by David P. Greisman
The pinnacle was within sight, though not necessarily within reach.
Not quite yet, at least.
The heavyweight champion was not in the ring at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Rather, Wladimir Klitschko was seated next to his beautiful actress fiancée as they watched the fight between Magomed Abdusalamov and Mike Perez.
Klitschko represented what Abdusalamov and Perez were fighting for. They sought his prestige and prosperity. They also sought the man himself. And so they understood the possibilities that could come from their performances. A win on HBO could earn the victor a return spot on a future broadcast, could make him the latest network darling to earn sizable paychecks while being put on a path to challenge, eventually, for the championship.
We say that fighters put their lives on the line, and that’s true in two ways. They subject themselves to more punches in one evening than many of us will take in a lifetime. They do this in the hopes of bettering themselves. Rare is the rich man who dons the gloves while young and continues to lace them up as a pro. Most boxers see this as a savage but worthy pursuit, as a way out and a way up.
Abdusalamov was paid $40,000 for Saturday’s fight, according to Dan Rafael of ESPN.com. Perez was paid $30,000. Combined, their purses were less than one percent — in fact, less than half of one percent — of what Klitschko earned in his last fight.
This was an investment and a gamble. The allure of the reward is supposed to justify the risk. We say that fighters put their lives on the line, but we don’t confront that thought too closely except for when it becomes too true.
Two weeks ago, a junior featherweight fighter named Frankie Leal suffered a knockout loss. He died three days later. He was 26.
This past Saturday, Abdusalamov fought through a broken hand and a broken nose and a gash above his left eye. He fought through an estimated 312 punches that landed on his head and body, and fought 10 hard rounds with a skilled opponent who needed the win as much as he did. He lost the fight, and then hours afterward was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a small blood clot on his brain and then placed into a medically induced coma.
Abdusalamov will hopefully recover fully, though this battle to save his life will be followed by another to save his career. The better athletic commissions are wary of allowing boxers who have suffered brain injuries to return to the ring. That’s because of what can happen otherwise.
That’s because of the kind of tragedy that happened to Leal.
Leal had been suspended indefinitely by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, pending a neurological clearance after he was hospitalized following a March 2012 technical knockout loss to Evgeny Gradovich, according to BoxRec.com.
Years ago, a heavyweight prospect named Joe Mesi had been suspended indefinitely by the Nevada State Athletic Commission following a win over Vassiliy Jirov. Mesi had suffered bleeding on his brain. Each state in the United States has its own regulatory body governing boxing, but they are supposed to honor suspensions handed down in other jurisdictions. Mesi ultimately was allowed back into boxing on a technicality; his license in Nevada expired, and so his suspension was over.
Nevertheless, athletic commissions tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to allowing boxers who suffered brain bleeds to return to the ring. Most of Mesi’s comeback bouts were in states perceived as having weaker commissions. Former middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, meanwhile, put himself through a series of medical tests in order to convince commissions that he should be allowed to lace up the gloves again.
Leal never fought in America again. Instead, he had five bouts in his native Mexico. It’s not known what additional scrutiny, if any, was given to Leal.
The blame doesn’t just fall on the athletic commission, but also on those surrounding him and employing him, on the trainers and team members and family members who did not intervene for his sake, and on the promoter who knew his history and ignored the inherent risk.
The fighters should also know better, except often the fighters do not have much else beyond fighting — for if they did, why would they put themselves through this?
This is what they do, but it is more than a job. It is their all and their only.
The desire for a better life, for prestige and prosperity, is why Abdusalamov continued to fight with bravado and machismo. It is why he summoned the will to continue when parts of him were broken and other parts of him were bruised or bleeding. This was his chance, and there was no guarantee that another would come.
It is why we expect others involved in the sport to be the rational and careful ones. We understand that fighters can be warriors. We recognize that they can be too brave for their own good. We realize that while they are told to protect themselves at all time, they too often only consider that instruction as applying to the short term.
And so we want trainers to know when to throw in the towel, and for referees and doctors to know when to wave their arms and then console the man standing wounded and upset in front of them.
We also want boxers to be a combination of courageous and foolish. We honor and respect fighters who do what Abdusalamov did on Saturday, and who do what Arturo Gatti and Diego Corrales did time and again. We are enthralled by action and entranced by action heroes. Gatti and Corrales were our real-life versions of Bruce Willis’ and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood archetypes, absorbing inhuman punishment but triumphing in the end.
We want fighters to risk themselves, for their reward — as well as for ours.
Not every boxer is compelled to put himself through what Abdusalamov and Perez did on Saturday. Some are skilled enough to win in other ways. Some are already connected with powerful promoters or influential managers. Some have already caught the eye of network executives. And some have fans who will root them on no matter how they fight. Klitschko’s style is antithetical to what these heavyweight prospects provided on Saturday, though his success keeps him king and continues to bring him the riches of royalty.
Abdusalamov and Perez fought the way they knew, and the way they needed to. But like retired football players whose brains show the signs of too many hits, boxers who fight like Abdusalamov, Gatti and Corrales did are playing Russian roulette with their lives.
It’s an investment and a gamble. The potential rewards are supposed to justify the possible risk. In reality, those who get out of this hurt sport relatively unscathed have beaten the odds — and as with other forms of gambling, it is a product of skill and judgment, but also of luck.
The 10 Count will return next week.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon . Send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org