Chris Dupuy was writing about boxing and recent ring deaths when the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton occurred. The events coalesced into this powerful piece about violence and our current state of affairs.
Two more lives lost recently and I’m looking in desperation to my “virtual” corner, wondering when someone will realize how out of control this fight has gotten and put an end to the punishment already.
(I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, before the shootings in El Paso and Dayton became the latest in a horrific series of unfathomably murderous events to rock our collective worlds. If you substituted “over thirty” instead of “two” above, you wouldn’t know this was a story about boxing, but rather suspect it to be a cry for help to save a violent society from itself.)
Before more innocents get murdered.
Because, if you cut through all the hype and bullshit, the sport of boxing is sanctioned battery that may result in murder, with prize money waiting in the wings for those who do it best.
(I pause here to challenge my own thinking. I’m calling for a stop to legalized murder in the boxing ring. Yet, a recurring data point debated by all following these mass shootings concerns how the murderers’ automatic weapon was “purchased legally.” Seems to me this shouldn’t be a hard one, right? MAKE ASSAULT WEAPONS ILLEGAL. Period. I simply don’t understand how anyone could argue against enacting such common-sense logic into law as a small step in slowing down the rate of these killing sprees on our own, by our own. And background checks? Hell yeah, BACKGROUND CHECKS—for any purchase of a firearm that’s legally attempted AFTER we ban assault weapons.)
Here’s the rub, though. I’m a boxing fan. Lifelong. Think, for a second, how many people you know roaming the streets in 2019 who can make such a statement? Yeah—really, really few. It’s a sport in decline with a dwindling fan base. And, as of today, there’s one less. I’m officially done with boxing.
Making such a statement pains me more than you might imagine. I grew up on this sport. One of my earliest childhood memories was the hype leading up to the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, staged at Madison Square Garden in March of 1971.
I still get goose bumps looking back on that one—a tumultuous, turning-point moment in our nation’s history if there ever was one. The larger than life Ali, his historical relevance still in its infancy, facing the workmanlike Frazier, Ali’s perfect foil in creating polarized rooting camps for us fight fans, not to mention the rest of early-1970s society at large.
The ’70s were the Golden Age for fans of big heavyweight fights. Ali and Frazier led the way. But there was also George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle … the list of larger-than-life, powerful, and colorful fighters from that time period is a lengthy one. One entertaining bout after another dotting the fight landscape of the ’70s, and I was hooked. Never once did I think about possible long-term damage to the combatants, but, man, was I conversant when it came to the old Angelo Dundee maxim: “Styles make fights.”
(Yup, I’ve been a boxing fan my entire life, but let me be clear on an additional data point here—I lean in no particular direction politically. I don’t necessarily agree with, but do understand, many of the NRA’s points, as well as their constitutional arguments. I have friends that hunt and are passionate about how they choose to protect their family. I also completely identify, as a father, with the fears now inherent in our society that accompany my daughters going shopping at a mall. Or out to the movies with friends. I just want the mass murders to stop, and it seems we’re letting political aisles and a way-out-of-fucking-control right/left war cloud what should be a few straightforward steps. Can’t a society legislate thoughtful tenets around responsible gun ownership while also including strict laws that unequivocally limit a troubled citizen’s ability to acquire an assault weapon that is only necessary should one want to kill lots of people in a short period of time?)
And let’s not overlook the role that ultimate boxing hype machine, also known as the Summer Olympics, played in sucking me into the fight game. We got to wave our star-spangled flag with pride as our American pugilists squared off with the day’s amateur boxing gold standard—the Cuban National boxing team (yes, I still wonder how the legendary Cuban heavyweight, Teofilo Stevenson, would have fared against the greats of that time, if only Fidel Castro had let him go pro).
Our raging nationalism easily justified the intensity with which we rooted on our countrymen to beat the daylights out of those evil, communist enemies. We witnessed the coming out party of Sugar Ray Leonard in ’76 and got our first glimpse of Evander Holyfield’s quiet dignity when the cruiserweight was disqualified over a punch landed after the bell and forced to accept bronze at Los Angeles in 1984.
