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The legacy of Frankie Leal

On Friday, Nov. 1, in the Mexican border town of Mexicali, super bantamweight boxer Francisco "Frankie" Leal was buried in a family plot next to his father, his namesake, the original Francisco Leal. Francisco Leal, Sr. was the big man in boxing with the bigger personality, first in the ring and then as a promoter, and whenever a kid from town showed promise, someone with those breathtakingly quick hands, that big-stage charisma and heart that made people flutter with hope, Francisco was credited with discovering him. It was the father whom the son emulated, the power of blood -- and not the power of the bloodlust -- that put Frankie in a boxing ring in the first place.

The 60 minutes immediately following a traumatic injury is referred to by medical professionals as the "golden hour." It is when medical attention is at its most crucial, when the balance between life and death is no tired cliché. In boxing, fight organizers and their hosts must have protocols in place to transport and attend to a wounded fighter during that time. According to friends and family, Frankie Leal's golden hour started after he was knocked out by countryman Raul Hirales in the eighth round of a 10-round fight on Oct. 19 in Cabo San Lucas. Leal was taken out of the ring at the Auditorio Municipal on a stretcher without his neck being properly stabilized, exposing him to possible spinal damage with the slightest movement. He was taken to a nearby clinic by ambulance, but when it arrived, members of the Leal camp as well as family members said, the clinic was closed.

In front of a locked door, friends said, Frankie Leal bled internally in the parking lot for at least an hour. When the clinic finally opened, doctors said, it was during this time that Leal likely slipped into the coma from which he never awoke. Leal was airlifted to the United States, to San Diego, where he died at UC-San Diego Medical Center on Oct. 22, three days after the fight, three days before his 27th birthday. His wife, Laura, and 4-year-old son, Fabian, received $5,000 for Leal's share of the purse and a $10,000 insurance settlement from Zanfer Promotions, which organized the fight.

Frankie Leal's life was defined by lines: the jagged, miles-long divide between the United States and Mexicali, as Leal would often travel between there and Coachella, Calif. It was defined by the hard line of talent between the journeyman whose job it is to get punched out -- to be fodder for the special ones everyone remembers -- and having the hands, speed, heart and ability to be the one, to be one of those special fighters.

Finally and forever, Frankie Leal was defined by the lines in his face -- the ones that were visible from boxing, and the ones that could not be seen on the face of a 26-year-old. Those were the softer, distinguished lines of age, the ones that appear and define a face over a lifetime, that were never given the chance to appear.

In 2009, Leal had fought for a championship belt, but by the end many boxing leaders did not believe he should have even been in the ring. On more than one occasion, the thirst to fight nearly cost him his life. Before the Hirales fight, Leal planned to throw a huge party. The date was to be Nov. 1 in Mexicali. The party was a supposed to be a gathering of friends and family celebrating both his 27th birthday and what he hoped to have been a big win against Hirales, another important step toward receiving that second title shot. By the time the sun set on Nov. 1, Francisco "Frankie" Leal had been lowered into the ground. When the funeral ended, with tears instead of presents, his survivors held the birthday party anyway.

An irreplaceable drug

In a country moving away from physical work, athletic combat fulfills the primal need for the physical expression of aggression -- from the hits in the ring, or in the octagon, to those on the blue line or the 50-yard line. Yet, even as sports fans have adopted a certain willful numbness to violence in exchange for the satiation of their carnal thirst for competition and its accompanying blood, a stretch of three weeks in October and November were especially costly:

• Two boxers slipped into comas - one, Frankie Leal, is dead. The other, Russian-born heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov, was put in a medically induced coma for weeks and his camp says it is a miracle he survived.

• Dan Boyle, a San Jose Sharks defenseman, was checked from behind into the boards by St. Louis forward Maxim Lapierre and was carted off the ice on stretcher. Boyle was hospitalized for two days. Three months later, he still says he suffers the lingering effects of the concussion because he returned to the ice too early.

