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Boxing faces questions about culture

5/6/2010

Ken Adams took the number out of his cell phone last week. It seemed useless to keep it any longer. Edwin Valero was gone.

Adams' younger days as a master sergeant in the Army prepared the old man for this, that life, in a violent profession, is accompanied by its share of death. He speaks in a gravelly Ozark accent and carries 69 years of wisdom packed underneath a thick layer of skin. Outside of a sport they both loved, he had very little in common with Valero.

The Venezuelan boxer was young, talented and unpredictable. He once told Adams he wanted a tattoo of his homeland's president, Hugo Chavez -- Adams told him it would be a huge mistake -- and the next day, Valero showed up with Chavez's face inked on his chest. Oh, did they clash sometimes. Valero wanted to send sparring partners home on a stretcher; Adams wanted to rein the kid in. But even after they parted ways, Adams knew this: Valero was on the verge of something big.

He'd fight Manny Pacquiao someday, and Adams believed Valero would beat him. He'd channel his inner rage and go down as one of the greatest in his sport.

Now Adams passes a giant photo of Valero in his garage and shakes his head. Last month, one of boxing's brightest allegedly stabbed his wife to death in a Venezuelan hotel, then hung himself by his sweatpants in jail. The old man is tough; he's seen everything. He gets choked up when he thinks about Valero's two orphaned children. They're the biggest casualties in all of this, Adams says.

He hasn't talked much in the days since Valero's death. What is there to say? It's been a brutal year in the world of boxing. Four high-profile figures -- Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti, Vernon Forrest and Valero -- have died in the past 10 months. All of them died violently. In that same span, 28-year-old fighter Darren Sutherland was found dead in his apartment in September, an apparent suicide. Sutherland won a bronze medal for Ireland in the 2008 Olympics.

Adams can't explain it -- and, in this latest case, was nowhere near prepared for it.

"In boxing, you live on the edge," he says. "When you go in the ring, especially if you're an elite kind of fighter, you've got to know that each time you step in there, you could be killed. It's a respected sport, the oldest sport. But it's just the way it is. You're on that edge. Always."

The pressure is immense

The first bulletin came from a wire out of Nicaragua in the early hours of July 1, 2009. Alexis Arguello, the three-time world champion with a huge heart, was dead at 57 from a gunshot wound to the chest. Ten days later, 37-year-old Arturo Gatti was found dead in a rented Brazilian apartment, his last breaths allegedly taken as he hung from a bloody purse strap. The tributes were still flowing July 25 when another jolt came from Atlanta. Former WBC junior middleweight champ Vernon Forrest, 38, was gunned down after an armed robbery.

The long, heartbreaking year has prompted questions about the culture of boxing, and whether men who take and administer beatings for a living have a hard time escaping the violence outside the ring. It's been asked for decades, really. Legendary boxing columnist John Lardner once wrote a classic sentence in a story about the 1910 death of middleweight great Stanley Ketchel:

"Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."

No, "Boxer Meets Violent End" isn't exactly a new storyline. But in recent months, there appear to be a couple of common themes. Three of the boxers -- Valero, Gatti and Arguello -- were known to have had substance-abuse issues, and their deaths were ruled suicides. Forrest, Arguello and Valero came from extreme poverty; Gatti died in a community surrounded by it.

Two of the suicides -- Gatti's and Arguello's -- have since come under scrutiny, and Arguello's is believed to be a homicide.

"I think these are tragic incidents that have happened across the board," says Todd duBoef, president of Top Rank Boxing. "[But] we're looking at two cases of most likely foul play, [and] one case of a carjacking. Does that mean the sport is responsible for somebody getting carjacked?

"To throw all of this in a basket … it's not fair. I think it's trying to take point at a sport rather than understand a lot about the socio-environmental issues of being a celebrity or being an athlete."

But people close to the sport acknowledge there are factors that might contribute to a boxer's volatility. A boxer sometimes goes an entire year without fighting, which leaves months of down time and plenty of time to get involved with drugs, alcohol and bad elements. The pressure is immense; the buildup to a fight is enormous.

Because of the socioeconomic issues of a global sport, some fighters go from ghettos and Third World countries to fame, riches and entourages.

"They don't have the same coping mechanisms," says Ray Franklin, Valero's former strength and conditioning coach. "There's massive pressure and too much availability of anything you want."

Alex Ramos knows a little about that pressure. He was once one of those rags-to-riches stories, going from the ghettos of New York to making hundreds of thousands of dollars in boxing. He has since battled alcoholism, drug addiction, depression and homelessness.

