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Whose Life is it Anyway?

BY Charles Jay ON August 30, 2004
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Why do some people feel they have more in the way of moral authority to decide what is best for Riddick Bowe than the ex-champ himself?

Some sports writers never cease to amaze me.

I fully believe most of them are deathly afraid of offering opinions that might be deemed "unpopular", because generally they're insecure about their ability to form constructive, informed perspective to begin with, and figure there's much less risk in moving with the viewpoint of the majority.

Never mind that, historically, most advances, in word and deed, have been made by people who were thinking "out of the box". Staking out the "safe ground" - the more pedestrian position - leaves one open to less criticism - and, if your living is made with pen and paper, more job security - than if you went out on a limb.

These days, the "safe" opinion is that the comeback of former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe is something that should absolutely not be attempted, or permitted.

On the surface, the reasons for that would be obvious - he is 37 years old, and hasn't stepped into a ring in eight years. His skills have no doubt eroded to some extent. There is certainly no guarantee that he will reach his ultimate goal of winning back the heavyweight championship, and in fact considerable doubt that he will become a viable contender again. As we know, successful comebacks in boxing are about as commonplace as a rock star without a tattoo.

That's what is being echoed by most writers and/or commentators who have cared enough to cover the announcement that Bowe, having been released from prison, will be continuing his boxing career on September 25 on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma.

So naturally, I'll go against the grain here, and I'll do so with conviction.

Critics of this comeback seem to be consumed with the question of Riddick Bowe's health. I'm not a complete skeptic; I'm sure some of those people are genuine, but I can assure you that most are either caught up with their own conception of how a fighter should behave, or their own ideal of boxing itself.

Or maybe they just want to sound like as righteous as they possibly can, which is the most likely scenario.

There's quite a bit of hypocrisy in being the "Good Samaritan".

It's been my experience that fighters who have long since retired, whose health has failed them, and at the same time no longer provide an "angle", don't get much of a tumble from "concerned" writers. If you don't believe me, just ask my friends Alex Ramos and Jacquie Richardson of the Retired Boxers Foundation, who field calls every day from fighters who are experiencing hard times, both physically and financially, and haven't heard from a sportswriter for years.

Then ask them how difficult it's been to get any press coverage whatsoever for the mission they've been undertaking.

So save the altruistic ramblings for someone who's not paying much attention.

What's interesting is that some of the same bleeding hearts who say they are so concerned about Bowe's health routinely shill for up-and-coming prospects who build careers against opponents so lacking in skill, so over-matched, that they are at a comparatively high level of risk every time they step into one of those situations. About that state of affairs, the media shows an eerie indifference.

Of course, padding a prospect's record is "part of the game', as we know it. So, too, is the larger picture - that, in reality, ANYONE who has the courage to step between the ropes is risking potential physical endangerment.

No matter how much in the way of abuse Riddick Bowe has taken and might be expected to take from this point forward, is there anyone who can dispute that Arturo Gatti, for instance, has taken enough punishment to last three lifetimes? Yet, why don't we hear the word "potentially dangerous", but rather, "exciting", when his upcoming ring appearances are hyped?

Gee, maybe it's because HBO tells us so?

When it comes to "saving someone from himself", people tend to be oddly subjective about it. After all, not everyone really deserves saving, right? I guess it depends on how significant the fighter is. Let's use our present frame of reference to illustrate a case in point, because judging from what's been written so far, apparently Bowe deserves more humanitarian treatment than his first comeback opponent, Jeff Lally.

Lally has been halted inside the distance nineteen times in his career, including a string of nine straight knockout losses - these were sustained at the hands of opponents with a combined record of 199-26-4, indicating he has been severely overmatched, as he will be against Bowe. He is indeed also bad enough to have lost to bad fighters as well; on his ledger is a decision defeat to Bradley Rone, the Cincinnati heavyweight who went into a Utah ring last July with seven wins in 52 career fights and came out of it a victim of a heart attack.

If I were a bleeding heart, I might be a little more concerned about Lally's health than that of Bowe.

He is in the ring for no other purpose than to provide target practice..

Yet Lally will invariably be derided as a "stiff" or a "bum", and not as a guy who puts himself on the line, time after time, against superior talent, and bound to take at least something of a pounding, in the process of trying to make a living.

Now, if you made the argument that the Bowe-Lally fight is non-competitive, and unfit for public consumption, you'd get company from me. A commission could step in to look out for the consumer in those kinds of situations. And absent that, the public can make its own choice to buy it or pass on it.

But remember this:

At least Bowe is going to be protected a little bit along his comeback trail. That protection won't exist for most of his upcoming opponents.

If you want to show me you care, talk about THAT a little.

