I recently read an article appropriately titled, “Boxing is still a goddamned tragedy,” which notes how it only took the author — and most boxing fans — two weeks to get over a recent death in the ring before enjoying another bout that also nearly ended in a fatality. On Saturday, October 19, bantamweight Francisco “Frankie” Leal endured a brutal beating in the ring at the hands of Raul Hirales that ended with Leal’s collapse in the corner. Leal was not a particularly promising fighter, who had endured a number of defeats, including an especially bruising one in March 2012 that ended with Leal leaving the ring on a stretcher. There are plenty (especially now, after the fact) who say that Leal should have retired then and there, but the truth is, a fighter does not retire himself. A fighter fights, even if it kills him. A fighter’s trainer or manager retires him, especially when the fighter is as young as Leal.
Moments after Hirales knocked Leal out, Leal’s brain began bleeding, and the boxer would never recover. His final moments are captured on the video of the fight, when doctors can be seen trying to get Leal to sit up straight and respond somehow, but by then, Leal was already fading to black. He fell into a coma shortly after arriving at the hospital, and died three days later. The boxer who killed him was a friend.
Exactly two weeks later, heavyweights Mago Abdusalamov and Mike Perez fought an intense ten-round battle on HBO, with Abdusalamov losing to Perez in a decision. The fight was a big succes with the fans, as the two fighters threw punches nonstop at each other, taking some real punishment. But it was Abdusalamov who took the worst of it, impressing the crowd with his ability to soak up whatever Perez had to throw his way. By the end of the fight, Abdusalamov’s face was a misshapen mess, and shortly after the fight, he entered a medically induced coma so doctors could operate on a blood clot they discovered in his brain. Abdusalamov earned $30,000 for his near-death experience with Perez. At last report, Abdusalamov had survived his brain surgery and was recovering. No word yet on exactly how much his treatment and recovery will cost his insurers and himself personally.
Fights like these, and deaths like Leal’s, raise serious questions over what must be done to help fighters help themselves. A good start might be doing away with boxing gloves. In mixed martial arts, for example, the fingerless gloves used are padded minimally, and only to protect the fighters’ hands. They do virtually nothing to lessen the impact of a blow (something I know from personal experience). They also lead to swift, and sometimes bloody knockouts. This has lead some critics to decry MMA as some kind of barbarism, which is a spurious claim.
Well, as a practitioner of MMA, I can tell you that you’re not going to stand toe to toe with somebody for 8, 10, 12 or 15 rounds getting pounded. You stand for three rounds, maybe five, but usually well less than that. You stand a much higher chance of getting knocked out. You stand a much lower chance of enduring the kind of lethal brain injury we see in this story. But yeah, one must go into these things with an understanding of the risk. And that happens. To a fault, sometimes.
MMA is bloodier, indeed. It is also much faster and much safer to the athletes, even if it doesn’t look like it. Sometimes, when it comes to health and risk management, there is perception, and then there is reality.
For boxers such as Abdusalamov and Leal, what sympathy are we supposed to have, really? Anybody who steps in the ring, or anybody who derives entertainment from the same, should be prepared for the fighters to suffer injury. Serious injury. Permanent injury. Terminal injury. And yet, they still step into that ring. But why?
As I mentioned in my previous column, some folks simply are compelled to take up activities that have a zero tolerance rate for failure. But boxing or MMA are not necessarily the same. And yet, they kind of are. I’ll use a personal example to explain.