighter's tactic is holding, it's a foul. He's there as a professional fighter and it's his job to fight. And holding is not fighting. If he's not hurt and he's holding just to hold, as a tactic, then the referee has to penalize him. He's not doing what he's being paid to do. He's not giving the fans their money's worth," Steele said.

Holding clearly is strategy for some fighters. Former heavyweight belt holder John Ruiz is one of the more despised fighters of his era, despite credentials that include upset wins over several upper-tier heavyweights such as Evander Holyfield and Hasim Rahman. Not even the solid comeback he fashioned after an early-career disaster against thunderous-punching David Tua could rally fans to his corner.

There were reasons to dislike Ruiz: his abrasive manager, Norm Stone; the perception that he received preferential treatment from one of the sport's sanctioning bodies; and his penchant for what many believed was play-acting designed to evoke sympathy whenever a blow by an opponent ventured near the belt line.

But those things could be forgiven; there are no angels in the fight business, after all, and many of these same habits would be forgivable in other fighters. What the fans could not abide was his insistent and incessant clinching in every fight. Holding, mauling and wrestling were as important to Ruiz' offense (as well as his defense) as were his left jab and right cross - maybe more so. During his tenure as a top-10 heavyweight, his strategy was essentially to throw one or two punches and then clinch - over and over.

"Ruiz' tactic was to hit and hold," said Steele, who officiated Ruiz' August 2000 loss to Holyfield in their first fight. "That was his strategy. He got away with it for so long because referees, myself included, allowed him to do it too long and it got to become a habit. He couldn't break it because he didn't want to – it worked for him."

It wasn't until Ruiz met light heavyweight world champion Roy Jones in March 2003 that an official prevented him from mauling his way to victory. In the very first round, referee Jay Nady admonished Ruiz against holding and threatened to deduct points. Forced to fight on the outside for the remainder of the fight, Ruiz was no match for the quicker Jones and lost a one-sided decision. He complained about Nady afterward, telling the press, "The referee wouldn't let me fight my fight." One could not ask for a clearer admission that holding was an important part of his strategy. (To his credit, Ruiz employed a more fan-friendly style in recent fights with Nicolai Valuev and Ruslan Chagaev, but perhaps not coincidentally, lost both matches by decision.)

Would Ruiz have beaten Jones if allowed to fight his usual, mauling, clutching style? Probably not; Jones was a much better fighter. But clearly it would have been much more difficult for Jones to get his hands moving if he were tied up constantly by the bigger, heavier Ruiz.

The guy who's being held has to try to punch. Then the referee has to take points away. He doesn't have a choice.

Nady was involved in another fight whose outcome might have been different had he taken a different approach to holding. The August 2006 rematch between Oleg Maskaev and Rahman was going Rahman's way early. He was landing the stiffer, more damaging blows and every time Maskaev attempted to hold in order to shut down Rahman's offense and get into the later rounds, where he expected Rahman would tire, Nady warned him. Midway through the bout, Nady changed course and allowed Maskaev to clinch with impunity. Maskaev made it to the late rounds and stopped Rahman in the 12th.

A fighter's willingness to frequently hold is directly related to his comfort level in the ring and can vary fight by fight, according to the competition. World junior welterweight champion Ricky Hatton established himself as one of the most exciting fighters in the business when he was still on the way up. A fearless, straight-ahead puncher against second-tier opposition as a contender, Hatton has, in more recent fights against better competition, become a miniature Ruiz. Against Kostya Tszyu, Luis Collazo and Juan Urango, Hatton mauled and wrestled as much or more than he punched. So far, it hasn't hurt his popularity or his record.

Hatton is in good company. No less an icon than Muhammad Ali, especially as he aged, got away with holding more than most. In his biggest fights, against George Foreman, Ken Norton, and especially Joe Frazier, Ali held repeatedly, typically whenever the opponent got close enough to negate Ali's advantage in hand and foot speed.

"Ali, as great as he was, got away with a lot of holding - grabbing and holding behind the neck," said Steele. "It was because he was the favorite. Everyone loved him. No one wanted to take points away from Muhammad Ali. We should have stopped that, but we didn't. He was Ali."

It's not all bad news for the fans, or for the fighters getting held. There is a way to force the referee to penalize excessive holding: keep punching.

"I hate to take a point away from a guy for holding when the other guy is doing nothing to stop him from holding," said Steele. "I remember when I refereed the Leonard-Hagler fight and I kept telling Leonard, ‘Stop holding, stop holding.' I'd break them; Leonard would throw a 10-punch flurry and then hold again.

"I didn't penalize him because Hagler wasn't doing anything to stop him! If the guy who's being held tries to punch, tries to break out of the clinch, does whatever he can to show that he wants to punch, then he forces me to take action. He forces me to take points from the other guy. The guy who's being held has to try to punch. Then the referee has to take points away. He doesn't have a choice."

Let that be a lesson: when a fight is a bore because one of the fighters is holding, it's not entirely his fault; his opponent is letting him get away with it on some level, has made with him what trainer and broadcaster Teddy Atlas would call a silent agreement to allow himself to be held. The most exciting and frequently the most effective fighters are those who resist the temptation to take the little breaks that frequent clinches provide. And those are the fighters we most like to watch.

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