by David P. Greisman
Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward swing in the glorious ninth round of their first fight. Gatti’s face contorts with each clean, hard punch that lands from Ward. And all of Ward’s punches are landing, every single one clean, hard and damaging.
These are men, the epitome of strength and bravery.
We montage through vicious knockouts, the victims collapsing and crashing, the victors exultant, the losers lifeless.
We transition from a gladiator arena built in Europe more than 2000 years ago, now empty, to a bullring in present-day Mexico, a crowd roaring. On this night within, a boxer floors his opponent.
We hear the insight of those long involved in what is called a sweet science but remains a brutal trade.
“You put your life on the line when you get in the ring, and that’s the bottom line because somebody is trying to kill you, and the object of boxing is to render the other guy unconscious,” says Johnny Ortiz, trainer, manager, radio host and writer.
“A caveman can understand boxing,” says George Chuvalo, former heavyweight contender.
“It’s barbaric, but people love that,” says trainer Manny Steward. “It’s still the epitome of excitement.”
We turn to an often unspoken reality.
Alex Ramos of the Retired Boxers Foundation: “There’s another side of boxing that people should know about.”
We see what he means.
An elderly man wearing a black helmet sits in a chair, unresponsive. “Phil,” a woman says. “Look at me,” she says. “Come on champ.”
She is a caretaker in a Portland, Ore., nursing home. He is Phil Moyer, a middleweight who fought five decades ago, once defeating Sugar Ray Robinson. So, too, did his brother, Denny Moyer, also helmeted, shown living in the same facility and in similar condition.
These are men, mortal and vulnerable. Denny died last year. Phil is now confined to a wheelchair.
These are the opening minutes of “After the Last Round,” a documentary examining how fighters suffer damage, life-altering and life-taking; why they continue to step into the ring despite this; and what happens to them once they stop taking punches and try to continue with life after boxing – what remains of it.
The film’s executive producer is Tom Moyer, who is Phil and Denny Moyer’s cousin. The narrative is pieced together by Ryan Pettey (who also is the director) and Patrick Moyer, Tom’s son.
Their subjects are gladiators only for a few nights a year, and only for an hour or so on those nights. Though they spar and train and live for those nights in the ring, they also have families, sides of them we do not see during their careers. We only think of them as performers. We rarely remember them once they retire. Our attention turns to those younger, better, relevant.
DaVarryl Williamson watches his kids swim in a Denver pool, a heavyweight of recent vintage who has delivered others into unconsciousness and been sent there himself.
“For me, the safety of my husband is my first priority,” says his wife, Shalifa, in the documentary. “There are places you go in your mind that you don’t wanna go. My biggest fear is taking that plane ride home by myself. I can’t do that.”
“Boxing is like having a bad girlfriend,” DaVarryl says. “The girl’s not good for you. You know you shouldn’t be dating her or hanging out with her, but you keep calling her back.”
There are the pro fighters who keep returning to the ring when they shouldn’t have, seduced by the prospect of another title shot, another payday, drawn back by the allure of conquering another man, another challenge, and being adored for it. There are many who should’ve quit earlier, who should’ve known better, if only it were that easy.
We watch Muhammad Ali being interviewed before his final fight, in 1981, against Trevor Berbick.
“Do I sound like I have brain damage?” he asks, defiant.
He is slurring his words. The symptoms of the Parkinson’s that has long since crippled him were clearly evident before his last rounds.
Boxing is not the only sport in which the participants suffer serious injuries or die. Football is in the middle of a paradigm shift, with coaches and players and doctors increasingly aware of the consequences, of the cumulative damage from years of hits and numerous concussions. Rules are being changed, even if the changes are a detriment to the nature of the game. Athletes are being protected, even if they don’t want to be.
But as the documentary reminds us, boxing is one of the few sports in which the intent is to incapacitate.
“The intent is to knock the other person out,” says Freddie Roach, a trainer and former fighter who is also battling Parkinson’s. “We don’t want to intently hurt somebody, but we know it’s possible.”
This is our guilty pleasure. This is regulated combat, less savage than gladiators and street fights and war, allowing men to make money through violence and through our predisposition to watching it unfold. We would never do away with it, just as we would never do away with football, even as more players are diagnosed with brain injuries, deteriorating early and dying young.