• Two former NFL players, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett and All-Pro wide receiver Mark Duper, were diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy attributable to repetitive head injuries from a lifetime of football. A current player, Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, ended up in intensive care after a hit in an Oct. 20 Packers-Browns game, one day after the Leal fight, his season over and his career in question.

Football stands out because of its enormous reach and popularity, because of the devastating effects injuries have on players and because it faces the highest-profile litigation from players suing the sport that made them famous. But the once-attractive narrative of bigger, faster, stronger across all sports appears to have finally reached its denouement. There was a time when all of it -- the danger, the damage, the death -- could be finessed away by the imprecisions of scientific data, by anecdotal outliers, the dismissing of tragedy as unfortunate aberration, and of, course, the machismo of being a real man. It's an exercise of collective denial through the shadings of language and thought, through the creation of just enough doubt to muddy the debate. Maybe Rob Gronkowski just happens to be fragile. Maybe concussions were a serious health issue and possibly if a player was unlucky he might suffer serious long-term consequences from repeated head injuries. But definitive causation is unclear because while, yes, Muhammad Ali has Parkinson's disease, Jake LaMotta took more punishment than anyone and he is still lucid well into his 80s.

Finessing arguments has given way to a perfect storm of circumstances, threatening if not the wildly lucrative business of contact sports then certainly their future legitimacy. The high-profile deaths and injuries -- suicides by football players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the real-time decline of former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, the relentless onrush of lawsuits, the discrediting of boxing over the past 30 years and now a simmering boil of lawsuits over the safety of the NHL coupled with scientific study from groups ranging from the Cleveland Clinic to Massachusetts General Hospital to government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to research by Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech University -- have been so convincing that finessing of the data is now futile, forcing a new strategy to justify and explain the existence and allure and, to many people, the necessity of the blood game.

The conversation is being reshaped. The tipping point has arrived.

"It is all very interesting. Boxing and football produce hits, but the type of hits are different. In football you see dementia as a result of playing the game. In boxing you see more motor skills issues, slurred speech, Parkinson's," said Dr. Charles Bernick of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Injury at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. "The resulting traumas are different, but they're all heading to the same place toward CTE."

Denial has been replaced by a fusion argument of commercialism and libertarianism -- embrace the danger and its accompanying warrior code. Challenging that code is a sign of weakness. Players want to participate, but no set of advances in a civilized society or recognitions of the powerful survival elements along racial, class and cultural lines, can reduce human beings' attraction to fighting, of being physical, of the rush of being in the arena, just to watch. And boxing, one fighter told me, "is a drug whose high cannot be replicated."

Scientific data suggest that the brain is too delicate at the youth level to endure hits without major future consequences, and in the coming months and years, a greater emphasis will be placed on reducing or eliminating head contact altogether in youth contact sports. Even so, boxing trainer Marcos Caballero said you "cannot develop a fighter without it."

"You're trying to teach the mind to hit the head. That's the target: hit the body and the head," Caballero said. "If you're not going to hit the head, how can you improve? When I'm going to throw to the head, I'm teaching my brain to do that. If I'm going to throw to the body, I'm teaching my brain to do that. You have to teach that young. To take that away is a different ballgame."

The result is conflict between the mounting data that suggest contact reshapes the brain as early as the pre-teen years and the cultural and financial rewards that drive athletes to acknowledge but ignore the research -- rendering consequences so devastating that regardless of the sport, even the most violent weeks, like those in October and November that ended with Frankie Leal's burial, have become commonplace.

"They are professional athletes. They fight for money. This is their prize," boxing Hall of Fame promoter Bruce Trampler said following Leal's death. "I have seen a lot of ring deaths, and this one should have never happened. Definitely, it should not have happened. This is what they choose to do. They will mourn on Friday, but by Monday, the gyms will be full."

