The referee says it every time he finishes his pre-fight instructions. It is SO important to a fighter's safety and success that it has become a standard phrase in boxing. It says exactly what it means and, yet is too often ignored. Unfortunately, it seems like many fighters have grown deaf to this common phrase, so let's recap exactly what the third man in the ring means when he says PROTECT YOURSELF AT ALL TIMES.
First of all, if you are the fighter, don't touch gloves. Except when the referee tells you to after, the pre-fight instructions are complete, and right before the final round, keep your gloves to yourself.
Go back to the fighters of the 70s, 80s and 90s and see how many boxers touched gloves, other than before the final round, in the center of the ring when they were instructed to do so by the referee (where he supervised the contact). This happened occasionally, but never to the extent that fighters are doing it now. It has become a courtesy that has no place in prizefighting. Show respect for and make friends with your opponent AFTER the fight. Until the final bell sounds, the only sportsmanship that needs to be displayed should be a clean, fair fight. Boxers have an obligation to give the fans what they paid for...a fight. Not a love fest.
Next, if you're the trainer, program your fighters to keep their hands up after the bell sounds. Habits you develop in the gym will be repeated in the ring and if your fighters become accustomed to dropping their hands the minute the bell sounds, leaving themselves exposed, then they will do it come fight time too. That could be a costly mistake. Teach them to keep their hands up and their eyes on their opponent until the action has clearly stopped.
You should also train your fighters to listen without turning their attention away from the action. Making it a habit to stop to listen to coaching or turning their attention away from the action could be a costly mistake. The third man in the ring will often talk to the fighters and give them commands. During training fighters should work on developing the ability to listen to instructions and get advice without stopping the action or, worse yet, stopping to look at their coach. Train your fighters to remain engaged and focused on the guy in front of them at all times, no matter what.
As a fighter, you should always break with your hands up. Whether it’s from a clinch or a halt in the action, ALWAYS have your guard up. Boxing is a hurt business. Let's be humane, but let's also be real. The spoils go to the victor. All's fair in love and war. He who laughs last, lasts. These are common phrases, but they're rooted in truth when it comes to survival of the fittest.
Some fighters are trained to take advantage of every opportunity, expose any weakness or exploit any mistake. Even a clean break, called by a referee isn't always clear cut. Some referees are more lenient and only casually warn fighters for hitting as they break. Their call for a break is treated as more of a suggestion, rather than a command and, in these cases; the more aggressive fighter is able to repeatedly get in an extra shot or two. Keep your guard up and this rule infraction won't matter.
There are many classy, respectful and clean fighters in boxing, but let's face it, some fighters could care less about conducting themselves professionally and others are simply willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it pushes the boundaries of playing fair. You would be naive to approach this sport with any other notion in mind, so take these simple steps to protect yourself at all times and in all ways possible.
The referee is there to enforce the rules and control the action...to the best of his ability. But ultimately it's up to you to insure your safety, safeguard your health and be prepared to avoid cheap shots at all costs.