We have watched through moments such as Emile Griffith punching Benny “Kid” Paret until Paret would no longer wake. We have watched through fighters taking unnecessary punishment that, as we see it, shortens their careers. We barely think about what follows.
We institute rules to protect them. The rules are inconsistent, depending on where the fight is and who is fighting. A once-great boxer whose legs and chin have since departed will still be allowed to lace up the gloves. Sometimes he will hear and heed the call to retire.
The notable fighters are the only ones we notice as being in danger. The journeymen and lower-tier foes are done in by their anonymity. There is no memory of what they once were, no measurement of how much they have slipped. They are expected to lose, interchangeable opponents few know enough about to tell them it’s time to stop.
Sugar Ray Seales told the filmmakers he boxed blind for 18 months. “I didn’t know it,” he said. “Why? I was winning.”
A majority of those afflicted with pugilistic dementia are found, after their deaths, to have evidence of past brain bleeds, neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu says on screen.
Sometimes the symptoms don’t show until 10 or 15 years after a fighter has retired, Dr. Margaret Goodman, respected ringside physician, says in the documentary.
This is why – while the rest of us stand and cheer and exhort the fighters to be like Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti, strong and brave – family members at ringside cover their mouths or their eyes and sit stone-faced, afraid of their loved ones ending in similar states as Phil and Denny Moyer, mortal and vulnerable.
“When DaVarryl got knocked out that first round,” says Shalifa Williamson, recalling her husband’s loss to Joe Mesi, “I immediately jumped up and ran towards the ring.”
Says Alex Ramos: “Some of them are scary. You never know if you’re going to wake up.”
Life continues after the last round. But only a fraction of fighters make and save enough to retire. Some have given nearly their entire lives to boxing and know little different. Some have given so much of their bodies to fighting and cannot do anything else.
The latest collective bargaining negotiations in professional football included talk of supporting retired players, who earned far less money than players today but nevertheless suffered significant damage.
There is no organization representing active boxers. It is a competitive pursuit, not just in the ring, but for finite resources – television dates, spots on cards, money and attention. Their sport is one-on-one by definition, and it’s not often enough that a trainer or manager or promoter forgoes money and advises a fighter to retire.
We, as fans, seek the warriors and the winners, supporting them with a percentage of the proceeds from pay-per-view purchases and ticket sales.
It is a lot easier for us to give and get in return than it is for us to give and expect nothing back. Life does continue after the last round, however. There is that other side of boxing that people should know about, the side Alex Ramos mentioned, the side he and others are working to support through donations to the Retired Boxers Foundation.
There are boxers who turn to alcohol and drugs, who lose their homes, whose bodies and minds, once weapons in the ring, begin to turn against them.
These are men whose next fight begins after the last round ends.
The 10 Count
1. When the UFC makes its broadcast network debut live on FOX on Nov. 12, the big news won’t be that the card will slightly overlap with that night’s Manny Pacquiao pay-per-view.
Rather, the news will be the culmination of UFC’s brand building and the potential creation of mixed martial arts as an even more prominent fixture than it’s already become.
That’s because UFC executives won’t squander this opportunity the way that boxing promoters have in recent years.
When boxing promoters get exclusive output deals, they tend to look at it as an opportunity to minimize their financial investment and maximize their profit. Remember what happened to boxing on Versus? There were far too many shows with guys such as Tye Fields in the main event or mismatches that didn’t draw viewers in.
Aside from the one season that “The Contender” aired on NBC, the last time boxing ran on network television was from 2003 into 2004, when Main Events used Saturday afternoons on NBC to do what every other promoter would do and build its prospects.
The first UFC show on FOX will run just an hour, from 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern Time, but it’ll likely be designed to create buzz for future shows on and off the network, a long-term investment rather than short-term cashing out.
2. Though the UFC show on FOX will run during the first hour of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez pay-per-view, I don’t expect that to impact the boxing card’s buy rate.
Those who want to watch both shows won’t mind missing the first hour of the boxing pay-per-view, not when they’ve been conditioned to feel as if they’re paying solely for the main event instead of for what comes before it, too.