Having said that, it's incumbent upon me to talk about "contingencies" for a moment. So, before we go any further, perhaps it's time to make a couple of things perfectly clear; time to seek out my own "safe ground" of sorts, but indeed, safe ground that is absolutely necessary.

For while I'm wholeheartedly defending Bowe's right to compete again, at the same time I'm not advocating that he forego reasonable medical testing at every step along the way.

After all, though there may not be any concrete, irrefutable evidence that Bowe's thought process has slowed, there have been some signs of slurred speech. And at Bowe's kidnapping trial, brain damage was used as part of Bowe's defense. Naturally I recognize that lawyers have a tendency to "stretch the truth" in their efforts to get a client off, but I still think it supplies sufficient justification to require Bowe to submit to any and all necessary medical tests, if for no other reason than to protect the jurisdictions that would license him to fight, because when danger signs are missed and potential danger manifests itself in serious physical injury (or worse), those who let the fighter in the ring invariably find themselves subject to legal action.

I think it's a reasonable compromise for Bowe to make. And it's simply sound policy for any commission he applies to.

According to published reports, Bowe has passed MRI and neurological tests requested by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's boxing commission, an entity so new that it doesn't appear on the list of member commissions on the Association of Boxing Commission's website.

So assuming Bowe indeed presented something substantial in the way of medical documentation, what would be the reasonable, material argument against allowing him to fight, other than the fact that some control freaks just don't like the idea? If he does everything asked of him with regard to compliance, could it possibly be an egregious violation of the public interest?

Maybe not, but still, there are people who'll have no part of this comeback effort. To give you an idea about the kind of mentality Bowe will be going up against, OUT of the ring, one gentleman, previously harangued in my "Sirb-Gate" series and continuing to masquerade as a "boxing columnist", actually wrote that:

"Riddick Bowe should not be able to fight again due to the mainstream opinion that he has suffered some brain damage." Absolutely. And accused murderer Scott Peterson should have been put straight into the electric chair without a trial due to the "mainstream opinion" that he did it.

One of the things that makes me chuckle is the notion that there is always someone out there who knows what's best for me, and who in fact, knows it BETTER than me. I've often marveled at the proposition that there could be total strangers out there who might actually feel more of a proprietary interest in my well-being than I would.

Well, over the course of my 40-plus years, I have noticed an interesting thing that some of those folks might find strange - people, in general, have a tendency to be quite concerned for their own hides. I really haven't met that many people with death wishes. And I hardly think Riddick Bowe is one of those people. The notion that he, or any fighter, lives this existence where he has stepped out of his own skin and looks at himself in the third person when it comes to his own safety is somewhat ludicrous to me. Riddick-ulous, if you will. Actually it may go even further than that. It's kind of insulting, and feeds what must be a subconscious stereotype in some of these critics - that the fighter is an imbecile who simply doesn't know how to think for himself, and even if he could, shouldn't be allowed to.

Funny - when it serves their purpose, writers like to tout boxers as "great human interest stories".

At the same time, they wouldn't hesitate to strip them of certain human qualities, if it also served their purpose.

When those observing from the outside romanticize about this sport, they customarily use phrases like "gallant warriors" and "rugged individualists" to describe fighters. Then why is it, when someone actually wants to BE a rugged individualist, those same people suggest that he shouldn't be allowed?

I'm naturally suspicious of people who use terms like "he shouldn't be allowed", whether it's with good intentions or not. There's a certain kind of arrogance to that - as if others feel they have a right to control some part of your life or my life. Obviously that holds no water.

I sometimes wonder how writers might react if you used the same words about them.

We've had people submit material to our website who probably showed more evidence of brain damage in their prose than one could ever expect to find in Riddick Bowe. But if I told them they shouldn't be allowed to write about boxing, they'd simply take their material to someone less discriminating, wouldn't they? Doubtless, I'd also hear references to the First Amendment right of free speech, accompanied by the appropriate level of indignation.

Doesn't Riddick Bowe have rights too; namely, a right to earn a living, if that's the way he chooses to go?

Oh yes, I can hear the footsteps of those great intellectuals - the ones who will tell me, "Writers don't get hit in the face as part of their job". Well, with apologies to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter named Larry Hamel, who got smacked around once by a promoter, I would concede that point.

But writers write. That's what they're trained (or train themselves) to do. Fighters fight. As part of that, they defend themselves. That's what THEY are trained to do.

So it's actually all kind of relative, isn't it?

About a year and a half ago, Michael Katz wrote a column citing a Las Vegas Sun columnist's evaluation of the top prizefighters of all-time, in response to a similar list Ring Magazine had released. In his story, the columnist penned such gems as...............