'He's not going to make it'

In March 2012, Frankie Leal had stepped into the ring against a difficult and merciless opponent, the climbing Russian fighter Evgeny Gradovich. The fight was held in San Antonio, Texas. At ringside, Bruce Trampler and other longtime boxing men had tears in their eyes because they believed they were witnessing a ring death. As Leal was being carried out of the ring on a gurney, Trampler told an associate, "He's not going to make it." Gradovich had savaged Leal. Against Hirales, Leal would stand for the referee's count before collapsing backward into the ring post. In San Antonio against Gradovich, Leal was taken out of the ring unconscious and spent three and a half weeks in the hospital.

The Texas Department of Regulation and Licensing, the same enforcement body that issues permits for plumbers, electricians, beauticians, and oddly, boxers and mixed martial arts under the heading "combat sports," concluded that the punishment Leal absorbed was excessive and was unconvinced he would be physically ready to fight again. The Texas governing body placed him on indefinite suspension, which because of boxing's reciprocal laws in the United States meant he was ineligible to fight anywhere in the country.

Leal responded not by retiring, but by finding a place he could fight where reciprocity could not end his career. That suspension lasted all of nine months, but it might explain why each of his final five fights was in Mexico.

"This is so wrong. I thought Leal was going to die the night he fought Gradovich, but he kept going and going," Trampler said. "We didn't think he was going to make it. This is one of the problems in the sport. He had to have someone in his camp step in and tell him not to fight anymore. This was a ring death waiting to happen."

In Coachella, Calif., 40 minutes southeast of Palm Springs, Gerardo Trilla often trained with Frankie Leal. Trilla was a lifelong boxing fan and friend of Leal. He owns an ironworking business and would give Frankie work. They worked out at the Coachella Boxing Club. They ran the southern California hills together. They strategized fights. They were brothers in every way except blood. Gerardo's iPhone keeps the record of the last time they ran. Leal did the running. Gerado kept the time: Four miles.

Months after the Gradovich fight, Leal returned to Coachella where he met his longtime support group of Trilla, trainer Marcos Caballero, as well as a cousin, Roberto Gonzalez, who would drive him back and forth across the border from Mexicali. Trilla recalled Leal telling him he was cleared to fight in Nevada, that more fights were scheduled and that the Nevada Athletic Commission only wanted to see a copy of a latest MRI for him to continue boxing.

For nine months after Gradovich, Leal did not fight. During that time in Coachella, Trilla and Caballero held an impromptu intervention. "We told him he needed to change his style, that he was taking too much punishment," Trilla recalled. "We wanted him to not charge in so much, to be more defensive because he was getting hit so many times, but we never saw anything wrong with him and he never said he wasn't allowed to fight in the United States."

Eventually, on Nov. 29, 2012, the Texas commission lifted Leal's suspension, according to Susan Stanford of the TDRL. That allowed him to fight in the United States. According to Trilla, he and Leal agreed to fight in Cabo because it created a faster path to a potential title shot. Leal's camp believed that Hirales was a less dangerous opponent than the offers they were receiving from Top Rank to fight in the U.S. According to Trilla, if Leal beat Hirales, he would have had another fight in Mexico City in December, which Zanfer Promotions said would lead to a title shot in April. Sitting on the edge of the ring at the Coachella Boxing Club -- the last place he and Leal spent time together before the Hirales fight -- Trilla despondently recollected the strategy, unable to reconcile that their path to a championship led ultimately led to Leal's death in Cabo. "Had this fight taken place in the United States," Trilla said, "Frankie would still be alive."

A day after Leal's funeral in Mexicali, Magomed Abdusalomev, a heavy-punching, Russian known as the "Russian Tyson," fought Cuban Mike Perez in Madison Square Garden, in the U.S., where the sport is safer, where the protocols are more efficient and professional than in Mexico. The 32-year-old Abdulsalomev lost a brutal 10-round decision. The heavyweight had broken his left hand, his cheekbone and his nose in the fight. At the hospital, doctors discovered Abdulsalomev also suffered brain swelling and a blot clot on his brain.

