They have never met and they do not know each other except, perhaps, by reputation. Hopefully, a meeting can be arranged on May 11 in New York City, when Dr. Margaret Goodman and Daniel Franco, the former a relentless crusader for increased safety in boxing and the latter an example of what can happen when safeguards prove inadequate, are honored at the 93rd annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner.
It stands to reason that Dr. Goodman, who will receive the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing, and Franco, a promising featherweight who came perilously close to losing his life in the ring and will receive the Bill Crawford Award for Courage in Overcoming Adversity, would have much to discuss. They are opposite sides of the same coin, a reminder of all that already has been done to reduce the risk factor for fighters and, at the same time, all that has yet to be accomplished.
“I have a tendency to be idealistic,” said Dr. Goodman, a Las Vegas neurologist who is the former chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the co-founder of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). “I do think things have changed a lot. Have they changed enough? No. But if you don’t work on trying to change what needs to be changed, nothing will ever get done. All you can do then is throw your hands up in the air and say, `Well, I guess that’s just the way it is,’ and that doesn’t help anybody.
“These boxers’ lives are too important to not try to do the right thing.”
The Crawford Award, first presented by the BWAA in 2009, is named for a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and former Colorado Golden Gloves boxer who dreamed of becoming a professional world champion. The modest Crawford, an Army veteran who seldom spoke of his remarkable military service during World War II, was 81 when he died in his hometown of Palmer Lake, Colo., in 2000. His story should always serve as a reminder of the valor that can elevate an individual to heroic heights under trying circumstances, be it on a roped-off swatch of canvas or on the battlefield.
Crawford was awarded his Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry for his actions during heavy fighting in September 1943 near Altavilla, Italy. On three separate occasions, and on his own initiative, he raced through intense enemy fire to detonate hand grenades on enemy gun sites. Captured by the Germans during the same engagement for which he earned his Medal of Honor, he was listed as “presumed dead.” His father accepted the CMH in his son’s stead in 1945. Later that year Crawford was among a group of soldiers rescued from German control. He remained in the Army and retired in 1967 as a master sergeant, later serving as a custodian at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
“I was just glad I was able to do my part,” Crawford once said in an interview. “I just figured it was a normal call to duty.”
Dr. Goodman responded in a similar manner when she felt that some of the powers-that-be in boxing were dragging their feet on proposed safety initiatives she was championing. She and another former chief ringside physician for the NSAC, Flip Homansky, founded VADA in response to the increasing specter of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s one thing for a juiced-up baseball player to hit more home runs as the result of cheating, quite another when a fighter seeking to gain an edge does so by artificially inflating his power quotient.
In 2006, Goodman and Homansky were two of the four recipients of the BWAA’s James A. Farley Award for Honesty and Integrity in Boxing, the others being Angelo Dundee and Howie Albert. Not everyone applauded their recognition, however.
“Boxing is a sport that’s very resistant to change,” she said. “Obviously, you don’t want to change just for the sake of change. You want change for the better. By the time a fighter’s medicals decline, it’s usually too late. That’s what the NFL and other contact sports are dealing with.”
What scant knowledge Franco had of VADA was the result of the WBC’s Clean Boxing Initiative, in which that world sanctioning body – which also mandated stricter safety measures apart from drug-testing – partnered with Dr. Goodman’s organization in September 2015 to ensure that the spreading plague of PEDs be dramatically slowed with the aim of eliminating it entirely. Several high-visibility bouts were cancelled or postponed when one of the announced fighters tested positive, drawing the ire of promoters and even some fans, but the nature of the beast is that creative cheaters keep finding masking agents to beat the system.
“VADA at least shined a light on how we need to evaluate fighters,” Dr. Goodman said. “We’ve been a loud voice that has not gone away.”
That voice was further amplified when Arkansas allowed an HIV-positive fighter to proceed with a scheduled bout, which Dr. Goodman said was “an affront to everything a fighter represents and the courage that they have to step into the ring.” Her outrage was reminiscent of what she felt upon learning of the eventual fatal injuries suffered by former WBA heavyweight champion Greg Page during a March 9, 2001, bout in Erlanger, Ky., that was staged with woefully inadequate medical supervision. In suffering a 10th-round knockout loss to Dale Crowe, the well-faded Page, who was paid just $1,500, was not administered oxygen and had to wait over a half-hour before an ambulance arrived on the scene. He succumbed to his injuries on April 27, 2009, at his home in Louisville, Ky.
All of the noise attendant to Dr. Goodman’s efforts to expose the rules-skirters meant little or nothing when Franco stepped inside the ropes for a scheduled 10-rounder with Jose Haro for the vacant USBA featherweight title on June 10, 2017, at the WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan, Iowa. The then-25-year-old Franco was fit, favored (by 3-2) and seemingly fast-tracked for future stardom. He had the backing of rap superstar Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, the fight was to be nationally televised by the CBS Sports Network, and a victory would inch him that much higher on the pecking order of 126-pounders with a chance to break through to the next level.
But what happened – Haro winning on a vicious eighth-round TKO, necessitating Franco’s being removed from the ring on a stretcher and being rushed to a nearby hospital where he underwent emergency brain surgery – again illustrated the danger zone every fighter potentially enters whenever he squares off against even a clean opponent. There was no fault to be ascribed to anyone; not to referee Celestino Ruiz, who saw that Franco was fighting back despite his falling increasingly further behind on points, and not to Haro, who also was giving his all in the hope that he could give his own career a boost by upsetting a hot growth property like Franco.
“I always knew boxing was a dangerous sport,” Franco said months after he underwent two brain bleeds, four surgeries and a 10-day induced coma in a successful effort to save his life, if not his career, and has been forced to wear a helmet as he goes about his everyday activities to facilitate the healing process. “I know that people can die in boxing. I knew that, but I didn’t think it would even be this close to happening to me because I was really good.”
Perhaps the day will come when boxing – the sports world’s ultimate one-on-one confrontation – will reach a point where the excitement remains, but the warning signs are more readily spotted and steps are taken to prevent another fighter from becoming the next Greg Page or Daniel Franco.
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