Viloria knows Chavez's anguish too well

Editor's note: This story originally was published Sept. 20. On Sept. 22, Leavander Johnson died in a Las Vegas hospital from injuries sustained in a Sept. 17 loss to Jesus Chavez.

For Brian Viloria, the parallels are eerie.

A boxer collapses shortly after taking a beating, is rushed to the hospital and has emergency brain surgery before being placed in an medically-induced coma, at which point a very public prayer vigil commences.

Viloria was on the other end of such trauma on May 28 in Los Angeles, having delivered the blows that sent Ruben Contreras to the hospital after Contreras quit in the sixth round, complaining of a headache and then had a seizure.

Fortunately, the Mexican fighter emerged from his coma weeks later and appears to be recovering.

Now it's Jesus Chavez's turn to experience what Viloria endured.

On Sept. 17 in Las Vegas, Chavez gave former IBF lightweight champion Leavander Johnson a terrible pummeling before the fight was stopped in the 11th round. Johnson had trouble walking to his dressing room and collapsed.

"It's really freaky just hearing about it," Viloria said.

"And what's really freaky is the way it parallels the incident with Ruben. He walked out of the ring and collapsed right after the fight and got [immediate] medical attention just like Ruben did. Hopefully, that'll save his life. … I'm praying for Johnson just like I did for Ruben."

Viloria, who went on to take Eric Ortiz's WBC light flyweight title by a sensational first-round knock out Sept. 10 in Los Angeles, relied on prayer and support from his family to cope as Contreras lay in a coma following their May fight.

"It's not your fault, it's not your fault. This happens in boxing," he said he was told repeatedly by family and friends, and ultimately he came to believe the words.

The sweet-natured former U.S. Olympian from Hawaii actually had considered retirement, but the support he received combined with Contreras' recovery gave him renewed resolve.

Now, thinking back on the horrible experience, he repeatedly uses the word "thankful."

"I just think about the blessing that everything went OK in my case," he said. "I really was fortunate. And when it happens, you can't help but to be really, really happy. Hopefully, Johnson will go the same route as Ruben."

And the advice he received, he now gives to Chavez.

"I know it can go either way," he said, referring those who end up in Johnson's condition.

"What can we do as fighters? We can just pray, just hope things will turn out OK. And wait, a lot of waiting. I would just tell Jesus to pray and not be too hard on himself. That's important; don't be too hard on yourself."

Viloria is aware that some people will point to such tragic situations and suggest that boxing is too brutal, that perhaps it has no place in our society.

More than one person has confronted him with the issue.

And he's not sure how to respond.

"I think about it, too," he said.

"The sport is really dangerous, people do get hurt. It happens in other sports, too, though. What do you do? Cancel all the programs because people get hurt? I think you just increase the awareness of the fighter's health in our sport. … And fighters need to be aware of their own health. If something is wrong, say so. Ruben did. He know something was wrong and said, OK, enough.

"No amount of money compares with your health."

Contreras has another thought.

The little fighter, only 108 pounds, sat ringside for Viloria's title fight against Ortiz in the same arena, the Staples Center, where he took his beating three months ago.

The only obvious sign that anything was wrong was with Contreras was the walker he was using as much for confidence as necessity, he said through an interpreter. He spoke with reporters, saying that he felt fine and that he was proud to be Viloria's inspiration that night.

He also revealed a new perspective about boxing.

"I don't know," he said softly, "maybe God doesn't want us to box."

Michael Rosenthal covers boxing for the San Diego Union-Tribune.