(When I first penned this, I conveniently left out my first Olympic memory as a child—the 1972 Munich Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes and one West German police officer lost their lives at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, gunned down as they futilely tried to run to safety. That was 47 years ago, and yet I still get sweaty palms when international sporting events take place, worrying over the potential for a terror act to overshadow the athletic bonding among nations these events are supposed to foster.)
Yeah, it was good, old-fashioned, testosterone-fueled athletic entertainment, and I was in, hook, line, and sinker. Hell, I even subscribed to The Ring magazine for the entire decade of the ’90s, lest I miss out on some obscure up-and-comer working his way up the pound-for-pound rankings on his way to pay-per-view glory. Felix Trinidad, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez, and the Golden Boy, Oscar de la Hoya, all took turns capturing our imagination as masters of the Sweet Science.
I even wholeheartedly welcomed women into the ring, reveling in the skills of first Christy “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” Martin, and later the combination of beauty and power Laila Ali showed off during her time in the ring.
There are so many memories of epic fights—Lyle/Foreman, Holmes/Norton, Ali/Shavers, Holyfield/Bowe—that serve as mileposts in my life’s journey as a boxing fan. Many conjure up rare, happy moments frozen in time I shared with my Dad (we watched Leonard-Duran II—the “no mas” fight—at a converted hockey rink in November of 1980, and quickly regretted paying the ten-dollar, closed-circuit cover charge when the blatantly out of shape Duran called it quits, a victim of too many banquets and too little training. It was one of the only times I actually looked on with pride and agreement as Dad lost his shit, cursing away at the giant TV screen where Roberto “Manos de Piedro” Duran sat slumped on his stool, unwilling to continue).
But the memory I find myself returning to today is that of Duk Koo Kim.
Kim was my first ring death as a boxing fan. And his dying moments were captured for a national television audience by CBS back in November of 1982. Duk Koo Kim was an obscure 23-year-old fighter from South Korea, with a winning record and a reputation for being able to take a punch when he climbed into the ring to face Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini that November night. It was Kim’s first bout fought in America, and the fight was a toe-to-toe war for much of the first ten rounds, with Mancini getting the better of it, but also taking a fair amount of punishment in return from the game South Korean.
The heavily favored Mancini began to pull away in the late rounds. He unleashed a 39-punch flurry that lasted much of the 13th, leaving us all wondering how the hell Kim was able to stay upright. The 14th began with Boom Boom racing from his stool across the length of the ring to land a roundhouse right flush to Kim’s swollen, barely recognizable face. The South Korean dropped hard, jarring his head on the canvas as he went down, yet somehow managed to beat the count, raising himself, barely conscious, at the count of nine. Thankfully, for all watching, referee Richard Green stepped in and stopped the fight.
Mancini was the victor and Kim was taken away on a stretcher. Brain surgery was performed later that night as a tremendous amount of bleeding from the brain hemorrhage was creating pressure within the fighter’s skull. Duk Koo Kim never regained consciousness and died of his injuries five days later.
The moment was captured on a Sports Illustrated cover (“Tragedy in the Ring”) and memorialized by the boxing world when the rules of the sport were amended, taking the maximum number of rounds down from 15 to the present-day limit of 12.
(Like boxing changing its rules around the margin, such as shortening the number of rounds from 15 to 12, society responds to the latest terror event similarly. Metal detectors now delay our entry into most sporting events, often causing a chorus of bellyaching from fans, such as myself, in such a rush to take our seat and enjoy the event of the moment. The Pope rides around in a bullet-proof “Pope-mobile” we chuckle about, made necessary in reaction to assassinations of JFK, MLK, and countless others. Yet we still turn boxers loose in the ring today for hand-to-hand combat, potentially to the death. And, if I was so inclined, I could sit down right now and buy myself a shiny new assault weapon as easily as a new tennis racket with a couple of key strokes on this very computer.)
I’m not proud to admit that I railed against that decision to shorten championship fights, citing all of the wondrous action that had taken place through the years in those “championship rounds” of 13, 14, and 15. The sport of boxing didn’t listen to me, though, and the decision stuck.
