Commentary

Death in the ring has long been a part of boxing

Death in the ring, though uncommon, has long been a part of boxing.

Originally Published: November 13, 2007
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini's tragic fight with Duk Koo Kim has a particular relevance because it was on national "free" television -- the CBS network -- and was thus seen by a lot of people.

Twenty-five years on, and despite increased safety measures, ring fatalities still occur. Consequently critics find it hard to believe the claim that as contact sports go, boxing is safer than most.

Looking back at the Mancini-Kim fight and going back still further, one thing has struck me. Ring deaths can be as surprising as they are disturbing.

In some instances, boxers who were not considered very hard punchers have had the dreadful experience of learning their opponent died after the fight.

There have been ring deaths in which one of the boxers does not seem to have been excessively punished. The former Canadian junior middleweight champion and Olympic representative Manny Sobral once said to me: "It's strange, fighters like Jake LaMotta have all those wars and finish up fine, yet another guy might die after a fight. It's like a lottery."

Maybe it is just like a lottery, with a ticket that has a terrible price when cashed.

In many years of covering the sport, I have seen a few boxing fatalities -- not very many really, considering the amount of fights witnessed on-site and on the screen.

The first was in the summer of 1964 at Shoreditch Town Hall in the east end of London, where a Welsh featherweight named Lynn James collapsed after being stopped by a north London boxer named Colin Lake in the sixth round of a preliminary fight. It surprised people in British boxing because Lake had not been considered a very hard hitter.

Heavyweight Joe Bugner also was never regarded as a big puncher, but a journeyman from Trinidad named Ulrich Regis died after being outpointed by Bugner, again at Shoreditch Town Hall. Once more I was at ringside. Bugner was winning the rounds, but he did not seem to be hitting Regis terribly hard. As I recall, the fans booed the passivity shown by Bugner. Yet Regis suffered a brain injury and never recovered.

[+] EnlargePedro Alcazar
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNone of the telltale signs of a critically-injured fighter were evident while Pedro Alcazar was fighting.
More recently there was the death of the Panamanian Pedro Alcazar after being stopped in the sixth round by Fernando Montiel at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in June 2002. Alcazar's death was almost unbelievable. Montiel had done most of his heavy punching to the body. As I reported in Boxing Monthly at the time: "Although Alcazar was being outclassed in the sixth it wasn't as if he was taking a terrible beating."

The intervention by referee Kenny Bayless seemed perfectly timed. Alcazar was dispirited but did not seem in any way disoriented as he left the ring. He even went out sightseeing the next day -- a Sunday. Yet on the Monday, as he was in the shower and getting ready to catch a flight back to Panama, he collapsed. An autopsy showed significant swelling of the brain. The chief Nevada commission doctor at the time, Flip Homansky, told the press that what was so surprising was that the collapse occurred so long after the fight.

If one pattern has emerged over the years though, it is this: The fighters who get hurt are the courageous ones, the ones who will never surrender.

A boxer whose career is littered with knockout losses is rarely the one who gets hurt. Professional losers know when to bail out of a bout.

Boxers who pay the ultimate price are the ones who will endure punishment and keep fighting. Such a boxer was the Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen, who suffered a brain injury and died after being stopped in the 12th round of his championship fight with Mexico's Lupe Pintor.

I was ringside at the old Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles for that fight in September 1980.

Owen, with his angular, bony physique, looked frail and was even nicknamed the Matchstick Man because of his thin frame. "He's so skinny he's almost invisible," wrote Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times. Owen even went into the ring with a supporter carrying a flag depicting the challenger as a skeleton with boxing gloves. Yet for eight rounds, Owen was at the very least holding his own with the much stronger Pintor.

What particularly stands out about the ending was Owen going down heavily from the final right hand thrown by Pintor. In his weakened state, Owen might literally have been hit by that "one punch too many" that we all fear.

This brings us to the great responsibility that referees bear: When to stop a fight and when to hold back.

