I went to the Atlantic City Medical Center along with a handful of grim-faced journalists hoping to receive some good news about Freddy Bowman, a preliminary fighter who had fallen into a coma following a TKO loss to Isidro "Gino" Perez. The bout had been even on the scorecards after five rounds, but in the sixth Bowman's trainer, Gene Minor, noticed that something was wrong with his fighter and signaled the referee to stop the fight. Bowman, a 24-year-old lightweight from Winston-Salem, N.C., managed to walk back to his dressing room under his own power, only to collapse while unlacing his boxing boots and begin foaming at the mouth.
There was no good news forthcoming on that chilly February evening, and we shuffled out of the hospital in silence, knowing that it probably wasn't going to end well for Bowman. He had suffered a brain bleed and, despite three operations, never regained consciousness. Freddy lingered in a coma for more than a year before finally dying in March 1982. In a dark coincidence, Perez would meet a similar fate, dying of brain injuries six days after his knockout loss to Juan Ramon Cruz in September 1983. Such is the curse of prizefighting, an activity in which contestants are sometimes called upon to pay the ultimate price for their participation.
Sometimes while watching a fight you can sense that something bad is going to happen. It starts with a weird feeling inside you that can easily lead to involuntary yelling. "Stop the fight!" or words to that affect spill out of your mouth as the anxiety becomes almost unbearable. The difference between a great fight and a tragedy can be wafer-thin, and the fear bubbling in your guts is often a false alarm -- but not always.
Then there are ring fatalities that sneak up on you, even though they shouldn't. I never thought for a moment that either Jody White or Pedro Alcazar was in mortal danger as they walked past me on their way back to their dressing rooms after losing to Curtis Parker and Fernando Montiel, respectively. But both died of head injuries -- White the night he was stopped and Alcazar two days later.
We all know what's at stake, but after the initial shock of a ring death wears off and the finger-pointing and grieving subside, we generally choose not to think about it too much. Not that it helps. The possibility of disaster hangs over the prize ring like an invisible shroud, periodically reminding us of unpleasant possibilities we'd rather forget.
Boxing struggles against PED abuse, alphabet organizations run amok, weak commissions, horrendous decisions, inadequate and inconsistent medical standards, etc. But the most profound issue is seldom discussed. It's as if something were decided a long time ago and that was that. Nothing more to be said. True, the majority of the dilemmas faced by the sweet science could theoretically be solved, but boxing's Gordian knot will forever remain untangled. As long as people hit each other in the head, some of them will die.
Light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev, who will fight Gabriel Campillo on NBC Sports Net this Saturday, knows all too well the devastating power of the human fist. On Dec. 5, 2011, his opponent, Roman Simakov, collapsed in the seventh round of a match held in Russia and died of his injuries three days later. The 27-year-old Simakov had lost only once in 21 pro fights and certainly didn't seem a likely candidate for disaster. Kovalev was understandably upset.
"If I ever step in the ring again, I will dedicate my next fight to Roman," blogged Kovalev a few days afterward. "All of my earnings will be sent to his family. Forgive me, Roman Rest in Peace, Warrior."
Kovalev has already fought twice since the Simakov catastrophe, scoring knockouts on both occasions, and if these post-tragedy fights are any indication, he'll be doing his level best to concuss Campillo. Anything less would jeopardize his own well-being.
Only the very best can hold back and still prevail the way Emile Griffith did for so many years following the death of Benny "Kid" Paret in their 1962 rubber match. "I'm still sensitive about that time," Griffith told author Peter Heller more than a decade after Paret's demise. "I've never stopped anybody since then, not really."
Evidently the viewing public wasn't nearly as squeamish as Griffith.
"The replays went on the air and showed the beating Paret was taking," said Don Dunphy, who was behind the microphone during ABC's broadcast of the fatal encounter. "Again and again it was repeated. I heard later that the ratings for the postfight show were higher than for the fight itself. Apparently, people were calling friends and telling them to tune in, that a guy was getting beaten to death on TV."
The first recorded boxing death in the United States was that of Thomas McCoy, who died as a result of the vicious beating he took from Christopher Lilly during an illegal bare-knuckle bout. The infamous brawl took place on Sept. 13, 1842, at Dobbs Ferry, a small town about 25 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. At the end of the 119 rounds -- under the old London Prize Ring Rules, a round ended when one of the fighters went down -- McCoy collapsed and died on the spot. A coroner's inquest determined he had drowned in his own blood, the result of his wounds draining into his lungs.
Although no exact figures have been kept, since McCoy was killed, thousands of boxers have perished due to injuries inflicted by their adversaries. Nonetheless, men and women continue to box, and every so often one of them dies as a consequence. Recently instituted advancements in health and safely measures have significantly reduced the number of boxing fatalities, but as long as combat sports exist, the threat of a disastrous outcome will never be entirely eliminated.
Why does society permit such barbarity? Surely we should have come to our senses by now and risen above such an atavistic form of entertainment. How has boxing managed to remain legal, especially now that we're fully aware of all the dangers involved -- including the insidious consequences of multiple concussions, ranging from crippling neurological problems to depression and suicide?
There are, of course, the standard rationalizations: Boxing keeps kids off the streets and out of gangs, teaches discipline and the merits of hard work, offers a way up for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and provides a method of channeling aggression and anger into socially acceptable behavior. Furthermore, numerous other sports suffer far more fatalities than boxing. And you know what? All of that is true. But a few extenuating circumstances won't turn a rationalization into a justification.
Who knows? Maybe the benefits of boxing trump the bad; maybe they don't. But either way, it's only part of the story. It all starts with the human condition. At our core we are still raging beasts easily provoked and unmerciful in our response to real or imagined danger. Evidence of this reality is everywhere you look: Wars around the world continue a tag-team approach to mass violence, the warm ashes of one conflagration lighting the fuse of another in an endless round of death and destruction. Civilian gun violence has hit an all-time high, and mass murder has become commonplace.
Compared to that sort of carnage, boxing is a relatively tame undertaking and, in the minds of those who love it, an honorable manner in which to express the dark side of our makeup. Moreover, that queasy feeling you get when it seems as though a fighter might be seriously hurt is the flip side of mankind's bellicose nature, the compassionate counterbalance that creates the yin-yang duality that binds life together.
The boxing ring can be seen as a mirror on which the full range of human emotions are reflected. It isn't always pretty to look at, but we keep coming back for more, eager to participate, if only vicariously, in a ritual as old as the human race and as timeless as a clenched fist. That's why boxing is still around and still welcome in many quarters, regardless of its frightening toll.