Oct 25, 2013

The One Where We Are Complicit In Death

There are all sorts of cliches in sports that conflate what the athletes do with something else.  In the heat of the moment, you will often hear football players talk about "Going to war" or refer to themselves as soldiers or combatants on the gridiron.

In Boxing there is also a cliche that gets thrown out often as hyperbole to amp up the excitement for the upcoming bout, and that is the "I'm willing to die in the ring."  You've heard that time and time again, if you are a boxing fan, most recently by hard hitting brawler Ruslan Provodnikov referring to his matchup against Mike Alvarado this past weekend (more on that later).

Even some who write about the sport succumb to the cheap cliches, such as one that wrote the following two weeks ago in regards to the Timothy Bradley vs. Juan Manuel Marquez tilt:

"A Fight To Die For" is what I call this fight.  That is because Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez are willing to leave it all in the ring come this Saturday. These are guys that are willing to leave it all in the ring, even if it means death.  They love the sport that much.
Now that classy and well thought out prose aside, I think that while you can never really attribute 100% certainty to anything, I'd say probably 98-99% of those saying that, aren't really willing to die in the ring.  They have families and loved ones, they are often young successful fighters who are certainly not truly willing to die in an attempt to win a fight.  It's just something that is said.  It's one of those things, or to use another cliche, "It is what it is."  It's like the other cliche about something being a "life or death struggle", when often it's just a really hard fought tough matchup.


And when fans hear that, they sometimes think, I believe, that that is an indication of that fighter's will and determination that no matter what, they are going to give it their all.  They're not exiting that ring without a win, and they are going to leave everything in the ring by the time that final bell rings, if the fight goes that far. A lot of fans eat that type of rhetoric up, and laud the "warrior" heart of said fighter.

But I wonder if it gives any of us boxing fans pause when a fighter literally dies in the ring, or in the aftermath of a fight.  When a boxing match is a true life or death struggle, and in the aftermath there is truly only one person remaining.

According to the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of California in San Diego, there were 339 deaths resulting from head trauma suffered while boxing between 1950 and 2007. I don't know how many have happened between 2007 and now, but sadly, we have to add at least one more to the list, as young Mexican fighter Francisco Leal passed away due to injuries he suffered in his fight three days earlier.

There are a few things that came to mind when I read about this, first and foremost being this overwhelming feeling of frustration and sadness.  Sadness because of the obvious: A young man has lost his life.  His family is mourning now and have lost a piece of themselves that will never be recovered.

Frustration because this will never change.  The only thing that would prevent this from ever happening again is if they outlawed Boxing completely.  But how many boxing fans, and I mean true hard core boxing fans, many of which are no doubt saddened by Leal's death and mourn his loss, would be fine with that.  We are hypocrites.  We talk a good game about being sad about the loss of life, and are outraged and talk about how there needs to be regulations and this and that, but at the end of the day, if we are forced to make a choice, boxing would never be sacrificed by the vast majority of hardcore fans.

We will make up excuses, and say "they knew the risk going in" as if that absolves us of our complicity. As I said, we are hypocrites.

Two other points of contention for me.  First, this came a week after we all (Boxing fans) celebrated the extremely brutal and highly entertaining trilogy of fights between the late Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, two guys who fought so hard, and so brutally, that it's a wonder neither one died in the ring themselves.   They took shots that no human should ever take, and did so over the course of 30 rounds (technically 30 seconds under 30 rounds, but I digress).

And a week after we celebrate that, after we all re-watched the trilogy, after we saw the brilliant HBO documentary "Legendary Nights", we were all subjected to the reality that not everyone makes it out of a brutal battle such as that.

The other thought I had was that on the very night that the Legendary Nights aired, and everyone was buzzing about the episode and the trilogy, Mike Alvarado refused to come out for the eleventh round after taking a fairly strong beating by hard punching brawler Ruslan Provodnikov.   People promptly jeered him as a "quitter" and other eloquent insults on various boxing message boards.  Why?  Because he refused to do what Mickey & Arturo did.  He refused to potentially end up like Francisco Leal.

And one week after he was slandered with calls of "quitter" and whatnot, we saw up close and personal how that decision, to not continue to fight when you are taking such punishment, may have been the smartest decision that Mike Alvarado made.  He clearly wasn't going to win that fight.  He had to knock out Provodnikov, and that clearly wasn't happening.

So his choice was to stand in there and get pummeled for another six minutes, to placate some lounge chair warriors who are mad that he didn't stand in there and fight on, or just say that's enough, I'm done for the night and protect your long term health and safety.  It's not our health at risk in those situations, it's the fighters.   And who are we to decide when they've had enough?

We aren't the ones who have to suffer with them as they grow older and lose their mental abilities due to all the beatings they took, because they were "warriors" and refused to "quit".  None of us are going to be there to support those fighters when they can't support themselves.

Ask the family of Francisco Leal whether or not he should have "quit" before that last round he was in. Ask Mike Alvarado's family today, in the aftermath of the Leal fight, whether they are glad he made the decision he did.   Not to say if he had fought on he would have died, but that is a sadly and terrifyingly real possibility that has once again been reinforced to us.

And you know what?  As saddened as we all are, we're gonna keep watching.  We'll keep waiting for that next all out "war" between the two "warriors" or "soldiers" who are willing to "die in the ring".  We love those colorful cliches that are thrown out, don't we?  We'll still check out the next pay per view fights, anxious to see a real "battle" between two strong opponents.

We want that blood, we want that gory brutality.  That's that MAN's sport, amirite? As I said, we love those colorful cliches about battles and wars and soldiers and dying in the ring. Until they become a self fulfilling prophecy, that is.  And then we're saddened and angry and talk openly about change in the sport, but just not too much change.

I mean, we have to keep the sport's "integrity" right?

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