By Thomas Gerbasi
Adonis Stevenson is awake. According to a statement released last weekend by his girlfriend Simone God, the former light heavyweight champion emerged from a medically induced coma and “is healing from his injury in the private company of his family and his dedicated medical team.”
Dr. Alexis Turgeon of the Enfant-Jesus Hospital of the CHU de Quebec-Universite Laval described Stevenson’s condition on December 5 as a “severe traumatic brain injury,” one suffered after his 11th round knockout loss to Oleksandr Gvozdyk four days earlier.
For many fighters that is, to put it bluntly, a death sentence, because most don’t survive such an injury. There are those who do and go on to live normal lives outside of boxing. Spencer Oliver and Daniel Franco immediately come to mind as such fortunate ones. Others are never the same, though, and for the families of boxers like Gerald McClellan and Prichard Colon, there is a new fight to be fought.
Stevenson is in that limbo right now, as it’s too early to tell what his long-term prognosis is. So his partner, mother of his infant daughter Adonia, will have to wait, wondering what the next day will bring. It’s not anything she expected, but the longer someone is in the hurt business – whether as a wife, daughter, sister, aunt or mother – they realize that this is a possibility because it’s what their fighter signed up for.
In 2005, Michelle Corrales watched her husband go through one of the most brutal fights in boxing history with Jose Luis Castillo. Corrales emerged with the win that night, and no one would have blamed him if he took a year off from the sport to get everything right again. Because he needed to get right, and so did Michelle.
“It took about two weeks until my body started feeling normal again and my insides stopped hurting,” said Diego, who also had to deal with the mental aftermath of the war, knowing that Michelle had to deal with her own form of hell over those ten rounds.
“Nobody wants to see their wife cry, and especially when I’m doing my job,” he said. “Nobody wants to see that. That was kinda difficult, but this is the way I make my living.”
“I literally had to take care of him and bathe him and everything because his eyes were swollen shut,” Michelle told me on the 10th anniversary of Corrales-Castillo I. “It was pretty bad. The pains, the aches, the urinating blood. They beat each other.”
By that time, Michelle was in the trenches with Diego every step of the way, but this fight seemed to be going above and beyond the call of duty.
“You really thought that was worth it?” she asked him
“Every second of it,” he responded.
“And we laughed about it because that’s what he loved.”
Just five months later, Corrales and Castillo would do it again, this time with less than ideal results for “Chico,” who was knocked out in four rounds. He lost two more times, and in May 2007, he was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident at the age of 29. Boxing didn’t kill Diego Corrales, but maybe it took too much from him. And it was a price he was willing to pay.
“He said, ‘You know, I’m willing to die in the ring,’” Michelle Corrales told me in 2015. “And I would say ‘Diego, stop talking crazy. You’re not going to die in the ring. Don’t talk like that.’ ‘No, I’m serious. I need you to know that I’m prepared to die in the ring. I will never quit.’ And I thought ‘He really means this.’ Before, to me it was always a sport. You go out there, you’re going to fight with your style, you’re gonna take a little, give a lot, but never once did I equate how much he’s willing to give it all in that ring. I knew he would never quit. But I never interpreted that this could be death. It never sunk in. I knew he would give it his all, but he would come out okay.”
The realization that a sport could be a life and death affair often doesn’t come until it’s too late. Maybe the families of journeymen or “opponents” feel this possibility in an accelerated fashion, as their fighter is often on the receiving end in bouts against more skilled or better connected opponents.
But what about Stevenson, a world champion for over five years coming off a heated draw with Badou Jack in May? At 41, he wasn’t in his prime anymore, but he wasn’t seen as an underdog to the unbeaten Gvozdyk, either.
Or McClellan, a fighter who was 27 years old and in his prime on February 25, 1995, the night his life was changed forever by a brutal bout with Nigel Benn?
These weren’t fighters who took years and years of punishment, leaving them as medical disasters waiting to happen. These were stars of the sport, the haves now on the same level as the have nots, proving once and forever that there is no more level playing field in sports than the one between the ropes. For the underdog hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, that’s the good news. The bad news is that any fighter, on any given day, can have his or her life altered irrevocably.
Once that happens, maybe it’s better that they don’t know, and many don’t. McClellan doesn’t remember the details of that night in England, but he knows something bad happened when he fought Benn.
“He remembers it exactly the way I said it happened, not the way it actually happened,” McClellan’s sister, Lisa, told me in 2012. “I’ve altered the details of the story to cushion the blow for his emotions, but he remembers that. But as far as the actual details, he doesn’t remember. He knows he got hurt in England and that he was fighting Nigel Benn. He knows that he went down on one knee.”
In a world largely devoid of real-life heroes, Lisa McClellan is mine. Since 1995, she has been her brother’s caregiver, a 24/7 job few would do. She would disagree, but she’s wrong. Not many would put their own life on hold for someone else’s. And not for a year or two, but for over two decades.
“It’s all in the way that my mom raised us to look after one another,” she said. “And at the times where I feel like giving up and walking away, I feel my mother kind of tugging at me from the grave and letting me know that that’s not what she would be pleased with.”
This is the part of this no one sees. Just like no one knew of Michelle Corrales bathing her husband or Lisa McClellan providing non-stop care for her brother, when the fight is over, the headlines fade and the phone stops ringing, all that’s left is fighter and family. There will be the occasional fundraiser for McClellan or stricken former world champion Wilfred Benitez, but once the cameras go away, it’s a fight that no one sees.
It brings to mind something the late Johnny Tapia told me about his wife Teresa, a woman who dealt with more than anyone should have to during her turbulent relationship with “Mi Vida Loca,” yet still stayed by his side until his death in 2012.
“The wife that I have is unbelievable,” said Tapia in 2002. “She loved me when I was nothing, and she still loves me now that I’m nothing.”
Being ringside when a loved one is in a heavily-hyped main event can be an intoxicating feeling. The money, the fame, the glamour, ditto. But there are folks who were there long before any of this. They sat through fights in dimly lit venues with 25 people in attendance, saw the heartache the business can deliver to the strongest fighter, and stayed strong when no one else wanted to anymore. So when everything disappears, the real fighters often come out.
And they’re not always the ones with the gloves on.
Adonis Stevenson’s fights in the ring are over. Now his family’s fight begins.