The Moral Dilemma of Loving Boxing

Let me first say that I love boxing. I grew up at a time when Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most well-known person in the world and coincidentally, my personal hero. Jim Lampley has called boxing “the most emotionally accessible sport”, and he’s right. What could be more immediate than two fighters putting everything at risk in a small ring that offers no escape other than a 60 second reprieve every three minutes? When two boxers face off against one another, there is no one to help them. Oh sure, they do get some advice between rounds, but when they get off their stools, they are all alone against another fighter whose job is to punch them in the face as hard as possible. The risk to their health and their lives is enormous. And therein lies the rub.

The cliché of the broken down fighter exists for the same reason most clichés do. Because they are true. Too many boxers fight for too long. If you ever want to break your own heart, listen to post fight interviews of boxers early on in their careers and then again towards the end of their pugilistic lives. Watch them reach for words that used to be at the ready. Lean in and focus your ear in an effort to make their words more intelligible to you. Typically, things do not improve for them as the years go on. Most fighters don’t come from well-heeled backgrounds. Part of what makes one gravitate towards boxing is a lack of other options. And for many, boxing is indeed a way out. This should not go unsaid. However, if one is lucky enough to make their fortune in the sport, they are often not well-equipped to retain it. As well, those that never make sizable bank from the endeavor are hardly set up to transition into a straight job. Most professional fighters with long careers are likely to leave the sport diminished both physically and mentally, despite only being in their middle ages.

The uncertainty that awaits them post boxing is nothing less than intimidating. It’s easy to focus on former fighters like Oscar de la Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard who have turned their success in the ring into opportunity outside of it. They are the ones you still see. Far too many fade into obscurity and poverty. Even Joe Frazier lived out his final days in a small room in the dilapidated boxing gym he owned and operated. He would still probably qualify as being on the luckier side of the ledger compared to most.

It’s not like the alphabet soup of boxing organizations are looking out for the fighters once they have crossed over the hill. How many times have you seen or heard of a boxer being cleared to take the ring when they are so obviously impaired? What kind of post career training and advice do any of the boxing councils offer those that allow their very associations to exist? Where is their retirement plan? Their pension?

The WBC was the first of the various major boxing organizations to offer a pension plan. That finally happened in 2012, just two short years ago. The California State Athletic Commission also has a pension. However, they do such a poor job of locating former fighters that far too often, benefits never get paid out. A scathing 80 page audit released by the California Attorney General earlier this year found that the Commission failed to pay out a single dollar in benefits in 2002-2003 and 2008-2009. Perhaps more shockingly, not one examination of a boxer was paid for by the Commission’s neurological fund since 1998. So many have been left behind. Do we not owe fighters more than this?

Let’s face it, the people making the most money off of the sport are usually not the ones taking the punches. Don King may be the most flamboyant huckster in the fight game, but he’s hardly the only one getting rich off the sweat and blood of someone else’s labor. The history of boxing is littered with corrupt, shadowy figures who pull the levers and reap the rewards while the fighters who produce that wealth are left with futures full of uncertainty. I would argue little has changed.

There is perhaps only one other major sport that treats their athletes so poorly. I was born in Kentucky, and horse racing is in my blood. I have a great fondness for it as well. There can be no doubt though that it is also a sport run by scoundrels who take advantage of their athletes with impunity. Of course, boxers are adults who choose to take on the physical danger of their profession, but there is a parallel here. Many horses and fighters are essentially—if not literally—put out to pasture when their careers are done. In some cases what happens next is far more painful than the basic idea of retirement and the end of a career. A horse may need only modest mental faculty to live out the remainder of its days, whereas a person needs much more. Every time I see a documentary with old fighters looking back on their greatest fights, I am filled with fascination over their remembrances, but often sadness over their inability to express them. Great fighters like Joe Frazier, Meldrick Taylor, and of course, Muhammad Ali, often need to have subtitles put beneath their faces so we can understand their words. It is a tremendous price to pay, and one that fills me with complicated emotions.

How do I square my love of boxing with the all too often heartbreaking results of that profession? Well, I can make an argument about the beauty of the sport–and there is so much beauty in the hand speed of Manny Pacquiao, the footwork of Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the pure grace of Muhammad Ali. All of that is true. But there is a greater truth at play here. My most honest justification for my love of horse racing is a primal one. I simply love to watch them run. And when I plumb the depths of my heart and mind in search of the justification and the source of my zeal for the sweet science of boxing, I reach a similar conclusion. God help me, I love to watch them fight.

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COMMENTS

-yomi :

Very good read. I drifted away from Boxing in the 90s after a series of tragic endings to fights that I felt "close to": Benn-McClellan (I was there that night), Bradley Stone (prospect from my side of London who died two days after his first British title fight) Spencer Oliver (blood clot on brain after European title fight. I trained at his gym for a while, we even sparred together a few times.) But I came back because, in spite of the moral dilemma, Boxing still makes a lot of sense (especially in the inner cities), and also because "I love to watch them fight too".


