“You play football and basketball, but you don’t play boxing.” —Buster Mathis Sr.
This July, all the boxing news of note has been in the obituaries. Death has visited the sport like a plague, shocking even the most callous observers.
On July 1, Alexis Arguello, 57, who became the mayor of his native Managua, Nicaragua, and battled depression for years allegedly shot himself through the chest.
Then, on July 11, recently retired 37-year-old brawling icon Arturo Gatti met a brutally violent end in Brazil. Gatti was choked to death by a purse strap belonging to his wife, Amanda Rodrigues. Brazilian authorities are labeling it a suicide. Virtually no one else is.
Two weeks later, on July 25, 38-year-old former WBC welterweight champion Vernon Forrest was murdered. Two men tried to rob him. Forrest reportedly pulled a gun, gave chase and took several bullets for his efforts.
Arguello, Gatti and Forrest were the most famous boxing casualties in the boxing world of July, but there were several more.
On July 22, a 23-year-old junior welterweight named Marco Antonio Nazareth died of a brain hemorrhage four days after being knocked unconscious in the ring. That same day, Marc Leduc, the openly gay 1992 Canadian silver medalist, died of heat stroke at age 47. On July 25, 21-year-old Francisco “Pancho” Moncivais died twenty-four hours after an in-ring knockout. Also on July 25, 37-year-old Colombian boxer Nicolas Cervera committed suicide. Finally there was welterweight William Morelo, gunned down in a gym in Colombia on July 27.
Eight deaths, occurring all over the world, and on the surface entirely unrelated. Yet they are bound by an athletic endeavor that remains, as the late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon put it, “the red light district of sports.” Imagine eight current and former NFL players, including two Hall of Famers, being buried over one month. Or baseball. Or even fatality-familiar sports like auto racing.
If any other sport were visited by the array and diversity of death we have seen in boxing, Congressional hearings would already be in full swing. But we don’t talk about what happens in the “red light district.” It’s a Vegas mentality: What happens in boxing stays in boxing.
It starts with the metronome-like punishment to the head. The brain begins to bruise, the words start to slur, the interviews become painful and the price paid for our pleasure becomes pernicious. This was especially the case with the freewheeling Gatti, whose bouts often resembled Guernica more than a boxing match. It made him very popular, very rich and very hurt.