This piece is largely observational. I’m not sure where to start or finish, or who to praise or who to blame, if anyone. Yet.
So allow me to begin with a rhetorical question: is there anyone who has followed boxing for a generation or more who has not concluded that absorbing thousands and thousands of blows to the head inevitably takes a dreadful toll on the fighter?
Anyone my age will remember Rocky Graziano, one of the toughest, hardest punching middleweights of the 40’s and 50’s, a World Champion, who (among others) ended up making a post-boxing career playing a caricature of a punch drunk fighter.
My father (NYPD) used to tell me how sad it was to see Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, an athlete who fought for the Heavyweight title, stumbling around his precinct, childlike, waving to passing police cars.
Almost all of the Champions and contenders from the “Greatest Era of Heavyweights” – the late 60’s through the 70’s – Ali, Frazier, Quarry, Patterson, Ellis, Jimmy Young – died, or will soon die, in hospitals or nursing homes, their minds stolen from them.
Yet, we’re supposed to believe that this is somehow breaking news in the world of sports, most notably the NFL. Please.
So let’s start with the acknowledgment that head injuries, whether by falls, automobile accidents, football helmets, fists, or IED’s, often lead to traumatic brain injury and/or death.
Flash: the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) recently had their epiphany in this regard.
The NAC proudly announced in the Sunday April 27, 2016 edition of the Las Vegas Review Journal that it “will require all licensed fighters….to undergo regular brain health testing”. Front page, top of the fold.
If you read on, however, it became clear that all the details haven’t quite been worked out. “The announcement of Nevada’s new regulation, which isn’t expected to take effect until June or July (?) coincides with the announcement of a donation to the Ruvo Center…”. But “a Ruvo Center spokesperson declined to disclose the amount of the donation and said it would be spread over two years”.
So the announcement was really a pre-announcment, and neither the timetable nor the scope of the testing (nor, more importantly, what the NAC plans to do with any information gleaned) remain vague.
Setting all that aside, the most absurd statement uttered by the NAC per the Review Journal article follows: “Nevada has always been at the forefront of fighter safety, and we’re proud and excited to be implementing this policy”.”
Proud of the “policy” AND at the “forefront”. Impressive.
That, I take it, implies a sort of an anticipatory pride. Proud of whatever the requirements of the policy actually may be when it’s figured out, proud of whenever specifics are are actually implemented, someday, and proud of whatever that implementation entails.
But even assuming all of the vagaries are accomplished, will something then be done which will actually help fighters?
Now that, as long overdue as it is, would indeed be something to be proud of.
Cynic that I am, however, I clearly harbor some doubts. Years of experience with federal law enforcement taught me that in certain quarters, PR, not results, is often Job 1. Throughout the years, I often had the feeling that some agencies spent more time at their academies teaching “Press Conference 101” than the statutes within the United States Code.
A Case Study Concerning the Commission’s Credibility: “The Fight of the Century”
Remember that this is the same Commission which aided and abetted Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in fleecing the public via the ridiculous promotion of their May 2, 2015, “Fight of the Century”.
I predicted that bout would be more like the “Farce of the Century” on this site last April. (See “Fight of the Century? Don’t Buy The Hype”).
Beyond the reasoning I adopted in support of that view, it was later disclosed that Pacquiao, who never had a chance to begin with, fought with a shoulder injury – which he did not disclose to the NAC until minutes before the fight!
And as if Mayweather’s pronounced advantage was insufficient going into the fight, ESPN later reported that “On the eve of his record-breaking megafight with Manny Pacquiao on May 2, pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather took an intravenous injection of saline and vitamins that was banned under World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines, according to a report by SB Nation….”.
Mayweather’s “indiscretions” though the years could fill a book. However limiting this discussion to the dishonesty, the fraud, the public debacle that was “The Fight of the Century”, one might expect the revocation of both fighters’ licenses to box in Nevada.
How wrong one would be. In Vegas, money talks. Or maybe it’s just that people’s hearing improves when that particular word is spoken aloud. (Hell, in January, 2012, a local judge agreed to postpone Mayweather’s 90 day jail sentence for domestic violence until June, so that Floyd – and the Strips’s cash counting machines – wouldn’t miss out on his big Cinco de Mayo showdown with……an opponent not yet even determined!)
So, not surprisingly, rather than banishment from the game, we were treated to the September 12, 2015, Mayweather – Andre Berto fiasco, a bout so one sided that one judge gave Floyd every round. USA Today called the fight “a complete waste of time”.