Doctors removed a piece of his skull to reduce the pressure on his brain and induced him into a coma. Two days later, following successful brain surgery, Abdulsalomev suffered a stroke and was placed on life support. Doctors were pessimistic about his chance to survive. His promoter, Nathan Lewkowicz, told the New York Daily News that doctors told him there was a nearly "100 percent chance" Abdulsalomev would die.

'I know there's brain damage'

Four days after Frankie Leal was buried, Gabriel Vian sat in a chair at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Study at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, a needle in his left arm as lab techs filled vials of blood. Vian is a 29-year-old mixed martial arts specialist. If Floyd Mayweather is at the top of the boxing world, a pay-per-view cash machine and the highest-paid boxer in the history of the sport, Gabriel Vian lives in a parallel universe, on the fight margins attempting to assemble the appropriate professional apparatchik -- the management team, the reliable fights, the bigger-money contracts -- to make the fighting life easier, more lucrative, more worth it.

"I'm competing for the payday. Boxers are in it for the competition. Some guys just like to hit people. There are different ways to look at it. I don't think I'm much of a competitor," he said. "I just want to make money at something I'm good at."

He fights for a thousand bucks here, maybe five grand there, with a cynicism born from the streets. "There are a lot of guys in jail fighting for free," he said. The biggest payday of his career so far was less than $10,000. Sometimes, he lowers his hands, just to get hit.

"It's the nature of the beast," he said. "If I didn't want to take that risk, I wouldn't strap my gloves on. It's better than a 9-to-5 any day, I'll tell you that. I mean, how many people get killed every day doing a regular-type job? I'm not worried about it. I never get hurt. It's the other person who gets hurt. My mother doesn't watch until she knows I won. Then, she'll watch the tape and try to celebrate it.

"It's MMA. You know someone's going to get hurt. Who wants to watch it if no one gets hurt? People go watch NASCAR to see someone crash, not to watch a left turn. For me, what said it all for me, why I do this, was the most memorable night I can remember: It was a heavyweight fight," he said. "The guy was 6-3, 230. I took the fight at the weigh-in. I was hung over when I said yes. I knocked him out in 50 seconds. The crowd was all over me and then when I knocked him out they were silent. The only thing you could hear was his wife and daughter crying because he got stretchered."

Vian arrived at the clinic to receive his mandatory MRI and to provide blood work that would allow him to participate in his next fight. The blood work is free, but comes with a price: In exchange, he has agreed to participate in the Cleveland Clinic's fledgling long-term study of the effects of repetitive contact to the head and brain.

Vian is built like a tattooed panzer, 5-foot-8, 200 pounds. Sitting in front of the computer to take a battery of tests, far away from his comfort zone, his ring fearlessness evaporates. "When I'm in the ring, I don't get nervous. I get anxious," he said. "I'm calm as a bell when I step into the arena, but this? I'm nervous as hell."

Each computer test correlates to an important element of boxing and helps create a benchmark for each fighter when he returns in a year. Vian is instructed to look at the computer screen and remember 15 words -- i.e., "cat," "dog," "milk" -- and then to tap the spacebar for the words he remembers when they reappear on the screen.

A second test tracks processing speed. Vian is instructed to match numbers and symbols. He grows frustrated when one sequence appears to be taking longer than he thinks it should. "I know there's brain damage in there," he says after needing nearly 25 seconds to match eight symbols with eight numbers.

A third test requires Vian to tap the space bar as quickly as he can for 30 seconds. It is a psycho-motor speed drill to track his motor skills, designed to create a baseline for his hand movements.

In between, Vian is asked to read a paragraph about rainbows. The purpose of the drill is to create further benchmarks to detect signs of word slurring over time. Vian deflects his discomfort from reading the paragraph with humor.

