By Bill Coffin
I recently read an article appropriately titled, "Boxing is still a goddamned tragedy," which notes how it only took the author — and most boxing fans — two weeks to get over a recent death in the ring before enjoying another bout that also nearly ended in a fatality. On Saturday, October 19, bantamweight Francisco "Frankie" Leal endured a brutal beating in the ring at the hands of Raul Hirales that ended with Leal's collapse in the corner. Leal was not a particularly promising fighter, who had endured a number of defeats, including an especially bruising one in March 2012 that ended with Leal leaving the ring on a stretcher. There are plenty (especially now, after the fact) who say that Leal should have retired then and there, but the truth is, a fighter does not retire himself. A fighter fights, even if it kills him. A fighter's trainer or manager retires him, especially when the fighter is as young as Leal.
Moments after Hirales knocked Leal out, Leal's brain began bleeding, and the boxer would never recover. His final moments are captured on the video of the fight, when doctors can be seen trying to get Leal to sit up straight and respond somehow, but by then, Leal was already fading to black. He fell into a coma shortly after arriving at the hospital, and died three days later. The boxer who killed him was a friend.
Exactly two weeks later, heavyweights Mago Abdusalamov and Mike Perez fought an intense ten-round battle on HBO, with Abdusalamov losing to Perez in a decision. The fight was a big succes with the fans, as the two fighters threw punches nonstop at each other, taking some real punishment. But it was Abdusalamov who took the worst of it, impressing the crowd with his ability to soak up whatever Perez had to throw his way. By the end of the fight, Abdusalamov's face was a misshapen mess, and shortly after the fight, he entered a medically induced coma so doctors could operate on a blood clot they discovered in his brain. Abdusalamov earned $30,000 for his near-death experience with Perez. At last report, Abdusalamov had survived his brain surgery and was recovering. No word yet on exactly how much his treatment and recovery will cost his insurers and himself personally.
Fights like these, and deaths like Leal's, raise serious questions over what must be done to help fighters help themselves. A good start might be doing away with boxing gloves. In mixed martial arts, for example, the fingerless gloves used are padded minimally, and only to protect the fighters' hands. They do virtually nothing to lessen the impact of a blow (something I know from personal experience). They also lead to swift, and sometimes bloody knockouts. This has lead some critics to decry MMA as some kind of barbarism, which is a spurious claim. Well, as a practitioner of MMA, I can tell you that you're not going to stand toe to toe with somebody for 8, 10, 12 or 15 rounds getting pounded. You stand for three rounds, maybe five, but usually well less than that. You stand a much higher chance of getting knocked out. You stand a much lower chance of enduring the kind of lethal brain injury we see in this story. But yeah, one must go into these things with an understanding of the risk. And that happens. To a fault, sometimes.
MMA is bloodier, indeed. It is also much faster and much safer to the athletes, even if it doesn't look like it. Sometimes, when it comes to health and risk management, there is perception, and then there is reality.
For boxers such as Abdusalamov and Leal, what sympathy are we supposed to have, really? Anybody who steps in the ring, or anybody who derives entertainment from the same, should be prepared for the fighters to suffer injury. Serious injury. Permanent injury. Terminal injury. And yet, they still step into that ring. But why?
As I mentioned in my previous column, some folks simply are compelled to take up activities that have a zero tolerance rate for failure. But boxing or MMA are not necessarily the same. And yet, they kind of are. I'll use a personal example to explain.
I have been practicing mixed martial arts for over three years, now. While I'm fair at Muay Thai kickboxing, I am a novice at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a form of grappling. This weekend, on the very same day Abdusalamov was busy getting his brain destroyed, I attended a mass BJJ testing, where about a hundred students from several different schools all came together to test for their next advancement. Most of us were getting a single stripe on our belt, to signify one more step on the long road of training. Others were getting new belts; a big achievement.