-Froggy :

I have no moral dilemma about watching the sport I love to watch ! If I was making money off the boxers blood and sweat and I was not doing something to help them when they could not continue to make me money, then I would not be able to sleep at night ! Two of my favorite boxers are in bad shape, Benitez is in terrible shape, Ali is in physically bad shape but at least his brain is fine and he said sometime ago he has no regrets about being a boxer ! It's about time they are doing smething about a pension and the people in California should go to jail !


-sumopop :

Thanks, Yomi. This is David Phillips, the author of the piece. I appreciate it.


-The Commish :

Yes, it was an excellent piece, serving as a reminder how much the sport we love has to be regulated. There is never a time I watch a fight where I don't think about the inherent and obvious risks. Far too many of the boxers who fought pre-2000 are already slurring their words. I cringe when I hear them and as I listen to them. Yet, for many of them, I was ringside when they fought. I even gave them their license to box. I sanctioned them to box. And I loved every moment of their fights. Yet, I knew what fate awaited them. This is boxing. This is our sport. We each accept our inevitable fate. We live for the moment. I pray for every fighter I have ever watched and rooted for. I pray for every fighter I will watch down the road and will root for. Ring the bell. I'm ready to watch my next boxing match, always with a silent prayer for the warrior that I am rooting for. -Randy G.


-Kid Blast :

Boxing is like a plane crash. Every time one happens, we try to learn so that it doesn't happen again. The Greg Page tragedy was the best example of this. But if all the necessary precautions are in place--Ambulance, ringside doctors, competent official's, etc and then a tragedy still occurs (such as in the Levander Johnson fatality), I submit we either accept it as a part of boxing culture or leave the sport entirely. Can't have it both ways. The Mago affair is one where things were not in place and that one is a real test of the morality issues associated with boxing. Nice article David.


-Kid Blast :

One guy I know condemned boxing on moral grounds and then kept writing about it. For me, that's just plain wrong. He never talked to me again after I pointed this out. Too fragile I reckon.


-The Commish :

One guy I know condemned boxing on moral grounds and then kept writing about it. For me, that's just plain wrong. He never talked to me again after I pointed this out. Too fragile I reckon.
Was that guy a high-profile journalist? I can't believe he was so morally against it, then went ahead, watched it and wrote about it. He never spoke to you again for even mentioning it? His loss! -Randy G.


-DaveB :

If you ever find the answer, please let me know. I've struggled with this in the past. I'm always saddened by tragedies in the ring and how people within the sport itself treat one another. However I've been attracted to boxing since I was seven years old. I always try to think how things could have been avoided. Like when I saw Cooney gave Norton about three extra blows that shouldn't have occurred. Thank God nothing came of that. But I also remember this young, Welsh I think, boy getting killed years ago in the ring. There was nothing I would have done differently. Damn that really bothered me. Tragedies, God I wish they never happened, the aftermath for many after a career in boxing I wish didn't happen, that is the bad side of boxing. But gosh what excitement boxing gives. It is like nothing else in sports and that is why I continue to be attracted to it. If it were abolished though I would understand.


-sumopop :

Great comment, DaveB. Said as much as I did with far fewer words. Thanks to Kid Blast for the other nice comment as well.--David Phillips.


-The Commish :

If you ever find the answer, please let me know. I've struggled with this in the past. I'm always saddened by tragedies in the ring and how people within the sport itself treat one another. However I've been attracted to boxing since I was seven years old. I always try to think how things could have been avoided. Like when I saw Cooney gave Norton about three extra blows that shouldn't have occurred. Thank God nothing came of that. But I also remember this young, Welsh I think, boy getting killed years ago in the ring. There was nothing I would have done differently. Damn that really bothered me. Tragedies, God I wish they never happened, the aftermath for many after a career in boxing I wish didn't happen, that is the bad side of boxing. But gosh what excitement boxing gives. It is like nothing else in sports and that is why I continue to be attracted to it. If it were abolished though I would understand.
Cooney and I have talked extensively about that night. Cooney was a ruthless, relentless finisher. If he hurt an opponent, he'd always step on the gas. He had a sadistic side to him that would make him want to put more and more hurt on his opponent. His trainer, Victor Valle, used to go wild on Cooney in the gym if he ever let up on a sparring partner, even a little. "Finish him!" Valle would yell when Cooney staggered a hapless sparring partner. "What are you waiting for?" I saw more than one gym session where Cooney left his sparring partner draped on the ropes. The sustained beating and pummelling of Ken Norton was not Cooney's fault. Professional boxing matches have trained referees. They are the ones who are supposed to stop a match at the right time. Not too early, not too late. The right time. Referee Tony Perez was in there a few punches too late. He did that in other fights he officiated at, not just in Cooney Norton. Michael Spinks v Mustafa Wassaja was one of them. Ray Mercer v Tommy Morrison was another. Yes, Cooney v Norton was a scary sight. All of us thought Norton was going to get killed as Cooney hammered him with blow after blow. I enjoyed watching it. But I hope I never see another one like it. -Randy G.