"How often do you think I pick up a book?" he said.

In another test, the name of a color appears on screen. Periodically, the color name will appear in its corresponding color -- i.e., the word "blue" appears in blue letters -- and when this happens, Vian is told to hit the space bar. To Vian's surprise, Vian performed better on the elements of the test where he was matching symbols and colors. It was the test during which he was the most pessimistic.

The test he performed the most poorly may have the most chilling consequences. The purpose of the test is to track recognition of external surroundings, corresponding to a boxer's ability to quickly process the information of seeing a punch being thrown at him. Vian's poor score suggested that his reaction time was sub-par, potentially exposing him to many more blows that his reflexes won't be fast enough to avoid.

Each year, Vian and other volunteers of the study will return to take the tests again. Bernick and his team will track the changes. Many fighters have agreed to join the study to keep fighting, as the clinic provides free MRI scans in exchange for participation.

"The first fighters were individuals who had a fight coming up and needed an MRI to get in the ring," Bernick said. "It saved them money. They weren't here for science."

The night before, on Monday evening, Nov. 4, over popcorn, lemonade and soda and appetizers, Bernick sat at a bar at the MGM Signature hotel in Las Vegas. A distance runner by avocation, Bernick is the principle investigator for the Cleveland Clinic and the architect of the ambitious study. "The goal is to create a human model of repetitive brain injury," Bernick said. "If we can do that, we'll be able to understand issues better. It's just starting but no one had been looking at what happens over time. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients can have the disease 10 years before symptoms. Are there any markers? Predicting trajectories? There must be certain features since everyone doesn't develop this. We need to understand the trajectories."

Unlike the NFL, which until only recently has seemed eternally locked in a full nelson with researchers like Bernick, the boxing and mixed-martial arts industries contribute significant funding for head injury research. Original seed money came from financier Kirk Kekorkian. Top Rank, one of the biggest fight companies in the world, is headquartered in the city. Las Vegas is the center of boxing. The MMA is headquartered in Las Vegas. Each entity, as well as Golden Boy and the Nevada Athletic Commission contribute funding to Bernick's program, which is in its third year.

Nevertheless, the finessing, or another form of it, begins. Bernick said he and his clinic are not trying to end the sport, only trying to make it safer. But there can be no mistaking the conclusions of his data: He is charting the eventual debilitation and possible death of his subjects. Some of it is social penance, Bernick allows, for the tacit understanding between himself and the industry, the fans and the participants that the data Bernick collects will be compelling enough to elicit compassion for the fighters, but never powerful enough to summarily bring down boxing or MMA. Thus, both industries fund his research and look responsible doing it, even if Bernick's findings conclude the sport is killing off its members.

"They aren't afraid of us. They know that the gyms will still be full. So, the relationship is good. There is no fear it will harm the sport. If anything, it will help. We're not here to end boxing or MMA. We're hoping recommendations will come of it.

"My sense is not to be judgmental of what a person should or shouldn't do," Bernick said. "I have a daughter, but if I had a son I'm not sure I'd want him to play at a young age. Who doesn't know this? But on the other hand, they do it for a reason. Unless someone says we're going to outlaw the sports, it is my job to determine ways to protect people who are participating. It isn't realistic to just say 'I'll have nothing to do with it.' That isn't helping."

The family business

Data, logic, societal pressure or disillusionment cannot compete with family and culture and the chance to make a living. At the Coachella Boxing Club, there is the blood sport, but more importantly, there is the blood. Frankie Leal trained here, where Marcos Caballero trained him. It is here, at the club, where his cousin Roberto Gonzalez showed up to support him and where Gerardo Trilla was a surrogate brother. On the walls of the club are the past glories, rooted in family, clippings of the Diaz brothers and Timothy Bradley, Jr., who beat the great Manny Pacquiao, all who trained out of Coachella. Lee Espinoza is the godfather of the club, and in 2012, the city of Coachella renamed the gym in his honor. Poor kids, kids from middle to lower middle-class see those walls as proof of success, of something good, of something that could happen for them.