And on April 10, 2016, just a few weeks ago, we witnessed a suddenly healthy Pacquiao dominate Timothy Bradley in their third go-round.
Don’t tell the kids, but in some worlds, actions have no consequences. And consistent lack of consequences can eventually equal total lack of credibility.
Vegas at the Forefront of Fighter Safety; a synopsis
So, I started thinking about Las Vegas and the NAC’s claimed prioritizing of “fighter safety”. I will save my most troubling impression for last.
But my mind immediately replayed Lightweight Champ Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini tragically battering the life out of the valiant Korean Kim Duk-koo in an arena outside Caesars Palace on November 13, 1982.
I then recalled the “Fan Man” incident of November 6, 1993 during the heavyweight title fight between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield, also at Caesar’s. A nut job hang-glided into the ring in a contraption powered by a “paramotor” which consisted of whirling blades designed to produce propulsion. The contraption included a large, potentially deadly propeller. Seeing the Champ’s arm amputated by a giant whirling fan in the middle of a fight would have made for an All Time ring classic.
And who could forget the night of June 28, 1997 when Evander Holyfield defended the title he had won from Mike Tyson for the WBA Heavyweight Championship. In one of the most absurd championship fights in history, Tyson, in apparent desperation bit off part of Holyfield’s ear. This fight took place, thankfully for Caesar’s Palace, at the MGM Grand Garden.
However, Las Vegas’ most profoundly sad boxing legacy is the image of a once great, proud warrior – perhaps the Ultimate American sports icon – Joe Louis – shuffling around Caesar’s Palace sporting a cowboy hat, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, earning his keep as a “greeter” in the early 70’s.
The man who symbolically defeated Hitler’s mythical Aryan in 1938 had been hospitalized in 1969 and 1970. He was suffering from delusions, paranoia, and substance abuse. He was retained to shake hands, gamble with house money, and serve as a prop, representing past boxing Glory. The images remain painful to witness even today.
In June 1974, the Brown Bomber took a break from his duties at Caesar’s and accepted an assignment refeering a heavyweight elimination contest between former champ Joe Frazier and perennial contender Jerry Quarry. I attended the bout at Madison Square Garden. After a round it was clear Quarry’s career was over. Another victim of countless head blows during thousands of rounds of fights – and don’t foget training, Quarry was no match for the still formidable Smokin’ Joe. In Quarry’s case, to matters worse, he typically refused to wear a headgear while engaging in endless rounds of vicious sparring.
After being floored by a body shot (an unheard of event in light of his incredibly durability) and trapped on the ropes, he helplessly awaited further punishment, not unlike the tragic title character of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer”.
Frazier, in an unprecedented demonstration of sportsmanship and decency, called for referee Louis to stop the fight. The Brown Bomber was seemingly oblivious. Color commentator Angelo Dundee could be heard screaming “Stop the fight, Joe”, to no avail. Quarry, by the way, died at the age of 53 as a result of taking shots from Frazier, Ali, et.al..
After the debacle, Joe Louis returned to his role as a prop at Caesars.
Sometime around 1977, Joe’s declining mental and physical health confined him to a wheelchair. He had not, however, outlasted his usefulness to Las Vegas. He was still trotted out when needed to promote some casino event. Right up until April 11, 1982. On that night, the Old Champ could be seen at ringside on national TV, in his wheelchair, cowboy hat and all, in an effort to promote the Larry Holmes – Trevor Berbick Championship fight.
Joe Louis, the hero of the Greatest Generation, the man who served his country in World War II, and inspired a nation by proclaiming “We will win, because we’re on God’s side” – was dead a few hours later, looking 80, but only 66 years old.
Caesar’s Palace boasts a larger than life statue of the Brown Bomber on permanent public display. It is of course well deserved, but somehow troubling when one considers his final days. Granted, his fighting days were mere memories by the time Vegas recruited him – but that only served to make the whole spectacle more pathetic.
For the great Joe Louis never grew too old to exploit.
I love boxing, and I hate it. No athletes have been exploited more consistently, and more mercilessly, in the history of American sports than boxers. There are many reasons, some are quite obvious, I won’t belabor them here.
This is the shameful boxing legacy to which Las Vegas may lay claim.
I sincerely hope that the (politically appointed- sorry) members of the NAC are true to their word and at least begin to right a history of wrongs.
NAC: accomplish something, anything, to at least begin to help boxers, the world’s first athletes; along with wrestlers, the original Olympians. I have my doubts, but I’ll be the first to salute them if they do.
Postscript: By order of President Ronald Reagan, Joseph Louis Barrow is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. RIP Brown Bomber.