The 13th Round
By Mohummad Humza Elahi: Many great battles are fought inside the ring. Listing off the greatest pugilistic contests is the pastime of all boxing fans; fantasy fights with boxers new and old would be and still are hotly debated. But such bouts end when both fighters are standing either side of a referee and only one hand (in most cases) is raised triumphantly, the glorious reward for lasting longer, fighting harder than the man in the opposite corner.
What connects a man led from his house in Bedfordshire, England is what connects a man who sat in a nursing home in Connecticut, USA until his death. A figure that walked the streets of Philadelphia without shelter for the evening is what connects a figure in a block in Saint Just, Puerto Rico; frail yet still full of fighting spirit. If you can name these four men, then you may take a greater interest in the welfare of fighters after the final bell but if not, it may surprise you somewhat that the names are decorated and beloved in the fight game.
Frank Bruno. Willie Pep. Matthew Saad Muhammad. Wilfred Benitez. These men, along with countless others lit up the ring with their exploits; Bruno was a British champion the people loved. He was personable, a genuine good guy and a world title holder to boot. One of my first boxing memories was staying up until 6am to watch Bruno face Tyson in 1996. And what to say of Willie Pep?
Will o’ the Wisp was a master of the sweet science, slippery and evasive with a Newtonian intellect in the ring. What Saad Muhammad lacked in ring savvy was compensated with remarkable courage, a fighter who flat out refused to be counted out, often on the end of punishing spells where he looked out on his feet before finding a way back to storm to victory. Saad Muhammad provided great entertainment for fight fans everywhere. Wilfred Benitez, much like Pep, was a prodigious talent, with acumen and understanding that rocketed him to the near summit of the sport, only to be halted by two other greats in his era.
A fluid and intuitive boxer, gifted with skilful footwork and effortless reflexes, he’ll forever be ranked amongst the greatest his country has ever produced. Everyone wants to know you when you’re winning; people come to you in the street for pictures, handshakes and autographs. When you’re not, the people pass by and whisper “Isn’t that so and so?” lucky if you even get small acknowledgement.
This article was originally supposed to talk briefly about dementia pugilistica, an officially recognized medical term for boxers (or other athletes) who have suffered too much head trauma in their careers. But when researching further, it was incredible to read stories about fighters who had it all and then lost it with a whimper. Leon Spinks had to clean toilets to make ends meet. Thomas Hearns was reduced to auctioning off not only his boxing robe and personal effects, but batteries, Christmas cards and coffee makers. Let that sink in for a second.
One criticism of boxing is the role to the shifty promoters offering glory and big money to young kids with big dreams. But you have to understand one thing; how many boxers hold college or university degrees? How many even received a secondary (in the UK) or high school (US) education? How many understand basic tax law for the self-employed? Without proper knowledge or guidance, we could see some of the highest paid earners now be destitute in 20 years or less. Thankfully, that tide seems to be turning as more boxers realize that in order to prosper outside the ring after a career, education is vital. Unfortunately, these aspects seem to fly under most people’s radar.
Did you know Juan Manuel Marquez has an accounting degree? These two sides of a troublesome scenario, our four boxers in question suffered from various forms of. This is a vast and complex set of problems, something not easily fixed. In the future, I hope that we can develop a system to offer basic life skills for those who dropped education to pursue a career in the ring and recognize the effects of neurological damage earlier in fighters’ lives (at this point, I’d like to mention that the removal of head guards for men’s amateurs at senior level is a life threatening mistake by AIBA and others) and allow them to pass their lessons onto those younger than them.
I could’ve written at great length on the subject but I’d like to close with these remaining thoughts. As fights fans, true spectators of a brutal sport we should champion boxing and not fighting. Some may see this as a controversial point but we’re all guilty, me included of bloodlust and wanting to see fighters tear each other to pieces. How many times have you watched Gatti vs Ward?
But we need to recognize also that although some are well paid to inflict savagery, the body doesn’t have such a high threshold for continuous pain. Let’s promote the art of the sweet science as true pugilists would’ve liked. Secondly, let’s promote and champion reform from the sharks and shysters to stratified basic pay and educational benefits (easier said than done).
In my opinion, I’m speaking directly to sanctioning bodies that have bent themselves over to the almighty dollar and allowed promoters, in some cases, to get away with legalized murder. Maybe that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile, please check out the following links and support where possible, by either spreading the word or donating. There’s an absolute dearth of organizations out there so we should try and help as best we can in each of our means.