A week after Francisco Leal was buried, 14-year-old Rommel Caballero, one of Marcos' sons, defeated 2013 national champion Evan Sanchez in South El Monte. Caballero is the youngest of four brothers who fight. His older brother, Randy Caballero, sparred frequently with Leal. Randy Caballero is a ranked featherweight contender, a member of the Golden Boy stable of fighters, who is one of the rising stars in the sport. Randy Caballero is heading toward a title shot. He knows the dangers and the data, far better than most. Leal's death was not just a headline for him.

"When I would come to the gym, after Frankie died, I would see him everywhere. I would see him in the corner of the ring. He was left-handed and he would teach me how to fight and defend against lefties," Randy said. "I would see him jumping rope. It was terrible. The first few days it was driving me crazy.

"If I could go to school, I would," he said. "I tell kids to go to school, to get their education. For me, I've been doing this my whole life. When I was little, I would always put on my dad's shoes, which fit really big on me. My brother and I would fight. We're a family here. You look at what the Diaz brothers did. They got a championship shot. I want a title shot. I never worry about it, because I've never been hurt. I've never been hit that way. For me, there's the feeling of being cheered. In a team sport, they're cheering for everyone. In boxing, it's just you."

There are baseball families and football families, broadcasting families and political families. The Caballeros are a boxing family. On the outside, in the antiseptic clinics where the data of death and decline are being collected, or in the academy where options are more plentiful, the information plotting out what increasingly feels to be an unavoidable path to brain damage should make the decision for them. On the outside, there is cringing for what the future will hold, for what the data says the future will be.

On the inside, along the dusty roads away from the elite, big money of Palm Desert and Indian Wells, where tennis and golf are king, toward the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Coachella, the Diaz brothers, the Caballeros, are celebrities. The specter of CTE and cognitive tests exists, but on an intellectual level, far less urgent than the powerful pull of becoming a champion, a somebody.

Rommel Caballero is 14, with a smooth unlined face and a heart-melting smile. Precocious, mischievous, full of adolescent innocence and energy, he's just a kid, just like the kids he beat. In his bio, Rommel said his favorite TV show is "SpongeBob SquarePants." One afternoon before training, Rommel hides behind the shrub in front of the Coachella Boxing Club and leaps out to scare a friend, laughing. On his Facebook page, he posts a photo of one of boxing's most famous knockouts, Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in their 1965 rematch in Lewiston, Maine. The next page is the logo of the ubiquitous slogan with a personal twist: "Keep Calm and Date a Boxer."

Inside the gym, a 20-year-old kid challenges Rommel to spar and within moments Rommel tears him to shreds with a barrage of body shots that aren't savage but simply ruthlessly, professionally executed. He has been boxing his whole, short life.

There are the bloodlines of the family business: Rommel's trainer is his father. On the east wall of the club are posters of Rommel, his older brothers Randy and Ryan. Another older brother, Robert, was also a fighter. There is also, the camaraderie of the boxing family, of the community and the prestige that goes with being part of the larger lineage. Coachella isn't just a community gym with a ring and a speed bag.

If Charlie Bernick and the teams of neurosurgeons nationwide are tracking the effect of contact sports on the youth, the Caballeros are the living models of their research, the embodiment of the collision between a way of life and its scientific, statistical price. As amateurs, Marcos Caballero's kids have fought a combined 451 fights, which doesn't include sparring hours or Randy's 20 professional fights. Robert Caballero was 90-9, Ryan 85-17, Randy 167-10 and Rommel 71-2.

None of it, not the stats nor the cognitive tests, the hand-wringing, and maybe even the money, means anything compared to family, but Marcos Caballero is aware of the life, and the price.