Like I do so often today when thinking back on the brash, impetuous days of my youth, I ruefully shake my head. The ring deaths continued despite the rule change, and I kept tuning in anyway, even showing up in person to experience the carnage from ringside every chance I got. “As brutal as a pro fight looks on television,” I used to educate those that didn’t follow boxing as I did, “it’s even more devastating in person.” Regrettably, such statements weren’t uttered to caution. No, they were to boast.
Why did we let such a sport continue? In the ’90s, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with Ken Norton Sr. and Aaron Pryor, two fighters who put on many entertaining and bloody ring wars in their day. Norton was a shell of himself, barely able to stand on his own, unable to speak in sentences, his eyes cloudy and far away. We justified his condition, pointing to a terrible car crash he’d experienced in his post-boxing life, choosing to leave blameless the punishment we watched him swallow at the hands of Ali, Foreman, Holmes, and Cooney.
Pryor was in worse shape. Face puffy and distorted from his many trips to the ring in decades past (his 15-round street brawls with the legendary Alexis Arguello in the ’80s alone would have been enough to cripple most mere mortals), the forty-something ex-fighter was incoherent and essentially mute, unable to communicate with those around him, dark glasses shielding eyes that no longer focused. This was the real boxing world, not the make-believe one where the combatants flexed in their satin trunks, donning gold, bejeweled championship belts while reciting poems about the damage they intended to inflict on their opponents.
Yup, even “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali himself, was reduced to a shaking, mumbling husk by the time he passed from this world; a symbol of peace and social justice, but robbed of his speech and motor skills by so many turns in the ring.
(And we give standing ovations at baseball games when mourning family members of those lost in shootings throw out the first pitch, somehow trying to take solace that such applause may ease the pain they feel over the loss of their loved one. A loss they wake up to every day. And will for the rest of their lives. These human reminders of the unnecessary and violent acts of our own against our own surround us every day—they visit D.C. to speak with politicians, they write Op-Ed pieces demanding change that leave a lump in our throats. But, most frequently, they suffer their pain in anonymity, and as the headlines fade and the next news cycle begins, life moves on. And that’s why the best we’ve been able to agree on is metal detectors.)
Yet, despite all of these reality checks, I continued to follow boxing. The dearth of skilled American heavyweights dampened my enthusiasm for the sport, and I ultimately let my Ring magazine subscription lapse, but I’d still occasionally get drawn in. I’d fork over my $100 bucks to the local cable company hoping to see someone finally knock Floyd Mayweather’s block off (I’m still waiting—he may be a reprehensible, piece-of-shit human being, but Pretty Boy Floyd sure does know how to slip a punch), and I’d even make the occasional trek to Vegas if I could get good seats on the floor.
But, no more.
In July, a fight took place in Buenos Aires. It was for something called the WBC Latino Silver Lightweight Championship, and after fighting to a 10-round draw, 23-year-old Hugo Santillan collapsed in the ring while waiting for the judges’ decision to be announced. He’d suffered a clot in the brain as a result of the punishment he’d taken at the hands of his opponent, Eduardo Javier Abreu. Cue the stretcher and subsequent emergency surgery. Like Duk Koo Kim 37 years prior, Santillan never came out of his coma. He died five days later.
The similarities to the Kim death are staggering. Both 23 years old and entering the prime of a young man’s life. Both fought within the rules, exhibiting bravery, tenacity, and resilience. They gave the spectators their “money’s worth.” Both fighters were standing and alive at the fight’s conclusion. And both were unable to make it back to their locker room under their own power. Both would never wake up to see another day.
Thirty-seven years apart, and we still are allowing this to happen?
To add an exclamation point to the desperate and horrifying tale of Hugo Santillan and his death as a result of “in-ring injuries” (a new term to me, apparently more 21st century than “ring death”) was the shocking reality that Santillan’s succumbing to his ring injuries was actually the second ring death of that week. Whatthefuck …
Yeah, one day before the Santillan ring tragedy, an undefeated, 28-year-old Russian fighter by the name of Maxim Dadashev lost a fight to Subriel Matias of Puerto Rico and didn’t live to tell about it. Dadashev’s manager, one-time champion Buddy McGirt, stopped the bout when the punishment to his fighter became too much to bear, but even McGirt’s correct and humane decision from the corner wasn’t enough to contain the damage that had already been done.
