The prospect of it makes even atheists fold their hands and ask humbly of an Almighty for it not to occur.
The only thing more horrid to consider for a boxer than fatally hurting a foe during combat is they themselves making the ultimate sacrifice, and losing their life because of their choice to participate in the savage science of pugilism.
On Dec. 8, 2011, in Russia, the almost worst-case scenario occurred, as Roman Simakov expired, because of damage incurred in a bout against 28-year-old Sergey Kovalev three days prior.
The match pitted the 19-1-1 Simakov, age 27, against the 16-0-1 Kovalev, who was coming off a draw in his previous outing, against 5-4 Grover Young.
Kovalev got the best of it, scoring a TKO7 win. The loser lost consciousness right after the ending, and never awakened.
Kovalev was touched by the tragedy, as expected, and pledged to donate the earnings from his next bout to the family of Simakov.
The subject came up when I was speaking to Kovalev's trainer, John David Jackson, the other day. The tutor was speaking about Kovalev's mental strength, and the nastiness which will come in handy on Saturday, and said, “You think he really cares if he hurts Bernard? He's already killed one man in the ring, he could care less. It's his job.”
Yep, tough talk. Brutal truth. That's an essence of the sport and life which oft goes unsaid, because it's too direct for most to be able to readily digest.
And, I asked the trainer, how does that knowledge of his fighter having been the deliverer of fatal blows sit with you?
“I like that, it shows how bad he wants it. It didn't bother him to the degree where he quit hurting guys or knocking him out. He felt bad but he knows it's business.”
Jackson wasn't with Kovalev for that fight, but they did discuss it, and Jackson said he told the Russian he must move on, not wallow in the sadness.
Manager Egis Klimas was present for the Simakov fight, and he told me he wasn't sure how Kovalev would react, how he'd act in the ring after. Would he lack the same finisher instinct he'd had before? Would he pull punches? When, I asked Klimas, did he know that Kovalev would be able to function as he had, post tragedy?
“That would affect anyone, a death in the ring,” Klimas told me. “In the beginning it was hard for Sergey. But we talked, and he knows that people die all the time, in the street, riding bicycles, etc. It doesn't affect him today. And I knew it wouldn't after his very next fight, against Darnell Boone (June 1, 2012, Kovalev beat Boone by TKO2). I saw he was not going to pull punches. But, I hope it never happens again, with any of my fighters.”
After Simakov died, Kovalev put out a statement, which finished: “Forgive me, Roman… Rest in Peace, Warrior…”
You can watch, if you wish, what transpired on that fateful night in the ring when the horrific happened.
The fight is up on YouTube and I will admit I was hesitant to take a look.
Would that be an exercise in macabre self indulgence? Is it the equivalent of rubber-necking on the freeway, pausing to stare at a car wreck, craning my neck while looking for strewn bodies and blood splatters, as I hew to my grotesque propensity for what…a callous and flippant obedience to non-sexual voyeurism, appealing to a region of the brain susceptible to schadenfreude?
No, I decided, to watch and dissect would be something of a teaching moment, because all of us with a vested interest in the sport owe it to ourselves and the sport to traffic in the oft ugly reality of boxing. People can die doing this—we must constantly remind ourselves of this cruel fact, so as to lessen our built-in propensity to minimize the effects of the punches, to bravely lobby with the courage that comes from being out of range of fire, for that referee to allow the man getting the worst of it to swallow more punishment –and if we can identify patterns in fights which result in one combatant dying, then maybe we can stave off one inevitable tragedy down the line.
You can see Simakov in round six eating shots, clean, hard, swift—but nothing that screamed “this should be stopped.” Or…maybe that signal was there but because we tend to allow ourselves to underestimate the severity of pain felt by the man absorbing those stiff blows, we overlooked it.
Simakov came out for round seven, as one would expect such a warrior to do, even if, in retrospect, we saw some hesitance in his body language, some behavior which suggested he knew he was in over his head, and that he wasn't OK with drowning.
Yet Simakov edged forward to start the seventh, his instinct to be aggressive intact, even if it was being propelled by pride far more than logic. Kovalev was in complete control, scoring a knockdown off a two-punch combo, which was preceded by a minute stumble by Simakov as he looked to get some space from the heavy-fisted future champ. He arose, with 2:12 left on the clock, legs betraying him, his will not.
But the referee read the situation, saw Simakov leaning on the ropes, his eyes aimed at his corner, silently asking for permission to raise a surrender flag.
It was over, and really, no one had a reason to think the contest would be recalled as anything more than a line on Boxrec, another win for one guy with more skills and promise than another guy with more ambition than talent.
As Team Kovalev celebrated, as trainer Abel Sanchez and manager Klimas hugged the victor, the scene played out, and turned from the commonplace to the nightmarish. Simakov collapsed into the arms of his cornermen. He was quickly removed from the ring on a stretcher, and people clapped, and Kovalev's gloves were removed from his hands, and the people looked into their laps, pondered silently the gross possibilities, but mostly shifted unpleasant pondering aside, and shifted their attention to happier material. That's no indictment, we all do it, for if we don't, the gloom can overwhelm.
By all means, as I will, watch the action on Saturday night and clap, and scream, and marvel at the feats of strength and will and technical excellence exhibited by Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev. Enjoy, but please save some space to remember Roman Simakov, and all the people who have given the whole of themselves in those rings, and honor them, and the loved ones left behind.
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