During the testing, I, a lowly white belt, got to roll with an advanced brown belt who was only one more promotion away from black belt. Black belt in BJJ is serious business. I have had the pleasure of training with this particular fellow once or twice before. To say he knows his stuff is an understatement. He was stronger, faster, better than me across the board. In BJJ, we have a saying: There are no winners and losers, just winners and learners. In BJJ, I tend to learn an awful lot. But I was psyched anyway on Saturday. How often do you get to roll with somebody this good? We locked up and immediately I knew I was in trouble. His grip strength was phenomenal and as he took hold of my gi sleeve, I figured he might as well have stapled his hand there. It was not coming off unless he decided to take it off. We rolled around for a little bit, but in short order, he had me down and applied an arm bar on me. (He isolated my arm and applied pressure to the back of my elbow, threatening to invert it.) It was very nicely done. And as I felt him apply pressure, I heard the other students watching gasp. Keep in mind, this was the part of the testing where low-level students went against senior students. We were cannon fodder, basically, as a part of testing for the seniors. They were going through us like it was a tap-out factory. So we knew the score. And guys like the brown belt, they're not looking to hurt anybody. If he had been, believe me, I would have been hurt .0000002 seconds after we began.
I felt the arm bar and I should have tapped out. I did not. Instead, I held on, grabbed my other sleeve and locked out my arm. My partner either could not re-extend it or (much more likely) he decided it was a better use of his time to switch to another technique that would work just as well. And that's what he did. He rolled and got me into a very tight body triangle, where he basically crushed my torso and forced the air out of me. Again, I should have tapped. Again, I did not, and I stood up (or at least tried to) in an effort to "stack" my partner on his own head. My partner surely saw this coming, and applied even more pressure as he flipped me over. Even before I landed, I decided I had learned enough for one encounter and was ready to tap. As soon as I did, my partner let me go. I thanked him for a great roll, and I went to the back of the line.
I was seeing stars, because I had come *this* close to losing consciousness. I have done that before, and I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed to tap. But because I was so gung-ho about it in the heat of the moment, I went a little too far for my own good. I think that my partner Liam would have noticed before I truly blacked out and let me go, though. He is extremely good at what he does. With a sport like boxing, where you have such a huge degree of cumulative head trauma, the "good soldier" mentality that I exhibited can get you killed. It certainly got Leal killed, and it very nearly got Abdusalamov killed, too. When fighting is your job, that good soldier thing magnifies incredibly. That's where it's no longer on the fighter, really. It's on the trainer and the manager, guys who are supposed to be helping the boxer assess risk, because the boxer has gotten too close to the issue to be objective about it anymore. I suppose it's no surprise that guys are dying in boxing these days. It's a scummy sport and has been for quite a long time. Is professional MMA less scummy? I don't know. I imagine it's got no small amount of predatory manager-types in it. But I've seen MMA bouts. And you just don't see the recipe for bodily destruction in it that you see in boxing. Even when some chowderhead like myself steps into the ring, willing to go too far.
I'm rolling in an amateur BJJ tournament next week. And I am certain that there will be a great level of safety practiced at that tournament, just as it is practiced at the schools where I and my fellow students train. Safety is paramount there. But believe you me, all of this stuff will be in my head when I step on the mat. I'll be really thinking about it when I first feel somebody choking me out or bending a joint the wrong way. I want to do my best. I don't want to be an unfixable pile of broken parts to prove it, though.
I'd like to think that my training has advanced far enough that risk management doesn't leave my head entirely, nor does my appreciation for where my health insurance stops and where my life insurance starts. But I also know that I have seen more MMA fights than I can recall where somebody got knocked out cold, came to and was ready to fight. They hadn't even realized they'd been knocked out. The last thing these guys want to do is stop. I can only imagine a guy who's been battered like they do in boxing ... they're never coming out unless somebody tells them to. And even then, the guy with a broken skull will still resist. I sure hope I don't become that guy. But I'm willing to step into the ring, which proves that somewhere, to some tiny degree, I already am.