He takes medication to stop the neurons from misfiring in his brain. He doesn't drink because he knows it affects his temper.

"This one, I think, is a coincidence," Ramos says of Valero's death. "I just pray to God nothing happens next. What I'm just praying for is that everybody's safe. What's been happening lately … I don't know. It's been kind of weird extremes this year. A really crazy year."

But it's not just boxing. Dr. Margaret Goodman, former chairman of the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, says mixed martial arts has also seen its share of violent deaths outside the ring recently, and the common denominator appears to be the repeated blows to the head an athlete takes.

Goodman says concussions can lead to depression and other psychiatric disorders. Those problems, she says, are amplified by "super-imposed exposure to alcohol and drugs."

"This isn't just about boxing," Goodman said in an e-mail to ESPN.com, "but people turning their back and not doing the right thing for someone in trouble. Valero didn't need a fight. He needed emotional and psychiatric help and support."

Demons outside the ring

The people close to Valero, at least in the United States, say they tried to help. Adams steered him away from what he called the "hangers-on," the bad elements, and was the occasional voice in Valero's head that told him things he didn't want to hear.

Franklin threatened to stop training him if he didn't get off the booze.

"As his trainer and his mentor, I forewarned him," Franklin says. "I told him, 'I know these things are getting to you. Don't get off track. With what I'm smelling right now, you'd better put me on speed dial. Because in a very short time you'll be calling me.'"

Valero did call Franklin shortly after that, when he was pulled over for a DUI in Las Vegas. The boxer didn't exactly know what the charges meant.

And when he returned to Venezuela, Valero's life spiraled out of control. A person close to the fighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Valero's cocaine use was "off the charts" in his final days. There were rumblings in Venezuela, the source says, that Valero was doing two to three grams of coke a day. He also said Valero died virtually broke.

Friends close to Valero say there was a duality to him that few people saw. He could laugh and joke on a friend's couch, his kids sitting on his lap, then shift to a jealous rage. Valero trusted very few people. He'd ask a question and then stare intently, sizing a person up. From an early age, he was always on alert.

His childhood home, Franklin says, could have been pulled from the National Geographic Channel program "Locked Up Abroad:" a harsh, almost terroristic hovel run by gangs. Boxing was his way out, and it was clear, early on, that he was passionate about it.

Valero started fighting at 12, and won three amateur championships in Venezuela. Seven years later, he was in a motorcycle accident and suffered a fractured skull and a blood clot in his brain. That injury would follow him for the rest of his life, limiting his chances at boxing in the United States and feeding his anger and aggression.

"It ate away at him, that people seemed to drag their feet prima facie and wouldn't give him a license to fight," Franklin says. "During that time, it was a very large struggle for Edwin to keep this tremendous anger and energy he had bottled up inside of him. That did create some problems along the way."

The waiting made things worse. Franklin and Adams would put together a list of sparring partners, fly them in from all over, and within a couple of hours the fighters would bolt for the airport. They didn't want to get their heads bashed in for what amounted to a practice. It wasn't worth the money. So it was Franklin's job to help burn that energy. He ran him up mountains, and Valero never seemed to drop pace. There was no limit that Franklin couldn't push. Valero was an anomaly, a fighter so intense his switch didn't flip off.

"I'll put it to you this way," Franklin says, "it's very easy for trainers to identify almost immediately who these individuals are who have that super intense edge. It's the guy in the NFL who does not feel remorse when he clotheslines somebody and they have to take him off the field in a stretcher. There are athletes like that in every sport.

"You have to try to work with that and realize the caveat is that what makes him a great, ferocious fighter with 27 knockouts could also create difficulties with just living a normal everyday life."

And when alcohol and drugs were involved, it opened a Pandora's box of paranoia and aggression. In September 2009, Valero was reportedly arrested for assaulting his mother and sister. His mother later told the media that she wasn't assaulted. Five months later, Valero was accused of assaulting his wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera, who was sent to the hospital for bruises and a damaged lung.

Of course, there were people who tried to help, Franklin says. Valero's manager, Jose Castillo, went to Venezuela to try to pry his fighter away from the alcohol and cocaine. If they could have gotten Valero back in the United States, Franklin is convinced the boxing world would be focused on Valero's next fight, not the next tragedy.

The last time Valero and Franklin spoke was in February. Valero had just made weight for his final fight, which would end in his 27th knockout in 27 tries. The fighter had a calm about him. He called to say thanks, that Franklin would be a friend forever. They hung up, and Franklin felt a sick pang.

