By Briggs Seekins
The great sport of boxing finds itself in an unusual position in contemporary society, besieged on one side by well-intentioned do-gooders who would tuck us all safely into a nanny state and on the other by a new generations of poorly educated fans who lack the knowledge to appreciate the subtleties of the sweet science and so yammer instead for the familiar rock-em, sock-em action they’ve grown accustomed to in cartoons and video games.
This rant is being written by an old school guy. But I am a product of the modern world myself, and like any rational man I accept that times must change, and that sometimes this can even be for the better. I was just 11 when I watched Duk Koo Kim sustain fatal injuries on live television at the hands of Ray Mancini. I jumped from my sofa cheering with excitement when Kim finally went down in Round 14.
When Kim collapsed and had to be removed from the ring on a stretcher I thought it was of little consequence. Although he had fought one of my heroes it was the kind of battle where a fan ends up admiring both men and I felt any fighter as courageous as Kim had shown himself to be must surely be able to sustain any abuse and ultimately bounce back.
When the severity of his injuries was announced on the news later that night I was shocked. It was one of the truly significant moments of my childhood, realizing I had enthusiastically cheered on a man’s death.
In the wake of the tragedy significant reforms were introduced to the sport. Over the next few years championship fights were reduced from 15 rounds to 12. From the beginning I supported that change, even as I still remembered the glory of the 15-round wars. The two greatest moments from my early years as a fan were Ken Norton and Larry Holmes battling to the bell and Sugar Ray Leonard coming back to stop Tommy Hearns in 14. These are cherished memories for me as a middle-aged fan, and they couldn’t have happened under today’s rules. But my memory of Mancini and Kim has colored my entire experience as a fan, so I have always supported the shorter fights for the sake of fighter safety.
Similarly, I have very rarely complained about a “quick stoppage” by a referee, either in print as a writer or even as a fan talking to friends. The referee in a boxing match has an awesome responsibility. He is essentially being asked to mediate between two trained killers. Because that is exactly what a skilled boxer is.
The topic of fighter safety has been on the minds of any engaged boxing fans this month, in the wake of Frankie Leal’s tragic death in October against Raul Hirales and following Magomed Abdusalamov’s injuries against Mike Perez on November 2 that necessitated he be placed in a medically induced coma.
Leal shouldn’t even have been in the ring. He suffered a scary knockout against current IBF featherweight champion Evgeny Gradovich in March 2012 that left him hospitalized and it wasn’t the first KO of his career. A 27-year-old fighter from the rich boxing tradition of Baja California is never going to say quit on his own, but his trainers and the boxing commissions should have been there to protect him.
The case with Abdusalamov is more complicated. With 18 KOs in 18 fights he entered his showdown with fellow unbeaten Mike Perez as one of the most exciting heavyweight prospects on the scene. Perez hurt him badly early in the fight and Mago’s face became more grotesquely swollen as the rounds went on. But he also continued to come forward and fight gamely all night and walked out of the ring under his own control.
The ringside physician may not have adequately checked Mago between rounds and his own corner may have turned a blind eye towards obvious warning signs. When a rugged fighter from an uber-tough culture like Dagestan is repeatedly acting concerned about his own injuries in the midst of a give-and-take battle, as Mago was between each round, it should be a red flag.
But Abdusalamov was the sort of phenom who could turn things around with a single punch, against almost anybody in the world. In the heat of the battle Mago’s corner and the ring physician might have both acted inappropriately, but many people associated with the fight game would have acted exactly the same.
And once again this was a fight that had fans cheering every step of the way. Abdusalov vs. Perez is a fight I had been looking forward to as much as any fight all year. I’d told my readers and my friends who are casual fans that it was a “can’t miss fight.” And if not for the tragedy, we’d all be saying it had lived up to the hype.
Hopefully better education will come out of this. There probably does need to be better training for corners, for physicians, for referees and for the commissions themselves. A sport centered around head trauma is inherently dangerous and makes an easy target for would-be reformers with vague but passionate ideas for protecting people from themselves. The drama of two men trying to destroy each other physically makes for a shocking image to a certain sensibility. Never mind that any number of extreme sports like base diving or free climbing are even more dangerous—those sports happen far from the public eye and the violence is incidental. In boxing it is center stage.
The journey to even get boxing legally accepted as a sport was a complicated affair that played out in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. The reforms that occurred then were critical for creating the sport so many of us grew up with. And those who love boxing as a sport should welcome any reasonable measures that can be instituted to increase the safety of the athletes we look to for inspiration and entertainment.
But part of me can’t help feel that the biggest problem ultimately lies with contemporary fans themselves, and with the promoters who need to cater to them. More and more in today’s boxing world I see and hear fans expressing disgust for any boxer who won’t commit to a dangerous war of attrition as a matter of course. Floyd Mayweather breaks all known records for the difference between the punches he lands and the punches landed against him and a significant portion of the fan base routinely attacks him as a “runner.” Guillermo Rigondeaux turns in a stellar boxing performance against normally dangerous Nonito Donaire and is criticized as “boring.”
Just this past weekend I was in Verona, New York to watch the NBC Sports card featuring undefeated lightweight prospects Mike Brooks and Karl Dargan. Dargan is a protégé of the robust Philadelphia fight scene. He’s trained by Naazim Richardson and mentored by world champions like Bernard Hopkins and Steve Cunningham.
Against Brooks he put on a boxing clinic. It was exactly the sort of performance from a young fighter that should make boxing fans excited. After all, there is not an overwhelming amount of high profile talent right now at 135.
Still, in the middle of the fight, some mouth breather in the cheap seats felt the need to shout his displeasure the moment the pace slowed down at all. “Quit running!” this bleacher-based tough guy exhorted “Stand and fight!”
After the card I came upon a couple more “fans” arguing with members of Dargan’s entourage, insisting Dargan was a runner. As a writer I normally avoid partisan debates but this was too much, and I was armed with the punch-stat numbers.
“He threw 632 punches,” I said. “That’s better than a punch every three seconds. You couldn’t do that against a hanging bag for 30 minutes.”
I don’t want to be a hypocrite so I will readily admit that I enjoy a fire-fight as much as any other fan. A war like that is exciting and emotionally compelling like few things in the world. I’ve watched Round 9 from the first Gatti-Ward fight more times than I can even count.
But as a sports fan it baffles me that anyone could fail to appreciate seeing an athlete perform at a high technical level, especially when he is throwing and landing plenty of punches. A fighter like Karl Dargan will find the opponent who forces him to dig in and go toe-to-toe eventually. It’s the nature of the sport. And during his career he will spend hundreds of hours in the ring sparring on top of his professional fights. So no true fan should want to see him engage unnecessarily just to prove a point.
But prize fighting requires a prize, which requires paying customers to provide it. The pressure for fighters to throw caution to the wind and risk unnecessary damage, even potential fatality, will exist as long as fans demand blood and violence over skill and technique. Even if boxing promoters were all paragons of moral virtue, which is a laughable, they would still find it impossible to look past market-based reality.
So just as referees, physicians and corners must strive to educate themselves for the safety of fighters, fans must too. At the end of the day, the greatest threat to the sport we all love is probably not that it will get banned, but that it will degenerate from a highly skilled sport into a glorified toughman contest, just to keep the teeming masses entertained.