2008 WRITING AWARDS
The Prices They Pay: Of Warriors and Tragedies
David P. Greisman / MaxBoxing.com / May 12, 2008
Police chases, celebrity overdoses and reality television. We are a society fascinated with both glamour and the unvarnished truth, with outsized personalities and individual failings. We favor human drama, and we are often compelled by tragedy while largely forgetting about the underlying humanity.
At its core, the Sweet Science is neither sweet nor scientific. It is thudding jabs, cracking crosses, hooks and uppercuts intent on disorienting an opponent and delivering him into unconsciousness. It is swollen tissue, gaping cuts, welts, bruising and bleeding supplied and taken the same whether the payday is eight digits or $100 a round, whether the prize is a championship belt and a roaring ovation or an arm raised in the air in front of the few faithful gathered for preliminary action.
It is what it must be: two men, for one hour or less. The impact of all that impact stretches longer.
The most visible example is Muhammad Ali, whose Parkinson’s disease is attributed to the punishment he took through decades of prizefights and sparring. His lighting of the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 touched many as recognition of a personality that transcended the sport, but the attention it brought to his condition is the proverbial exception to the rule. Most other fighters are remembered solely for who they were in the ring.
Theirs are lives chronicled in scrapbooks, each fight a chapter with a protagonist and his foil, rising and falling action. The canon compiles the greatest of epic warriors, men armed for battle and prepared to go out on their shields. They speak of being willing to die in the ring and fight as if that is true. Sometimes it is.
At least 1,465 boxers have died due to injuries suffered between the ropes, according to the Journal of Combative Sport, which last updated its figures in November. Those numbers include 38 since 2001, beginning with the death of Beethavean Scottland in New York and continuing through to Anis Dwi Mulya in Indonesia.
Scottland’s was one of six tragedies in which veteran boxing writer and broadcaster Steve Farhood was ringside.
“The first time it happened, I was 21 or 22, and it seemed almost inconceivable that it would happen,” Farhood said. “As I gained some experience, the shock value went away and a different kind of reaction began to take place, which is, I believe, a human one. Is this justifiable, watching this happen? These are lives. This is not a pitcher getting knocked out of a game in the second inning. This is not a running back spraining his knee. This is a human being – being punched to his death.”
The names remain in Farhood’s mind: Scottland, against George Jones; Stephan Johnson, against Paul Vaden; Willie Classen, against Wilford Scypion; Cleveland Denny, against Gaetan Hart; Fred Bowman, against Isidro Perez; and then Perez, two and a half years later, against Juan Ramon Cruz.
The images are vivid, too.
“They leave snapshots in your mind,” he said. “Willie Classen was on a stretcher in the Felt Forum [in New York City]. In those days it was not state law that you had to have an ambulance on site. Because of that fight, the law was changed. They literally hailed an ambulance off the street. There was Willie Classen spitting blood into the air. You don’t forget a sight like that. The snapshots remain. And in a way, that’s a good thing. It serves as a reminder, at least in the back of your mind.
” Farhood has never watched any of those fights again: “Seeing them live is enough,” he said.
Yet some watch tragedies play out again and again, be it through archival video or the expanding library of bouts available on the Internet. There are documentaries centered around Benny “Kid” Paret and his dying after a pounding at the hands of Emile Griffith, around Duk Koo Kim and the role his death played in the career of Ray Mancini. For some, there is a morbid fascination in returning to a fighter’s final footsteps, footage as ingrained in the collective consciousness as the fictional finales to the stories of Sonny Corleone and Tony Montana.
Though some tragedies have led to various steps toward making the sport safer, the potential for death or permanent injury remains part of pugilism.
“There are people who are boxing apologists. I like to consider myself realistic about this subject,” Farhood said. “For me, it makes the sport not only more entertaining, but it makes it a lot more beautiful because of what’s at stake, because of what the fighters are risking. It’s what separates boxing from the other sports. The stakes are ultimate.”
It is the unfortunate truth with Kim, who took a beating and kept coming. It is the tragedy behind Leavander Johnson, who won a lightweight title on his fourth attempt and then died from his first chance defending it. It is why Diego Corrales, who died one year ago in a motorcycle accident, remains beloved: because he took the pain in order to return it. For those who lost their lives in the ring, it is heart that defines them – and heart that did them in.
Many are men who came from hardscrabble lives, who fought their way out and went on to fight to better the realities for themselves and their families. To get paid. To get respect. And, tied into both, to get adoration and adulation from the crowd.