"The Ring has Sugar Ray Robinson at No. 1 in spite of 19 losses and six draws, and Henry Armstrong at No. 2 in spite of 21 losses and nine draws. Overall, Robinson and Armstrong were certainly great fighters yet I bypassed both in making my own top 10", and,

"I'd take (Oscar) De la Hoya over (Ray) Robinson if they were fighting each other and both had the magical ability to be 25 at the time of the bout";

This writer had Ricardo Lopez, Felix Trinidad, and Michael Spinks among his top seven ALL-TIME greatest fighters, ahead of Muhammad Ali, Robinson, Armstrong, Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Leonard and Willie Pep, among others.

His rationale? "My guys didn't routinely feast on patsies and they almost always fought the best available competition........Better yet, when it was time for the ring announcer to do his thing, they were the ones with their hands raised in victory."

The alarming part is that this was a writer who had purportedly covered boxing for quite some time, yet when it came time to move outside of territory that may have been inspired by a promoter's press release, he demonstrated dangerously little in the way of savvy or perspective. It was as if looking up the numerical records of fighters constituted the entirety of his "research".

One can only speculate as to where Joe Mesi's name will show up the next time he compiles a list.

Katz wrote that the columnist, in boxing parlance, appeared to be "taking a dive", a ploy that may be used from time to time by a writer who wants to force his editor to take him off a particular beat. It looked that way to me too. Let's put it this way - if this was the guy's "A-Game", I'd be scared - for both the Las Vegas Sun and the entire profession. Regardless, if writers were regulated by a commission, like boxers, this fellow might very well have had his license revoked. For life.

But we'd unquestionably hear an argument from that guy, all the way to the bitter end.

Because he figures it's his RIGHT to express himself in whatever manner he desires.

I don't want to dwell on it, since you may have already read about it in "Operation Cleanup", but last year, the Boxing Writers Association of America voted Peter Kohl, a promoter, as the co-recipient of its "Manager of the Year" award.

Could I justifiably accuse some of those writers as being a little "punch-drunk"?

Maybe (and you wondered why the BWAA would never put my name and Nat Fleischer's in the same sentence).

Might you hear the cry, "Please guys, don't write again, you might hurt yourself, or the English language" coming from my lips?

Not likely.

In fact, not at all.

I wouldn't go that far. Those guys have a right to say or believe whatever they want, no matter how misguided it may be, as long as what they say doesn't infringe upon the rights of others.

Riddick Bowe may be misguided as well. But this shouldn't be about how successful people think his comeback will be. I don't know where this dream will take him, and frankly, neither does he. But are there any material reasons why he shouldn't be permitted to take that trip and find out?

I have covered this ground to an extent before - after Evander Holyfield lost to James Toney, and affirmed that he fully intended to continue his career, he opened himself up for much criticism, from the same type of people in the press. I'll take the license to borrow some of the material I wrote then.

In fact, let me quote some of it directly, for those of you who are going to use this as an opportunity to put the knock on the sport of boxing. I'll substitute Bowe's name for Holyfield's:

"And to deal with another perception that is routinely brought up - blasting the sport of boxing itself for allowing an outlet for (Bowe), and the aforementioned fighters who preceded him, to ply their trade well past their prime, or for providing the inevitable marketplace within which to do it - let me dispel a common notion about this industry that is highly overrated and that cannot be fully understood by those who have never been part of it.

It's the concept that there will always be some money-hungry leech, ready to seize an opportunity to make a buck off the unsuspecting, aging fighter. If a business arrangement is made, if an opportunity is embarked upon, it is a mutual and voluntary collaboration between that promoter and that fighter. And I have not, in my experiences, customarily happened upon people in this game - and that includes promoters, managers, or matchmakers - who would gratuitously put a fighter into a situation if they truly acknowledged there was a likelihood that the fighter would get seriously hurt.

By and large, it's the fighter looking for a payday, and engaging a promoter in that pursuit - not the other way around."

I'm all for giving Riddick Bowe the personal freedom to make decisions for himself, as long as he accepts personal responsibility for what might happen as a result. Certainly, if he's going into the boxing ring and competing, it would seem, by definition, that's he perfectly aware of the risks. It's not my business to tell him when to start, when to stop, when to go to the toilet. And it's no one else's.

Some people would like to be his "nanny", for sure, but they don't possess one bit of equity in his life. I'll trust the ability of Riddick Bowe to take care of Riddick Bowe.

Accordingly, I would suggest the following - if you're an official and you have a problem with him fighting, don't work his fights. If you think it's a horrible thing to watch, don't watch it. If you're a writer and you think it's a joke, you don't have to cover it. And if you think it's a complete waste of time, don't waste your own time talking about it. That's YOUR choice.

But don't preclude the fighter from making his own choices because you believe you know what's better for his life than he does.

It's silly, it's arrogant, and it's phony.

Then again, if you're one of those people who feel so strongly about it, maybe you're all three of those things.

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