Dadashev collapsed on his way to the locker room. Stretcher. Emergency brain surgery. He never regained consciousness. Sound familiar?
The “winner” of the Dadashev fight, the aforementioned Mr. Matias, will now spend the rest of his days knowing he took a life pursuing his chosen profession. And got paid for it in the process. None of us can imagine the anguish the Puerto Rican fighter must now carry with him, but he seemed to speak for us all when, in the aftermath of Dadashev’s death, he commented, “I don’t want this check.”
(At least I got that last sentence right. FUCKING ENOUGH ALREADY, PEOPLE! Two boxers in two different cities die due to society’s desire to honor and glorify violence. Okay, people have a violent side. Always have, always will. But that doesn’t mean we need to aggrandize it, thus making it easy to suck in those who may currently be undecided about how to best channel their anger. Shut down the rings and the cages and the octagons and any and all other legal venues that encourage person-to-person violence. Yeah, street brawls may still happen and the neighborhood opportunist may still illicitly put on “fight cards” behind the local warehouse at midnight or create illegal “fight clubs,” but at least we aren’t supporting and endorsing such acts as a nation, or as a human race. And, of course, assault weapons will still exist on black markets, but can’t we agree that it makes sense to leave those illegal markets as the only access points? Not for nothing, but I’ve read the bios of a few of these disturbed mass murderers and they may not have the intellectual wherewithal or know-how to acquire an assault weapon on the dark side. But, they damn sure know how to present a driver’s license at the local gun store. Make it harder, and then collaborate across the globe to make it damn near impossible!)
Once upon a time, jousts were part of the local sports fan’s panoply. So was the feeding of humans to lions while spectators looked on and cheered. I don’t know how long such “contests” existed, but I do know that at some point society smartened up enough to put an end to them.
What are we doing as a society? Well, for starters, we are bringing more versions of hand-to-hand combat onto our viewing screens of choice every day. Mixed Martial Arts, Ultimate Fighting, and other forms of brutality are capturing the bloodthirsty imaginations of the all-important 18- to 34-year-old viewer demographic. All about the money and ratings, you say? A sad but familiar statement, indeed.
Let’s face it, when such physical encounters happen on a street corner, it’s called assault. When a victim dies, the perpetrators go to jail. Yet, we cheer in guttural glee when a couple of toothless Canadians drop the gloves and square off on the ice. And we rise to our feet with a roar when a hit batsman charges the mound, inciting a bench-clearing brawl on the baseball diamond. I’m not preaching here, because I’m one of those fans. And it pains me, because I want to be better than that.
Despite all of our collective back-patting today, congratulating one another on the evolved society we all represent, our allegiance to these sporting traditions begs the question, “How much progress are we really making?”
And we aren’t even scratching the surface here, sports fans. I mean, bullfighting? Anyone? Are you fucking kidding me?
I don’t have the time or the energy to delve into the ridiculous spectacle of automobile racing as a sport. The absurdity of people driving in a circle at dizzying rates of speed for hours on end, when there are gaggles of laws in the “real world” prohibiting just that, boggles my mind.
And yeah, I’m a football fan, too. I tune in every Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) to watch my favorite behemoths hurl themselves like human battering rams at other raging behemoths, all in an attempt to gain control of an oblong pigskin. It’s a ten-billion-dollar business built on brutality, and it flourishes while we witness (and try to ignore) aging, former players dropping like flies from brain injuries we all know are a direct result of the sport we watch religiously every weekend of our falls and winters.
Am I the only one who wonders what the folks on this planet 100 years from now will think about us when they smile, shake their heads, and look back on how we entertained ourselves with such “sports” back in the 20th and early-21st centuries?
It’s time for change. How about starting with the easy, obvious one? Let’s make Hugo Santillan’s death stand for something positive. Like the moment we wised up about a sport way past its expiration date.
Somebody, please—stop the fight.
(I’ll never watch another fight. If only it were that easy to remove myself from the violence that went on in El Paso and Dayton and …)
(And isn’t that the truly horrifying part? “And …” could be where you are heading to have some fun with your family this weekend. Or tonight. We need to come together. If this was an actual fistfight, somebody would stop it. What am I missing?)