"Part of me knows I'm in too deep now. This is what we do. We are a family. If I were to walk away, I'd be walking away from my kids, and I wouldn't do that. They have also reached a point where they wouldn't walk away because I'm walking away. They would find someone else to train them. They are fighters.

"And it takes something inside to do this," he said. "If I didn't think my sons had it inside, did not have what it took to be a champion, I wouldn't agree to this. Randy's been fighting since he was little. My kids have been fighting with their hearts. When you start going to national and you win national titles, then you start seeing the possibilities. It's all about victories. If he showed the heart and didn't win, then you know it's not for him."

The ongoing aftermath

Charlie Bernick and Alex Powers have never met. Powers is a neurosurgeon from Wake Forest University whose area of concentration has been the effect of head injuries on kids playing youth and varsity football, kids the same age as Rommel Caballero. On April 8, Powers plans to present his findings to 3,300 of the leading neurosurgeons as one of the marquee papers at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons Annual Scientific Meeting conference in San Francisco. Powers has concluded that even a year of football will alter the anatomical shape of the brain, perhaps even permanently. "We do have a living model for repetitive brain injury," he said, "and that model is called football, because the changes are real. We're seeing the result of the frequency and the force of the volume of hits on people who by all other measures are completely healthy."

While Powers focuses on football, Bernick's initial findings are leaning him toward the conclusion that head injuries incurred between the ages of 8 and 18 may be more damaging than injuries suffered between the ages of 18 and 28, creating more peril for youth contact sports and pushing the medical community to conclude that perhaps contact to the head should be prohibited in all sports before age 15. A month after his death, Frankie Leal's widow, Laura, and his son Fabian spent their first Thanksgiving without Frankie with Gerardo Trilla at Frankie's aunt's house in Coachella. Trilla said he will never watch boxing again. "I love boxing and MMA. I spend $130 a month on cable to watch it, but no more." One day in November, Roberto Gonzalez, Leal's cousin, comes by the gym. On the dashboard of his car is a keepsake from the funeral, a small square photo of Leal that bears his nickname, "The Little Soldier."

On a Nov. 26 bantamweight undercard fight in Sunrise, Fla., Randy Caballero knocks out Jessy Cruz in seven rounds to raise his record to 20-0. Marcos expects Randy's first title shot sometime in 2014. His little brother Rommel has won two more fights over top-ranked juniors and is now 71-2.

Five weeks after being knocked out and placed on life support, Magomed Abdusalomev, the Russian Tyson, is taken off life support, removed from ICU and moved to a regular hospital bed. Doctors told his agent, Nathan Lewkowicz it would take another 18 months to determine the status of his brain. He has survived the most brutal fight of his life, but two months after the fight and a month after being in a coma, Abdusalomev cannot walk and has yet to speak. His family has filed court documents that state its intent to file a $100 million lawsuit against the state of New York and its athletic commission, alleging negligence and medical malpractice.

Where there was once Dan Boyle there is now Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. In a particularly intense game Dec. 7 at Boston, with illegal hits throughout, Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton, during a play stoppage, hits Orpik from behind, throws him to the ice and punches him repeatedly. Orpik is removed from the ice on a stretcher. The NHL suspends Thornton for 15 games.

Back in Coachella, surrounded by the big posters of the champions holding onto their title belts, a little kid, 8 years old, follows Marcos Caballero around. Caballero teaches him the initial movements of a boxer: the walk. Concentrating on his hands in front of his face, deliberate and focused on moving forward, the kid walks along the tiled floor, first to the left, then right. He is taking the first step toward stalking an opponent in the ring -- the first steps toward the life, the possible glories, riches, reputation, hardships and, likely, toward CTE. Caballero has an eye on this uniquely focused child who does what he's told and never asks a single question. "Look at this kid," Caballero said. "Every day he comes in here and wants to learn. Most kids, you give them instruction about how to learn how to fight, they'll do it for a few steps, get bored and not be into it. That's how you can tell they want it. He's different. He wants to be next."