-DaveB :

Cooney and I have talked extensively about that night. Cooney was a ruthless, relentless finisher. If he hurt an opponent, he'd always step on the gas. He had a sadistic side to him that would make him want to put more and more hurt on his opponent. His trainer, Victor Valle, used to go wild on Cooney in the gym if he ever let up on a sparring partner, even a little. "Finish him!" Valle would yell when Cooney staggered a hapless sparring partner. "What are you waiting for?" I saw more than one gym session where Cooney left his sparring partner draped on the ropes. The sustained beating and pummelling of Ken Norton was not Cooney's fault. Professional boxing matches have trained referees. They are the ones who are supposed to stop a match at the right time. Not too early, not too late. The right time. Referee Tony Perez was in there a few punches too late. He did that in other fights he officiated at, not just in Cooney Norton. Michael Spinks v Mustafa Wassaja was one of them. Ray Mercer v Tommy Morrison was another. Yes, Cooney v Norton was a scary sight. All of us thought Norton was going to get killed as Cooney hammered him with blow after blow. I enjoyed watching it. But I hope I never see another one like it. -Randy G.
Absolutely it was the ref's fault. I'm not blaming Cooney. Fighters are trained to get people out of there. I didn't like Perez as a ref. It is funny that Norton said it but he said Why should I let the other guy off the hook? He wouldn't let me off the hook. Norton in turn drilled Bobick. That is what fighters do with the exception of Ali, who would call the referee in and astonishingly usually the ref would call the fight. That is what I meant when I was talking about the Welsh kid, there was nothing else I would have done differently. The Cooney/Norton fight comes to mind because Norton was a sitting duck and could have been fatally injured. Good Lord Cooney can punch.


-yomi :

Cooney and I have talked extensively about that night. Cooney was a ruthless, relentless finisher. If he hurt an opponent, he'd always step on the gas. He had a sadistic side to him that would make him want to put more and more hurt on his opponent. His trainer, Victor Valle, used to go wild on Cooney in the gym if he ever let up on a sparring partner, even a little. "Finish him!" Valle would yell when Cooney staggered a hapless sparring partner. "What are you waiting for?" I saw more than one gym session where Cooney left his sparring partner draped on the ropes. The sustained beating and pummelling of Ken Norton was not Cooney's fault. Professional boxing matches have trained referees. They are the ones who are supposed to stop a match at the right time. Not too early, not too late. The right time. Referee Tony Perez was in there a few punches too late. He did that in other fights he officiated at, not just in Cooney Norton. Michael Spinks v Mustafa Wassaja was one of them. Ray Mercer v Tommy Morrison was another. Yes, Cooney v Norton was a scary sight. All of us thought Norton was going to get killed as Cooney hammered him with blow after blow. I enjoyed watching it. But I hope I never see another one like it. -Randy G.
Now that shed's a lot of light! Cooney-Norton, and Mercer-Morrison had the same ref! I never knew this, but it makes all the sense in the world. He was late for Cooney-Norton, but for Mercer-Morrison he was... absurd. That was a terrifying moment. What happened to Perez after Mercer-Morrison? @DaveB: was the welsh kid Johnny Owen (v Lupe Pintor)?


-spit bucket :

But I also remember this young, Welsh I think, boy getting killed years ago in the ring.
He was the "Merthyr Matchstick", Johnny Owen. And he died after a bout with Lupe Pintor at the Olympic in LA. I was horrified when fans started pelting the unconscious Owen with beers and trash. I'd seen this behavior before after a Bazooka Limon fight. Everyone at ringside had large plastic tarps draped around their shoulders. I couldn't figure out why until beers started flying into the ring from every direction and the savvy ringsiders held the plastic sheeting over their heads like umbrellas... and that was after a Limon win! When Hagler won the mw title by KO against Alan Minter, British fans retaliated by throwing beers and trash at him and his handlers. His team surrounded Hagler to protect him from the flying debris. Two ugly nights to forget.


-DaveB :

I forgot to mention how much I liked the article and the writing. Yes, Perez was a ref I never liked. The Morrison/Mercer fight was horrendous too. Perez also officiated Ali/Frazier 2. I remember Ali being angry with him because he felt he could have gotten the knock out over Frazier in the second round when he had him wobbled if Perez hadn't stopped the action for no reason. And Frazier was upset with him also because he let Ali hold excessively. That was the first time I ever saw both fighters being angry with the ref. I also think Perez sued Ali because Ali made some statements about Perez's officiating. Yes it was Johnny Owen dying that upset me for a long, long time. And I remember Hagler being covered with a blanket or tarp as the crowd pelleted the ring with bottles. I remember reading an article about when Primo Canera killed Ernie Schaaf. It stated that after Carena hit him the crowd booed, threw and hit Schaaf with garbage as he lied there. They didn't think he had got hit hard enough and wanted him to get back up so he could get hit again. Ernie Schaaf didn't hear them. He was too busy dying.