By Peter Lim (photo courtesy of Hosanna Rull)
US Marine Corps sergeant Eric Morante was only 23 when he lost his right leg to a vehicle-borne IED driven by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2007. After enduring three-and-a-half years of surgeries and treatment therapies, Morante was determined to regain as much normalcy and fulfillment as he could in civilian life.
But Morante soon discovered that the country whose liberties he had fought to protect would deny him the freedom to participate in a sport that was his passion his entire life. From pre-school to high school, the Houston native had boxed both formally and informally and idolized fighters the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Mohammed Ali.
“Boxing has always been my sport. I started boxing when I was a kid. My dad gave me my first pair of gloves when I was 5,” Morante said. “But everywhere I went, I was told I wasn’t going to be able to compete in boxing.”
The sweet science also proved more cathartic for Morante than any medical or psychological treatment prescribed to him by modern science.
“I could go to a therapy session for an hour and get bored within 20 minutes,” Morante said. “And then I could spend eight hours in the boxing gym, all day long and sometimes forget to eat because I’m so intrigued while working out in the boxing world.
“I don’t think it’s right for military guys to go defend our freedom and then come back and be told we can’t do what we love doing.”
Morante began championing the right for amputees to compete in the sport, becoming a keynote speaker for veterans from Houston and San Antonio. In 2012 the former marine established a small beachhead in his mission when he became the first marine amputee to be sanctioned to box in the United States under the South Texas Amateur Boxing Association. He has since won four of five amateur fights and boxed in an exhibition bout on a pro card.
But the South Texas Amateur Boxing Association remains the only boxing organization out of hundreds to sanction such bouts so amputee boxers throughout the country had to travel to Texas to compete.
“I would like for other amputees to be sanctioned to box and it doesn’t have to depend from one commission to the next,” Morante said. “You should be able to box freely throughout the United States. For me it’s quite frustrating to be told I’m not allowed do anything because of this (disability).
“It’s being kept under wraps. Like as of right now, we’re only allowed to compete in amateur boxing through the South Texas Amateur Boxing Association. But with the Gulf commission or any other commission across the USA that’s under USA Boxing, we’re not allowed to compete there, which doesn’t make sense.”
Morante’s ultimate goal is to get boxing included as a sport in the Paralympics by 2028, if not sooner. Much of the indifference from the various boxing organizations towards amputee boxers stems from the lack of publicity about their plight, Morante said, so it is imperative that they get the word out and rally public support.
“We can get into the next Paralympics as long as people vote on that sport,” Morante said. “But if people don’t know about the sport, how are they going to vote for it?”
There couldn’t be a better lobbyist for Paralympic boxing than Morante, 34, since he is articulate, insightful and goal-oriented, according to Aaron Navarro who co-trains Morante alongside Bobby Benton at the Main Boxing Gym in Houston. But more than just rooting for the cause, Morante and his fellow amputee boxers are leading by example, Navarro said.
“It’s showing that they’re competing at a competent level,” Navarro said. “It’s not a clown show or a handful of guys that are messing around. These are guys that are really training and actually fighting. You watch some of these guys and you’ll see it definitely belongs (in the Paralympics) just as much as any of the sports do.”
As a boxer, Morante said he is pretty much the same fighter he was before he became an amputee.
“I fought as an orthodox fighter growing up and I still fight the exact same way,” Morante said. “The only thing that changed is I have to use the prosthetic limb to box, just like I use the prosthetic to walk.”
“I just had to adapt and overcome. I’ve had several fights and I’ve still been able to knock people out.”
Any trepidations that Navarro had about training amputee boxers were quickly dissipated when it became clear that having a prosthetic was almost a non-issue. They could move as fluidly and punch with as much authority as any boxer without a disability, Navarro said.
“(Morante) is the first amputee fighter that I’ve worked with and one of the things that surprised me was that he’s been able to move and keep his balance a lot better than I first anticipated,” Navarro said. “He’s got a great right hand and he moves out to his right side very well. He’s definitely adapted.”
Besides Morante, Navarro also trains a double amputee who has a penchant to not only compete but win.
The loss of his leg has not hindered Morante from living a life more athletic and physically robust than the vast majority of people without disability or excuse. He has run two Marine Corps marathons, swam, cycled and run the New York City triathlon and was part of the first disabled team to complete the Texas Independence Run stretching 200 miles. The father of a nine-year-old son, Morante also enjoys hunting, fishing and scuba diving.