Take the fight shown on ESPN from Boston seven years ago when junior lightweight Bobby Tomasello died after fighting a 10-round draw with Ghana's Steve Dotse. Tomasello built up an early lead on points but faded against a physically stronger opponent and was heavily punished in the final round. The referee understandably was reluctant to stop the fight, bearing in mind that it was nearly over. Those final, heavy hits from Dotse simply proved too much for a desperately tired fighter, as Tomasello was that night, to be able to take.

At the opposite end are fighters with fantastic recuperative abilities who appear down and out one minute, only to appear fully recovered the next. There have been many instances in boxing history in which a fighter clearly in desperate trouble has rallied -- or held on -- to win.

Just recently we have seen Kelly Pavlik was floored and wobbly, only to come back and prevail against Jermain Taylor. In last week's ESPN classic war, Sakio Bika came back from the brink of defeat to stop Jaidon Codrington.

[+] EnlargeBika
Emily Harney PhotographySakio Bika's brawl with Jaidon Codrington, right, is an example of a fight that was stopped at the right time.
What, then, does a referee look for when he feels that a fight should be stopped? Two leading referees shared their views.

Referee Jon Schorle, 46, whose big-fight assignments include Vitali Klitschko's eight-round win over Corrie Sanders, said over the phone from Los Angeles: "It's just what you see in the fighter. It could be the first round, and it could be later. With the Sanders thing, he didn't have any fight left, and I recognized that -- that's why I stopped it."

On Pavlik's rocky second round in the Taylor fight, which he watched on TV, Schorle said: "Sometimes you want to let it go one more punch to see what happens, and I think that's what that referee [Steve Smoger] did, and it's pretty much the right decision because he [Pavlik] came back.

"It's a tough call. You want to look to see if they've still got their hands up, and where the punches coming to them are landing. Nobody gets seriously hurt from body shots.

"What you look for is if a guy is throwing punches back and if he has the will to fight -- and where are the punches [from his opponent] landing."

Texas referee Laurence Cole, 44, who has handled such big fights as Manny Pacquiao's upset win over Marco Antonio Barrera, said over the phone from Dallas: "You're looking for several pieces that all fall together. You look at the fatigue of [the fighter], how his feet are underneath his body, how much effort he's taking to keep maintaining his balance, the condition of his neck.

"Early on when you take a shot, your neck's strong and your head doesn't move. When fatigue sets in, your neck weakens, your shoulders weaken, and when you get hit your head snaps back. I think that's what causes the shift in the brain that causes someone to get knocked out or [seriously] hurt."

Watching a fighter's eyes is important, Cole said. Sometimes the eyes show a "Get me outta here" look. Or the eyes can take on what Cole calls "a nonfocusing, glazed factor". Either way, it's time to step in.

Referees everywhere seem to agree that they will usually give more leeway to a boxer of world-class caliber. As Cole explained: "You make a determination on when to stop a fight on the experience of the fighters and the elevation of the fight.

"You know that the guys with experience have been in the situation where they've been hurt, and they've been able to survive it and work out of it."

Still, even if fights are stopped at what seems to be exactly the right moment, ring deaths can occur.

Maybe it is simply that some fighters are genetically programmed to be able to take more punishment than others, although the heavyweight iron man George Chuvalo once told me that one reason he was never knocked down or seriously hurt in a fight was because he spent hours in the gym working on his neck, doing exercises such as the wrestler's bridge.

A quarter-century after Mancini-Kim, and never in its long history has boxing been more safety conscious. Fighters wear bigger gloves and partake in day-before weigh-ins. As a direct result of the Mancini-Kim fight, rounds in title fights were reduced from 15 to 12. There are CAT scans and MRI exams.

It is difficult to imagine what more can be done.

There is risk involved in boxing, as in all sports in which physical contact is involved -- and don't even talk about the casualties in horseback riding and motor sports.

What boxing can do -- all it really can do -- is to make sure the risk is acceptable, and, by and large, this has been achieved.

To remove all risk would be to turn boxing into something quite different than the sport as we know it -- and I do not think anyone would want that, least of all the boxers themselves.

Graham Houston is the American Editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

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