Monday, October 28, 2013

Boxing Proves It Is A Brutal Sport, Again

I don’t know when I first started watching boxing, probably sometime in college if my somewhat hazy memory is correct. I know as a kid I wasn’t into it.  My dad didn’t drag me to fights, nor did we watch much boxing on TV.

If I had to give anyone credit it would probably be Saint Leo Mike and Link. My first boxing memory (again a bit hazy) involves a Saturday night trip to the Tampa Jai Alai fronton for a Julio Cesar Chavez fight.  Thanks to BoxRec I can see the fight was against Meldrick Taylor.  As four white college kids we wisely joined in the “Viva Chavez” cheers from the largely Hispanic crowd (including a Cuban who explained the wonderful sport of jai alai to me). 

My second memory involved college kids crowded around a 13-inch color TV that somehow produced a fuzzy, but clear enough to watch showing of George Foreman beating Michael Moorer.

My first boxing argument was with Link’s freshman roommate about whether Muhammad Ali was a slugger or more of a cagey boxer.  My nascent view, based only on the iconic photo of Ali standing triumphantly over a fallen Liston, was that Ali was more about knockouts than boxing. It wasn’t until much later, after reading about and watching his mastery of the ring did I realize that Anthony might have had more of a valid argument than I was willing to concede.

Post college I was lucky enough to live in an area that was enjoying a rather successful run in professional boxing.  A young Antonio Tarver and Ronald “Winky” Wright were bringing pride to the Tampa Bay area while Roy Jones, Jr. bought a world title fight to the Ice Palace.

Winky didn't block ALL punches thrown his way. Sidenote -  I once saw him in the mall holding his wife/girlfriend's purse

I do, however, know the exact fight that turned me from a casual boxing observer to the type of fan that pays for HBO not for the movies, but for the fights (this was before they became known for their Sunday night programming.  Yes I’m old). I wish I could say it was some obscure, undercard fight between two fighters who had one great fight and then were never heard from again so I could establish my hipster boxing credentials. Alas, it was one of the most popular fights from this century.

It was the first Micky Ward/ Arturo Gatti fight. There is no doubt that it was one of the defining fights of the 2000s and the 9th round is in the top 10 of greatest rounds ever. I remember recording the rebroadcast on VHS (yup, I’m that old) and telling folks that hadn’t seen it that it was the closest thing to a “real life Rocky fight” that I had ever seen.

Gatti blocks a punch with his face.

Ward, who has been Mark Wahlberg-ed into being a better fight then he was, was a straight ahead fighter who had a tremendous left hook and willingness to walk through a rainstorm of punches to throw it. Gatti, “The Blood and Guts Warrior”, was on the wrong side of 30 and known for his wild out of the ring lifestyle and propensity to bleed more than his boxing acumen.  Needless to say, they made for excellent television.

Ward was cut in the first round and bled throughout much of the contest. Gatti would crumble to the canvas in the ninth from one of Ward’s trademarked left hooked. If you watch the fight, you can hear the unrestrained glee in Jim Lampley and Emmanuel Steward’s voices as they call the fight. They know they are watching, knowing that what they are seeing is why we as fans watch the sport.  Two guys, leaving it all in the ring, wailing away at each other with everything they have for the enjoyment of people around them.

Which brings us to Frankie Leal.  Don’t know who he is?  Neither did I until I perused Deadspin this weekend and read an excellent post by the writer/commenter known as “Iron MikeGallego”. On Saturday the 19th, Leal, a 26-year-old Mexican fighter, fought Raul Hirales.  Hirales floored Leal in the 8th round with a solid left hook to the body and a right hand that cuffed the back of Leal’s head.

Leal managed to get to his feet, but then slowly slid down the ring corner as the refs count reached eight. The young fighter looked dazed as he slumped in the corner as the ring doctor steadied his head and flashed a light in his eyes. After being taken out of the ring in a stretched he fell into a coma after the fight and three days later passed away due to traumatic brain injury. Not that it needed anymore tragedy, but Hirales and Leal were good friends outside of the ring.

I’ve watched the fight (there is a link in the Deadspin article) and what stands out to me is how routine the fight was to watch.  For eight rounds the two fighters went toe-to-toe fighting close rounds. While I had Hirales well ahead on points (thanks to a 6th round knockdown) each round was pretty close.

If you were to watch the fight without knowing the morbid outcome you would be hard pressed to believe that Leal suffered life-ending trauma during the fight.  Contrast it to the vicious shots that were landed throughout the entire Gatti/Ward fight.  There is a moment in the 5th round where Gatti has his hands down and Ward absolutely tees off with a three-shot combination that lands flush.  Gatti looks dazed but doesn’t go down.

Throughout the eight rounds last Saturday there are plenty of clean shots that land, but no “smoking gun” punch that one can directly point to exact moment that doomed Leal. Therein lies the problem.  In a sport where the object is to physically beat a person to the point where he is incapacitated for at least 10 seconds, where is the line drawn when enough is enough?

Leal popped up from his knock down in the 6th with no issue in fact he looked more troubled by an earlier low blow that caught him flush on the cup. During the fatal knockout sequence Leal is hurt by a body shot, then a flurry of punches drive him from the corner. As he starts to fall, Hirales clipped him on the back of the head with a “rabbit punch”. It was unintentional, caused by Leal’s falling body, but he got up briefly before his body gave up and he collapsed to the mat.

Could Leal’s life have been saved?  Possibly. It took several minutes for the medical team to get into the ring, get the stretcher to the ring and get Leal out of the arena and on his way to the hospital.  In March of 2012 Leal had also been stretchered out of the ring after being knocked out by Evgeny Gradovich. However, those factors took place outside of the ring. Unfortunately, if you look at just the in-ring action there isn’t much that could have been done to prevent his death.

It’s a testament to how far boxing has fallen from the limelight that Leal’s death isn’t drawing more national attention.  If a football player died last Sunday from severe head trauma the sports world have gone apoplectic. The talking heads would be stroking out while expressing their outrage. There would be talk of cancelling games and government investigations. Yet, in boxing the beat goes on.  

That is the face of a man with ill intentions.

On Saturday, Gennady Golovkin, the hardest-hitting middleweight that no one knows about, will take on Curtis Stevens in New York City. Undoubtedly there will be a 10 bell count in his memory and then after some thoughtful words Golovkin will go on his way to trying to knock out Stevens to the delight of the HBO crowd. The scene will be repeated in November when Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios trade power shots with each other in what could be the most entertaining fight of the year. 

In the Deadspin post, the writer refers to the Leal/Hirales fight as “ugly”. It's really the one point that I disagree with him on. Unfortunately, upon watching it didn’t seem ugly to me, it seemed all too normal. 


Loren P said...

Of course it is a brutal sport BUT there is more to it than that. The difference between fighting in the ring against an opponent and training in the gym is unfathomable to someone who hasn't fought in the ring. That's when it introduces the violence but in the same breath, it is still a beautiful art form and a much-respected sport.

Loren P | London Fight Factory

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