“Nothing turns fans on more than two guys freewheeling, punching each other back and forth,” Farhood said. “The audience is living vicariously through what they’re watching, and the human element is forgotten. The human element needs to be forgotten.”
It needs to be forgotten for that one hour or less. Too often it remains forgotten afterward.
Thirteen years have passed since Gerald McClellan last fought. On that night in London, he sent Nigel Benn crashing through the ropes in the opening minute, and to some the fight could’ve been called off at that point. Yet it wasn’t, and the two proceeded to brutalize each other for 10 rounds, until McClellan took a knee, dazed, feeling the effects of brain damage that would leave him unable to see, barely able to hear or walk, a shell of the man who captured two middleweight titles.
“It’s been the same condition since,” said Teddy Blackburn, the longtime fight photographer who has played a major role since then in making sure that people know who and how McClellan is.
“After that tragedy in England, people forgot about him,” Blackburn said. “They don’t even want to remember. Think of Derek Jeter. Let’s say Derek Jeter got a bean ball, and he couldn’t play baseball anymore and ended up in a wheelchair. Do you think (George) Steinbrenner would just let him sit in a wheelchair in a home and not hold a benefit? Think of how many fighters give their lives and soul to the sport for 10, 12 years. Five percent make good money.”
There are some who have helped McClellan and his sisters, who have cared for their brother in the years following.
“Some people have a good heart. People like Roy Jones; he’s helped out Gerald more than any other boxer that I know of,” Blackburn said. “But Roy won’t go see him.”
For virtually everyone else, McClellan and others are out of sight, out of mind. The cliché is too true in this case. But for every Leavander Johnson and Diego Corrales, whose deaths prompted outpourings of charity, there are those who wither and pass away quietly because their conditions are too painful to confront. They are prizefighters who have paid prices, who gave and took until they could no longer do either, whose sacrifices are more troubling now that the punishment has taken its toll.
That Roy Jones summons inspiration from a Cornwall-born, New Zealand-raised champion who’s been dead for 90 years should surprise no one. Never let it be said that Jones marches to his own drum. Instead, he’s invented his own percussion and choreographed his own steps.
Four days before his Senior Circuit victory over Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden, Jones talked about challenging super middleweight king Joe Calzaghe.
“If I regain the 168-pound title, that’s something Fitz didn’t do,” Jones said.
I didn’t want to interrupt, but I would’ve bet my press credential that the majority of the writers present wouldn’t have known Bob Fitzsimmons from John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As for the fact that Ruby Robert, boxing’s first triple-crown titlist, reigned at middleweight, won the heavyweight title, and then captured the light heavyweight crown … Well, Jones knows, which is all that seems to matter.
Jones is also aware that what Fitzsimmons didn’t do, he couldn’t have done: The super middleweight division wasn’t born until 1984.
We’ll give Jones this: He scaled 169½ for Trinidad, which is remarkable considering 1) he hadn’t fought at that low a weight in 11 years; 2) in 2003, he bulked up to 193 pounds and won a portion of the heavyweight title; and 3) he’s 39 years old, which is usually license for fighters to get bigger, not smaller.
At best, Jones’s eagerness to dust off his underused passport and cross the pond to challenge Calzaghe is problematic. (After defeating Trinidad, Jones said to promoter Don King, “We’re goin’ to Wales tomorrow, right, Don?”) For starters, Bernard Hopkins has reached Calzaghe first, and secondly, the Welshman has expressed no interest in facing Jones.
But for one night, at least, Jones again shined at the centre of the boxing universe. And for a fighter whose prime dates back almost as far as Bob Fitzsimmons (okay, not really), that’s impressive in itself.
For the first major fight of the new year, expectations were low. Shelved since his dreadful 2005 loss to Winky Wright, Trinidad was taking a convenient route back to long-lost glory. He had retired … and unretired … and retired … and unretired, and his record showed two wins in seven years. Worse yet, he was fighting at 170 pounds after having looked slow and pudgy in his middleweight bout against Wright.
At least Jones had been relatively active, but a pair of unexceptional wins had done virtually nothing to erase the stench created by consecutive losses to Antonio Tarver (twice) and Glen Johnson.
If Trinidad was pocketing a massive payday that he had done nothing to deserve (see “Frontline Diary”), Jones was happy to schedule a relatively easy win that would presumably lead to something far more significant.
If we live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, the fans owed Jones and Trinidad nothing. If boxing is indeed a young man’s game, these two were better off battling each other in a video game. And if you’re only as good as your last fight, Jones was only okay, while Tito was totally unacceptable. In other words, the promotion, billed as “Bring On The Titans”, was a ridiculously tough sell. While pitching his product, King must’ve heard a thousand times: “Oh, those guys are still fighting?”
