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Breaking the Cycle: Fighter Safety

Breaking the Cycle: Fighter Safety
By: Brandon Bernica

As Glen Tapia glared the referee in the eyes, trying to bargain for the chance to repent for the knockdown he just experienced, Freddie Roach cut him off. Standing on the apron of the ring, Tapia’s trainers had seen enough. Four vicious rounds Saturday night with cement-fisted David Lemieux – rounds where Tapia’s face was repetitively imprinted with power shots – were enough to pull the plug on the night for the New Jersey product.

A question popped into my mind in the aftermath following this blowout, and it wasn’t whether the fight should have been stopped. While Tapia looked physically alert and game after the left hook that floored him, a look into his recent history might startle anyone who vouched for him to continue on. Take the fact that towards the end of 2013, he endured a scathing six rounds with rugged machine James Kirkland. Tapia’s corner was criticized that night for sending a shopworn fighter out two rounds too long until he was finished by a brutal assault that referee Steve Smoger couldn’t save him from, resulting in an ending that probably took a few years off of his life. Add that Tapia, during a brief guest appearance commenting on a night of local fights, noticeably slurred his words – though that could be chalked up to on-camera butterflies. Throw in that Tapia was knocked out in the bout before the Lemieux opportunity and it almost makes you wonder how Tapia was commissioned for Saturday in the first place.

No, Tapia clearly expressed signs of slippage before his most recent defeat. My question was (and still is) how the sport as a whole – from fans to promoters to media – can align to save a man’s life before he realizes he’s lost it.

David Lemieux vs Glen Tapia  (Round 4) Vacant NABO Middleweight Title Referee: Russell Mora photo credit: WILL HART
Photo Credit: Will Hart

Retirement is a sensitive subject with fighters. These are men predicated on pride in themselves and in every reason that wakes them up to train each morning. Boxing isn’t a cash-grab. To thrive, you have to be of a different breed, you have to translate the pain into pleasure. Many fighters self-inflate their egos as a coping mechanism against the immense dangers the sport presents. In this world of predators, even the slightest show of fear is devoured by those hungry for shine in boxing’s irreverent landscape. Simply put, you don’t mess around in this sport. Which makes it that much more crucial for fighters to know when to hang the gloves up and preserve their futures. The issue is exposing a fighter to his biggest opponent: himself.

Confidence drives irrational risk-taking, and irrational risk-taking requires confidence. So how do we break this lethal cycle that damages long-term health and has even claimed lives? Let’s start from the top down. Boxing has long yearned for a national governing body to establish authority over the sport’s fractured practice. Imposition of strong health standards takes the decision out of the fighter’s hands. Instead of allowing fighters to find loopholes in medical decisions – such as fighting in Mexico where most commission suspensions are not recognized – a firm hand backed by scientific credibility is needed to prevent fighter pride, fan desire, and promoter financial interest from jeopardizing a man’s health.

Yet if you’ve been around this sport long enough, you know that bringing together the sport’s key players is like organizing a family reunion where every relative despises each other. That brings us to promoters, managers, trainers, family members, and anyone else within a fighter’s camp. These people live with every move a fighter makes. They should know him best. That’s what makes their role so pivotal. For some, such as wives, parents, and siblings, prioritizing health over money is not an issue. These parties must be consistent in vocalizing the dangers of continuing a shattered career to said fighter, who may mentally block off these precautions to maintain the persona that keeps him in the ring. For promoters, managers, and trainers, monetary ties to a fighter can make it difficult to accept that a man’s time has come and gone. It is vital that dialogue begins early in that man’s career to set up a career after boxing. Many fighters enter the sport as their last resort for earning a living; this, however, is not an excuse for ignoring the reality that a revenue stream can end with just one punch. Additionally, ensuring that your line of work is not tied down to one boxer is crucial. Building young talent and ushering in a new generation ensures that the older generation doesn’t stick around longer than it needs to.

Of course, the media’s impact on fighter safety is important as well. Publicizing bouts gives promotions more viewers. Tapia’s bout drew buzz as the co-main event of the night, yet many outlets pointed to how the match-up bolstered the card instead of how dangerous it was. Giving undue affirmation to a shot fighter to press on sadly solidifies the decision to remain in the sport. Even stories doubting one’s ability can inspire a fighter to break odds that were too high to overcome in the first place. So instead of simply publicizing a bout from the surface, dig deeper into backgrounds and resumes. Be bold and state if there’s a mismatch on the horizon. Even if it costs you a credential, shedding light on the snares of a particular match-up can encourage matchmakers to be considerate in putting together events.

Fans have a role in this circus as well. There’s a saying as it applies to dating that there are plenty of fish in the sea. That same principle can be applied to our infatuation with fighters. Yes, cheering on your favorite warrior Saturday nights is great, but when the desire to see someone perform is put above that person’s best interest, we need to reevaluate whether we are contributing to boxing’s inherent problem. There will always be others who deserve the spotlight with much more to give the sport; champion these men. And be vocal; with social media, reaching athletes has never been easier. If a fighter hears from his own fans that he should retire, it may cause him to reevaluate his own condition. If that doesn’t work, remove the financial reward for endangering oneself. Don’t just be a cold-hearted consumer; speak with your dollars and support only fights with little risk to the combatants’ long term condition.

All of this boils down to one word: transparency. Boxing could use transparency in nearly every facet of its operation, but no area desires honesty more than telling a fighter when it’s time to quit. Clouded by vested interests, boxing has made this decision much harder than it should be. Yet look at Muhammad Ali ail through the toughest stages of Parkinson’s disease. Read about Frankie Leal, a young fighter who lost his life in the ring because commissions were hamstrung and couldn’t enforce their suspensions on him in Mexico. These examples make it clear: we must watch this sport with a conscience and build an infrastructure that stops the damage before it’s dealt. Most fighters never want a fight to go to the scorecards, knowing the significant possibility of being robbed by corrupt judging. In similar fashion, we can’t allow a referee to be the one to make the call on a fighter’s career. We need to throw in the towel before the bell even rings.

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