And in this era of DVRs and other technology, those who truly want to catch both will find a way to do so.
3. You could cancel this year’s four remaining major pay-per-views – Victor Ortiz vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson, Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez 3 and Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito 2 – and I’d still not be as bummed as I am about the fact that Robert Guerrero got injured in training camp and will not be facing Marcos Maidana this Saturday.
4. Teddy Atlas and Lennox Lewis are scheduled to appear on the same media conference call this Wednesday in advance of the Aug. 27 fight between Alexander Povetkin and Ruslan Chagaev being broadcast on EPIX. Atlas trains Povetkin, and Lewis does commentary for EPIX.
I can already see how this will go:
Atlas will do nearly all of the talking. Lewis will chime in on occasion with a cliché or a line about how something relates to himself. And both will talk about how Lewis was much, much better than the Klitschko brothers.
5. More of Andre Ward doing commentary on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights,” please.
6. You know it’s a slow weekend for boxing when your three biggest fights on Saturday night are Alfredo Angulo’s comeback fight against Joseph Gomez (Angulo knocked him out after 84 seconds), Fernando Montiel’s comeback fight against Alvaro Perez (Montiel knocked him out in the third round), and Octomom vs. a woman who tends bar at a Florida strip club (Octomom is about out of her 15 minutes).
7. “Exclusive: Joseph Agbeko talks Mares rematch” ~ headline, 8countnews.com.
“Exclusive: Agbeko on Mares, Mora, the low blows and the rematch” ~ headline, RingTV.com.
8. Another month, another civil lawsuit against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
This one comes from two men who are accusing Mayweather and other men of threatening them in the aftermath of a shooting two years ago in Las Vegas, according to the Associated Press.
The alleged incident began with a text message from one man to Mayweather “saying he hoped the boxer would lose his upcoming fight” against Juan Manuel Marquez, per the report. Mayweather and the man then had an argument inside a skating rink, and later that evening an associate of Mayweather’s allegedly shot at a car with the two men in it.
That associate, Ocie Harris, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from that incident, per the report.
Mayweather initially told police he didn’t know Harris. Investigators found out otherwise, the Associated Press said. It’s important to note that Mayweather was not charged in the shooting. It’s also important to note that this case is in the form of a civil lawsuit.
To begin our review Mayweather’s of recent legal issues, there was a civil lawsuit against Mayweather dismissed last month, one that came from a Las Vegas nightclub security guard. The bouncer claimed that in January he’d asked Mayweather and people with him for identification, and then a bodyguard of Mayweather’s grabbed him and choked him, according to a Las Vegas Sun article from when the lawsuit was filed.
Here’s a quick primer on other cases remaining against Mayweather:
- Manny Pacquiao’s defamation lawsuit against Mayweather concerning Mayweather’s implications and allegations that Pacquiao has used performance enhancing drugs.
- Mayweather has several felony and misdemeanor charges against him for an incident in which he allegedly assaulted his ex-girlfriend and threatened their sons.
- Mayweather has been charged with misdemeanor harassment after allegedly threatening security guards at his housing development after they wrote up parking citations for some of his vehicles.
- He has a misdemeanor battery case in which he is accused of poking the face of a security guard who left parking tickets on one of his vehicles.
- And Mayweather has another civil lawsuit against him, this one from a man who claims Mayweather told his bodyguards to attack him after he asked about Mayweather fighting Manny Pacquiao.
9. Al Bernstein of Showtime said he saw Abner Mares land 25 to 30 low blows on Joseph Agbeko.
Greg Leon of BoxingTalk tallied 21 shots south of the border.
Thomas Hauser, writing for The Sweet Science, counted 55 times that Mares’ punches strayed below the belt.
I don’t know the exact number – I’ve got better ways to spend my days than watching another man’s groin for an hour.
10. No matter the precise total, it was certainly more crotch shots than Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have provided paparazzi over the years (and that’s saying something).
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
Follow David on Twitter at twitter.com/fightingwords2 or on Facebook at facebook.com/fightingwordsboxing, or send questions and comments to [email protected]