But on a cold winter night, fighting is what these warm-weather warriors did, and judging by the crowd response, the 12,162 at the Garden appreciated their efforts, if not their skills.
Jones said he was going to knock out Trinidad in four rounds. According to one insider, in 2001, after Tito had crushed William Joppy, Jones shouted from ringside to his publicist, “I want him now.”
Trinidad promised a second-round KO of Jones. Tito’s confidence was based on a simple premise: Jones could no longer absorb a punch, and Trinidad was a pure knockout artist. But what became apparent in the very first round was that Jones saw all of Trinidad’s punches coming. And what he saw wasn’t going to hurt him.
The 35-year-old Trinidad, 170lbs out of Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico, took the first two rounds by punching more than Jones, 169½lbs, from Pensacola, Florida, but his blows, aimed mostly for the body, were deflected or blocked. In the third, Jones invited Trinidad’s attack by pounding his own torso. The gesture drew criticism from Arthur Mercante Jr., and at the bell, Jones shouted back at the referee from across the ring.
“The ref said: ‘You can’t showboat,’” Jones recalled. “My people paid to see me get down!”
In the fourth, Trinidad hooked to the body and Jones defiantly wiggled his hips. “That’s what you do when you can’t fight anymore,” a press row colleague said to me. But Jones subsequently fought well enough to win almost all of the remaining rounds. After studying Trinidad, he zeroed in with lead rights, counter rights, and one-twos. (His jab wasn’t a factor at all.) Ultimately, the difference in the reasonably paced fight was that many of Jones’s powerpunches landed flush, while the slower blows of Trinidad were defused by a solid defence.
“He demonstrated speed and took my bodypunches,” Trinidad said. “I take nothing away from Roy, but if I could have avoided the knockdowns, I think I would’ve won the fight.”
Yeah, and if Marie Antoinette could’ve slipped that blade, she’s still be Queen of France.
After six rounds, Trinidad was ahead on one card and even on the other two. In the seventh, however, he was slow to the trigger, and Jones’s sweeping right connected to the temple, driving the 3-1 underdog to all fours. There was no follow-up blitz, but one truth had become apparent: Not only was Jones’s timing superior, but his legs were sturdier, too.
Jones, 52-4 (38 KOs), walked to Trinidad, 42-3 (35 KOs), in the eighth and ninth, and with 17 seconds remaining in the 10th, a left-right put Tito back on the floor. He dutifully rose and stared down Jones at the bell. The Puerto Rican never looked a winner, but his defiance, effort, and will made this an entertaining fight.
There was never the threat of a stoppage in the 11th and 12th. Jones played his way to the finish, popping lead rights, moving in rhythm, and peppering Trinidad with soft combinations.
In the second half of the bout, Trinidad won one round on one card. Julie Lederman (USA) scored 117-109, and Tom Kaczmarek (USA) and Nelson Vazquez (Puerto Rico) 116-110. Boxing Monthly had it 117-109.
“I can’t believe you lasted 12 rounds and took all those shots,” Jones told Trinidad after the final bell.
During fight week, Jones said: “I don’t want to win by decision. That wouldn’t be good enough for me at this time. No way. If [Trinidad] can go 12 with me, there’s something wrong with me and I should quit.”
Trinidad went 12, alright (Jones hasn’t scored a stoppage since Clinton Woods more than five years ago), but let’s not hold RJ to his word. Instead of retiring, he said he’s going to fight every 2½ months. He wants Calzaghe; he wants a rematch with Tarver; he wants a rematch with Johnson. Given enough time, he would surely have called for a rematch with Si Hun Park, the Korean fighter who cost him a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.
“I think I’m 39,” Jones said, “but I looked like and trained like 29, and I feel like 19.”
So Jones will punch some more, searching to regain something he felt for a long time and lost in an instant. Keep in mind, this is a fighter who won his first world title at age 24 and was the best fighter of the ‘90s. More significantly, the danger of the game, starkly and powerfully illustrated by the fate of his amateur rival Gerald McClellan, all but guaranteed that Jones’s career would not be extended beyond its time.
On HBO’s Countdown Show, Shawn Jones, Roy’s son, said of his father: “I just pray and hope that he has fun doing what he’s doing and he just wins the fight and takes us home. That’s all.”
Late at night, and long after the sun had set, Shawn Jones left the Garden with his father, who fights on, marching to the sound of a drum that only he hears.
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