By Tris Dixon
Whether you want to give Andy Ruiz Jr his just dues or not, there were some big issues in play during the fallout of his dramatic New York upset win over Anthony Joshua.
It’s rightly been pointed out that while Joshua has not served up any excuses, those still in shock at the outcome have been trying to find out how and why the Mexican-American outsider shocked the world.
There was speculation of a panic attack in the Joshua dressing room, which was subsequently denied.
In fact, while everyone searched for answers Team Joshua stole themselves, conceded defeat and boldly stated that they would trigger the contracted rematch clause.
How the political landscape of boxing shifts over the next few months before the rumoured November or December rematch takes place remains to be seen, but there was one particularly worrying element to the post-fight debates that still rage.
Stories circulated that Joey Dawejko and Agit Kabayel (who wasn’t even in camp) had either hurt, dropped or knocked AJ out in sparring. They, too, was denied.
The chief concern in the aftermath of those believing Joshua was concussed is that they focused on how it would have affected his confidence; that it would have made him gun-shy or apprehensive.
There are far more serious factors here.
Confidence is by no means the most important part of the conversation that must be had.
Any fighter who is floored or knocked out before a contest should undergo medical checks and scans.
Their teams should be on red alert.
This is not just about who wins and loses but who lives and dies, and who lives well and who is turned into a physical wreck for the remainder of their days.
This isn’t about massaging egos, serving sponsors or letting people down. This is about a moral compass that should dictate a fighters final movements, not a financial one.
When Joshua said, ‘Why am I feeling like this?‘ after the sixth and before the deciding seventh he may have felt unusually fatigued, vacant and lethargic despite the usual fight night adrenaline.
If that was a sign of concussion, it could have come from that riotous third-round when both fighters tasted the canvas in one of the year’s most dramatic stanzas.
There’s another point here, too. Fighters who are thought to be concussed must be promptly checked out after a fight. For a journalist who’s spent most of his adult life working to deadlines that’s unfortunate, but what’s the priority? Joshua was at least assessed before he was allowed to make a late appearance at the post-fight presser but this is all too often ignored. Think back to when Tony Bellew was stopped by Oleksandr Usyk, acknowledge his symptoms of short-term memory loss and repetition and there’s no way he should have been permitted to stay in the ring, under the microscope with the world watching on. It indicates that there is just not enough knowledge out there to protect fighters not just in the short term but longer term, too. It’s those nights that will manifest themselves and hit you so much harder down the line.
Of course, a definitive stumbling block here is what happens if there’s a concussion during a fight. Should it be stopped regardless? Hearn has this week said Joshua couldn’t remember anything from round three on, as he was nailed high atop the head in that dramatic, free-swinging shootout.
There are no substitutions at that point in a fight. And the fans would be denied the climax they all want. And, of course, time and again boxers have been hurt, scraped themselves off the floor and groggily somehow turned a fight around and won. For many, that’s the sport at its most magnificent.
That level of courage is deeply admirable, for we do not all possess it.
But sometimes fighters must be saved from themselves, as well worn a cliché as that is.
Take Nick Blackwell, often a go-to reference for modern day brain injuries in boxing. Only after he was hospitalised following his fight with Chris Eubank Jr did he reveal that he’d been hurt in sparring five days before by George Groves. He suffered headaches as a consequence of being “hit the hardest I’ve ever been hit.”
He was fighting for his life after Eubank but once out of the coma made an incredible recovery. He ran. He rowed. He trained. And then, foolishly, he sparred.
The next time the injuries were more catastrophic and more permanent. They changed his life irrevocably.
Both incidents were avoidable and while boxing doesn’t have the luxury of reserves there’s simply no excuse and no reason for a fighter to ever go in hurt because the risks are just too high. It’s Russian roulette with gloves instead of guns.
The thing with Blackwell, well it was topical for a while and then - as these things do - it hit the back burner. Well-meaning boxing people say it’s an important topic and then move onto the next box office extravaganza while the likes of Blackwell and his family and friends spend the rest of their lives fiddling with the pieces they’re trying to pick up.
It can’t always be an endless cycle of something serious happens, be it a suicide, someone being depressed, a brain injury, a case of extremely erratic behaviour, be deemed as important and then swept away, gone as quickly as it arrived.
Yes it is an important topic and no it’s not going away. You might not want to call it punch drunk syndrome or dementia pugilistica so call it CTE but don’t shy away from it. And don’t humour those suffering with it by saying it’s an important subject to address and only then speaking about it when something major happens. Don’t wait for a blood clot, a fighter to collapse or even die to make your voice heard about how serious boxing with a head injury is.
Think of the families.
Think of a fighter’s children. Think of the decades of aftercare they may need. Think of them, these once super fit, often muscular heroes who are reduced to tottering around on jelly legs for the rest of their days, struggling to get their words out while being quietly embarrassed at their own helplessness.
Let’s not shy away from this because it’s wrong that the voices heard about Joshua and concussion were more concerned with his mental state being fragile rather than his brain.
This is the hurt business. That’s not said for Hollywood effect. It’s a title that’s been etched in the blood and Herculean efforts of hundreds of thousands of warriors who have wound up hurt.
So don’t skirt around it.
IF Joshua was damaged in the immediate days or weeks before the Ruiz fight, and again for the record Eddie Hearn has told me he wasn’t, but for those in a similar situation, the advice would be to tell the commission and a neutral, impartial neurologist, let them assess you and tell the truth.
Don’t chance it with telling a promoter, a team member or even a coach unless you know that they understand the right courses of action for dealing with possible head injuries and concussions, and it’s worrying how many of the above do not know having spent almost two years writing on this subject.
Any number of neurological experts will confirm that most serious brain injuries begin in the gym.
Don’t worry about letting anyone down, losing a payday, wasting a few weeks of work or missing out on an opportunity because we all know you don’t play boxing. The deck is already stacked against the fighters. Don’t be the joker that plays with a bad hand.