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Disabled ex-boxer Magomed Abdusalamov thankful as condition improves

GREENWICH, Conn. -- A week before Thanksgiving, disabled former boxer Magomed Abdusalamov calmly showed what doctors said could be impossible for him after a catastrophic injury in the ring six years ago.

Emotion.

Expression.

Engagement.

Capacities most of us take for granted disappeared for Abdusalamov in the hours after he lost a unanimous decision to Mike Perez on Nov. 2, 2013. The 10-round battle between two undefeated heavyweights damaged Abdusalamov's brain and robbed him of his career.

Seated in his wheelchair Thursday, with his wife and their three daughters at his side in the kitchen of their southern Connecticut home, Abdusalamov spoke softly and deliberately to ESPN's Outside the Lines, alternating between English and Russian.

"I feel better," the 38-year-old Abdusalamov said. "I think six months from now I'll be even better."

"Doctors said he'd never see, talk or hug -- won't have feelings," said his wife, Bakanay Abdusalamova. "They thought I was crazy to take him home [in the fall of 2014]."

After his traumatic brain injury, the native of the Russian Republic of Dagestan suffered multiple strokes, was in a coma for weeks and was an inpatient for 10 months. He was paralyzed on the right side and remains so, he was unable to talk, and the left side of his head was permanently disfigured after emergency surgery to relieve pressure from a blood clot in his brain.

Abdusalamov's doctors said any progress over the first 12 to 18 months after such brain trauma would almost surely be as good as it would get for him. Back then, his advancement in communicating gradually enabled him to blurt, whisper and mumble words. His inner feelings and degree of comprehension remained unclear.

In the time since, Abdusalamov's condition did not plateau and more and more answers about him revealed themselves. His youngest daughter, Patimat, born 10 months before that 2013 fight, offered a simple explanation: "He didn't want to give up and we didn't, because we love him."

Abdusalamova recounted the reaction of his earliest rehabilitation doctors when they saw her husband three years after the fight. "They were shocked," she said, "like a miracle. They thought he'd always be in bed, maybe not even live three years."

Now Abdusalamov pays attention and responds, stringing together thoughts and sentences. "He's a good listener, he picks up on things," said his oldest daughter, 13-year-old Shakhrizat.

Abdusalamov chimes in on family discussions, articulates concerns about the girls leaving the house without sufficiently warm clothing, and he playfully bellows his wife's nickname, "Baka," hanging several seconds on the second syllable. To show off his affection, he kissed Abdusalamova's hand and put his left arm around her waist.

Abdusalamova was 18 at the time of their arranged marriage 15 years ago and has told OTL, through interpreters in several interviews since 2013, that she always felt extremely dependent on "Mago" before his injury. In the years since, people close to the situation have described her day-and-night efforts to nurture him as "superhuman."

On Thursday, now fluent in English, Abdusalamova spoke about the angst and uncertainty that used to torment her.

"I was scared he didn't understand and didn't appreciate. He's my first and last love in life and he knows it and I want to know I am his, too."

She then asked him for that affirmation.

Baka: "How long could you live without me?" Mago (raising his left index finger): "One second."

The couple's middle daughter, Saygibat, 10, said, "Doctors said he wouldn't feel emotion, but he always wants to look at Mom's face, because he loves her."

"My wife makes me very happy," said Abdusalamov, as his attention shifted from Abdusalamova to his visitor. "I love Baka," he added.

"She gives me life."

Abdusalamova said her husband has watched the video of his HBO-televised final fight many times.

Thinking back to that Saturday night in the Theater at Madison Square Garden -- when he landed 248 blows, but absorbed 312 -- makes him angry at himself, Abdusalamov said. "I was a very good puncher, but my technique wasn't great."

In the dressing room after he left the ring with his face a swollen, bloody mess, doctors cleared Abdusalamov to leave the Garden on his own, saying he should see a doctor in his then-home state of Florida in a week, to X-ray a suspected facial fracture and remove stitches for a laceration above his eye.

Then, when a fight inspector detected blood in Abdusalamov's urine sample, he suggested that the boxer's handlers take him to an emergency room, although the doctors -- now gone from the scene -- hadn't advised of a need to go to an E.R. or mentioned they had an ambulance at their disposal.

As his interpreter tried to hail a taxi, Abdusalamov grew increasingly unsteady and vomited on the sidewalk. Once at the hospital, the 6-foot-3, 231-pound boxer passed out and was rushed into the operating room.

In interviews with OTL the following month, Abdusalamov's cornermen said he had told the doctors in the dressing room that his head hurt.

Abdusalamov made his first public comments about that, when OTL visited last week.

"I told them [the doctors] I had pain in my head," he said, as he pointed to the area that has been concave since his postfight brain surgery.

"I said I had a headache."

After a nearly three-year investigation of the postfight handling of Abdusalamov, and its implications, the state inspector general released a report excoriating the athletic commission for its "lack of appropriate emergency medical protocols and oversight procedures."

Two years ago, Abdusalamov and his family received a $22 million settlement of their negligence lawsuit against the state of New York. And two months ago they settled a multimillion-dollar suit (the exact amount is confidential, as a condition of the agreement) against the three doctors who worked the fight.


With the financial means to provide for his ongoing care, Abdusalamov has health attendants come on a daily basis and he participates in rehab activities at home and in the area, including at a gym where he eagerly pounds a punching bag with his good left hand. The increase in activity and improvement in his physical condition -- evidenced in greater strength on the left side and the ability to stand with assistance -- have had a marked effect on his mood.

"I live for my family and I love going to the gym," Abdusalamov said.

The funds from the settled lawsuits could also help him stay in the United States. Since he became unable to box and maintain a work visa, Abdusalamov and his family have been able to remain in the country on temporary visas, in consideration of his medical needs and the continuing legal matters.

With the court cases closed, the ex-boxer's lawyers recently applied for the "EB-5 immigrant investor program," which offers potential permanent status to backers of government-approved job development projects. The filing came just before the threshold for investments increased Thursday from $500,000 to $900,000.

"This is home," Abdusalamova said, adding that the first-rate medical care and safety of the U.S. are paramount for the family.

Abdusalamov's legal team is also pursuing "Mago's Law," an effort to mandate a higher standard of emergency care for boxing competitions in New York. Abdusalamov's lead attorney told OTL a state legislator offered promising signs in a meeting last week that such a measure could be on the horizon.

Asked what message he'd like to convey to everybody who has been concerned about him and has offered encouragement, Abdusalamov said he sends his thanks.

As a national holiday for that sentiment approaches in her adopted country, Abdusalamova said, having heard that several boxers died this year, "I'm most thankful I have him, not the same him, but he can touch, can hug and be father to my three girls.

"I gave all my power, love and energy, and now, he says, 'you give me energy.' To hear how he appreciates it, how he loves me, cares for me, says 'you're my life,' it's very important to me and would be very important for everybody. It makes me very strong, it gives me more power, more energy. I feel like a Duracell battery.

"Every morning I say, 'thank you God, I can still do this.'"

Contemplating his life six years after his devastating injury, Abdusalamov first looked left to his wife, then to his daughters, and then, as his gaze settled straight ahead on his interviewer, he said, "I'm a lucky man."