"It was like when a guy gives you his worldly possessions," Franklin says. "I almost got an eerie feeling.

"It was like a supersized, ominous thundercloud."

A hard life

The last time Alexis Arguello Jr. talked to his dad, it was like any other call. They laughed and reminisced, and Junior told Senior that he loved him and would see him soon.

So much has happened in the past 10 months that the days seem to run together. There was the 3 a.m. call the night Arguello died, the flash on Arguello Jr.'s phone that said DAD CELL, which he ignored. Truth is, Arguello's oldest boy was scared when that phone rang, scared that his dad might have relapsed back into drugs after being clean for years. When the phone rang again, Arguello Jr. knew he had to answer. It was Arguello Sr.'s wife, who told him that his father shot himself in the chest.

"She was just matter-of-fact," Arguello Jr. says. "No tears, no sobbing, nothing.

"I just sat there dumbfounded. I just couldn't believe it. I'll never believe it."

It's past 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday night, and Alexis Arguello Jr., a producer for CBS College Sports, is sitting in a coffee shop in Manhattan, Kan., bleary-eyed from a long day's work. He looks so much like his father, who was nicknamed "El Caballero del Ring" -- "The Gentleman of the Ring." Arguello Jr. walks up to the counter and orders a large cup of coffee. He wants to stay up and talk about his dad.

Arguello Sr. grew up so poor that he once got into a fight with his brother over food, and it ended with his brother stabbing him in the chest with a fork. Arguello Jr. started his life in poverty, running around the streets of Nicaragua with no shoes. But then his dad's boxing career took off, opening the door to a lifestyle that little boys dream of.

When he was 10, he talked on the phone with Sylvester Stallone, a friend of Arguello Sr.'s. He hung with a few Hollywood actors. Whenever his dad entered a room, people cheered.

But it wasn't all a party. In the days and weeks before a fight, Arguello Sr. would be stressed out and anxious. He'd have to cut weight, and the closer to the fight he got, the more the family was "walking around on eggshells," Arguello Jr. says.

His father's life was hard, from the physical beatings to the mental toll. Various media reports say Arguello Sr. battled depression, but his son says he was happy and upbeat in his final years. He looked forward to reunions with his old boxing friends, and they laughed and carried on like frat boys.

Arguello Sr.'s death was seemingly far removed from boxing. His final job was as mayor of Managua. He won his election under allegations of fraud, was eventually stripped of his power, and had planned to resign on the night of June 30, when a lieutenant to Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega visited Arguello Sr.'s house. Within a few hours, Arguello Sr. was dead.

"My dad called a press conference for the next day. He was going to resign," Arguello Jr. says. "Who knows? The government was scared about what he was going to say. Who knows what they could have done?

"My dad tried to do the right thing. He tried to help the poor people. That was his main goal getting into politics. He wanted to become a mayor who could help the people in poverty. The people who really needed that help."

Arguello Jr., who was called A.J. for most of his childhood, is determined not to let his dad become categorized as just another number. But he also knows the sport has had too many violent tragedies. He wonders if Forrest, a beloved and charitable man who was shot after chasing the men who robbed him, was compelled to do so because of the fighter's mentality of never letting go of something that's his. He stops himself. He doesn't want to paint anything with a broad brush. He loves boxing.

A.J. is 38 now, but he still thinks a lot about his dad's days as a boxer. The younger Arguello devoted a year and a half of his adult life to the pursuit of following in his dad's footsteps. He had 15 amateur fights, and won 14 by knockout.

"I was this close," Arguello Jr. says, "this close to becoming a professional. But the one person who changed my mind was my dad.

"He said that he fought so I wouldn't have to."

In support of the sport

Four deaths won't change boxing. Top Rank's duBoef says boxing is "doing amazing" in terms of popularity over the past 18 months. He points to the 51,000 people who showed up in Dallas two months ago to watch Pacquiao dominate Joshua Clottey. He talks about the enormous pay-per-view audience for the recent Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley fight.

Franklin, who has spent the past few weeks vacillating between anger and grief, says this latest tragedy will barely make a dent in boxing. It's the most Teflon sport there is, he says. Everything seems to eventually slide right off.

"I think it will be nothing more than a little ripple on the pond for those who weren't really involved with them," he says. "And then, of course, it's devastating for the rest of us.

"I can't explain that crazy, crazy situation where Edwin took his wife's life. I'm not able to get around it. I'm not sleeping on it because it will live with me the rest of my life. I see the kids' faces. I'm telling you, there's no one who can make excuses for the act."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.