“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.
As Jack Todd wrote in the Montreal Gazette, “[Gatti] was what they used to call ‘punch drunk’ and he was still fighting. My father, a veteran of more than 100 fights as an amateur and pro, was also called punch drunk: prone to sudden, explosive rages and memory loss. It isn’t pretty. From what we know of Gatti’s death, it is a particular variety of tragedy that seems to follow the warriors of the ring, a shadow they are never quick enough to outbox. Violent backgrounds, a violent sport, violent deaths.”
We need to confront everything that’s rotten in boxing. Right now there is no commissioner and no governing authority. There are no unions, and there is no collective bargaining on behalf of fighters. There is no healthcare, no mental health treatment and no one watching out for those who suffer from the debilitating effects of brain damage and its conjoined twin, depression.
Futhermore, no one is charged with counseling fighters who have been unable to keep the violence of the ring out of their personal lives. Gatti’s death, no matter what the police assert, was most likely the result of a domestic dispute with his wife. This spring she had a restraining order slapped on Gatti, demanding he stay 200 meters away from her at all times. The great boxing writer Thomas Hauser wrote to me, “I don’t know a single person who believes that Arturo Gatti killed himself. That’s not denial on our part. It’s our disbelief with regard to an apparently corrupt criminal justice system in Brazil.” No one has been brought to account for the deaths of Nazareth and Moncivais either. Did they belong in the ring? Was there ringside healthcare that could have saved them? There are no inquiries, only eulogies.
So despite spirited efforts by groups like Joint Action for Boxers (JAB), boxers still have no union protections. As former light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad said, “Every professional sport has a union. They have a pension, they have a medical plan, they have a chance at a life. In boxing, they don’t have anything.”
The biggest boxing fan I know, the poet Martín Espada once told me, “In this country, as a rule, boxers come from the bottom: Black, brown, immigrants, the poor, the uneducated. This society treats such human beings as contemptible and disposable, channeling them into the military, into prison, into the shadows. Our collective attitude towards boxing is nothing more or less than a reflection of our attitude towards those who become boxers.”
Those who become boxers battle more than their opponents, the industry and crooked promoters–they have to fight our indifference.