Mike Tyson was scared of his own blood. Bullies always hate to see themselves bleed. Other guys, the underdogs or the underskilled, are perfectly content to bathe in it. Blood is boxing's baptism.
Boxing is always brutal. But not always bloody. Plenty of boxers can spend years getting the majority of their useful brain cells knocked out of their heads, but never suffer many cuts in the process. The bleeders of boxing tend to be selected by nature, not by choice. For those who aren't born bleeders, blood can be a psychological wound. "Once Tyson saw his own blood, he backed down," one trainer remarked to David Remnick on the occasion of America's Scariest Motherfucker, Mike Tyson, losing to Evander Holyfield in 1996.
It's strange, then, that blood-spewing facial cuts are more annoyance than vital wound. It's not the cuts that get you; it's the blood dripping in your eyes and blinding you to the punch that really fucks you up. For those fighters who are cursed with scar-tissue buildup on the brow, or with thin, easily torn skin, or with an obstinate distaste for putting Vaseline on the face, bleeding can become their trademark characteristic. Many fine boxers are remembered not for their fine boxing, but for their reliable penchant to get cut, and bleed, and bleed.
Which the crowds love! Fighting with a face full of blood is reliable way to goose the TV ratings and rouse the in-house fans. Something about watching two men whomp each other and rain little showers of blood into the first few rows with every blow really brings out the warrior ethic buried inside all of us.
Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner was the luckiest bleeder in boxing history. Primarily for his nickname. "Chuck Wepner" is not a terribly dignified name, but "The Bayonne Bleeder" — well, it's still not dignified, exactly, but it's memorable. Wepner was a tough, brawling heavyweight from Jersey whom Muhammad Ali chose as his title-defense patsy after Ali beat Foreman in Zaire. Wepner, naturally, had his face opened up by Ali, but he did manage to knock the champ down, which was so unexpected and downright cinematic that he instantly assured himself a place in the public mind as boxing's best-known bleeder. (The PR value of which is immeasurable. Stallone modeled the Rocky character on Wepner).
It is possible, of course, that bleeding is a symptom of a more serious issue. If you, as a fighter, find yourself constantly pouring blood after a brisk 12-round contest, you may want to ask yourself: Is my style a bit too straight-ahead? One of the most notorious bleeders of our generation was Arturo Gatti, a ferocious Italian who was maybe murdered by his wife or who maybe committed suicide in Brazil last year, depending on which set of authorities you ask. Gatti was a good fighter. He was very close to being a great fighter. And he was surely, as he billed himself, "The World's Most Exciting Fighter." While the simplest explanation of boxing is "Hit and don't get hit," Arturo Gatti shortened that description to "Hit." He had a superhuman ability not to care about getting punched in the head. Whereas most boxers, when matched with a roughly equal opponent, will spend half their time in the ring dodging the blows coming at them, Gatti found that it was simpler to just walk right through his opponent's punches. That way he could get close enough to throw a few of his own. Gatti played defense not with his hands, but with his face. He was enormously popular, because every Gatti fight was guaranteed to feature an astoundingly high number of blows exchanged between the fighters, due to the fact that Gatti was quite happy to take four or five shots to the dome if it meant he could pop the other guy once or twice.
As a result, Arturo Gatti was often drenched in his own blood, even in fights that he won. He also would have surely been spectacularly brain-damaged had he survived into middle age. Gatti was a bleeder not so much by predisposition as by choice, or perhaps by insanity. And it worked for him, at least inside the ring. Though he lost some fights due to cuts, he doubtless won many more by unnerving his opponents, who lost their heart after watching their best shots bounce off Gatti's face as he kept coming forward, dripping blood and smiling like a motherfucking psycho, which, let's be honest, he kind of was, god bless the dead.
Being a bleeder makes you look like a tough guy. Most bleeders actually are tough guys, or they would have ditched boxing after it became clear that they'd have to walk around with stitches in their face for several weeks after each fight. Vito Antuofermo was an Italian New Yorker who held the middleweight championship for a year in the late 1970s. He had more than 50 fights. It was said that he got cut in every single bout save one, which he lost. After winning his title in 1979, he fought the great Marvin Hagler to a brutal draw; in the rematch, Hagler, not being a fool, headbutted Antuofermo in an early round, opening a nice gash over his eye. He then popped Antuofermo's brow with right jabs until the fight was stopped before the fifth round. Antuofermo was a bleeder so used to his own blood that the idea of losing over simple cuts seemed to offend him. But the cuts, in his case, were symptomatic. A trainer at Gleason's Gym who knew Antuofermo told me that Vito contemplated a comeback in his late 30s, but it wasn't meant to be: "He went and got his head X-rayed, and the X-ray was blank."
Every boxer is a potential bleeder. Some are too good defensively to ever get cut — Floyd Mayweather, for example, has a face so smooth that the very presence of his unlined cheeks and brow seems like a taunt to his opponents. Bleeding, it must be said, also carries a racial element. Hot red blood looks much more striking framed against light skin. Pale British fighters were born to bleed; Ricky Hatton wouldn't have quite the reputation for blue-collar swagger if he hadn't had his eyebrows sliced open so many times that he needed plastic surgery. The darker a boxer's skin, the more likely he is to be able to at least get away with his cut. A quantity of blood on Ricky Hatton's face that would lead to alarmed calls for a stoppage would be much less noticeable on Mayweather's face, in a fantasy world in which Mayweather could somehow be cut.
Boxers who embrace their inner bleeder will never be without a measure of heroism. Being knocked out in a pool of blood makes it look as if you fought until your body simply gave out — no shame there. Having a fight stopped due to a big facial cut gives a losing fighter the rare opportunity to survive without being knocked out, not to mention the faint aura of martyrdom. A fighter who suffers a garish early cut but pushes through and lasts to the end of the fight can expect to win a few sympathy points for his heroic grit. Miguel Cotto did exactly this against Joshua Clottey last year. Though Clottey deserved to win the fight, the fact that Cotto gritted his way through 12 rounds with blood pouring into his eye (and the fact that he was a Puerto Rican hero fighting in New York on the day of the Puerto Rican Day Parade) earned him enough goodwill to take the decision.
We all bleed, whether we like it or not. Might as well like it.