Thoughts On Vernon Forrest And Boxing’s Recent Cycle Of Death [UPDATED]

This is the post I’d written but decided not to run — then I saw that Michael Woods, a writer whose work I admire very much, made some similar points in his own piece on the subject. If he’s put it out there, no reason for me not to put in my own thoughts. He handled it much more deftly than I, so allow me to add my voice to his, clumsily.

Friend-of-the-site Kevin recently expressed surprise that I’d not posted about
the shooting death of Vernon Forrest yet, and that’s fair. I have some
rather limp excuses, but I also have some good ones. Some of them
probably won’t come across as very politically correct. But I’m going
to explain anyhow.

First, I tend not to spend much time in this space on obits. As I’ve mentioned before, I find my writing turn a little awkward when I do it, and I’ve openly pined for anyone who wants to take an obit beat to take it. I offer again: If a fighter dies and you want to pay him tribute, please do — just go to the “community tools” section on the right hand side, write up something and send me an e-mail letting me know you wrote it, then I’ll make sure it goes up on the main TQBR site as well as in the general “boxing community” at MVN. If that’s too complicated, just e-mail me a write-up.

Usually, when a boxer dies I’ll mention it in the “Quick Jabs” column or in a Twitter post, as I did last week for Marco Nazareth and this week for Forrest, respectively. But I broke my habit recently when Arturo Gatti and Alexis Arguello died. I broke my habit because both fighters meant a great deal to me personally. They are two of my all-time favorites and I wanted to pay them respects. But I kind of opened myself up to having to do it every time a boxer dies, and that puts me in a difficult spot, because how does one pick and choose whose life is worth commemorating here and whose isn’t? There are no fewer than seven boxing figures who died this week. Who gets the full treatment or even a mention?

When the news of Forrest’s broke Sunday, I didn’t even really have time
to contemplate writing an obit, because I had plans from around noon to
midnight. Forrest undoubtedly lived a life worth commemorating. He was a charitable man, a genuine do-gooder, whereas Arguello was more a “good guy” because of what a gentleman and sportsman he was and Gatti was a “good guy” because he cared so much about his fans, which is not to say they didn’t both have charitable streaks. It’s just that, for Forrest, charity was part of his identity. It drove him, occupied him, the way it does few boxers. And he was undoubtedly a good boxer. He beat Shane Mosley at the peak of his powers. He was voted the 2002 Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America. He was a pound-for-pound entrant around then, maybe the #1 man in the sport. He was an Olympian. More recently, he’d spent some time as the #1 junior middleweight in the sport.

Candidly, though, I had no particular affection for Forrest as a boxer. I’ve spent more time criticizing his actions in the ring in recent years than I have praising them. I say this only by way of explanation as to why I didn’t have much to say about him. I didn’t like the way he went out of his way to avoid Sergio Martinez, who, it must be said, was extremely classy in praising Forrest after his death despite the hostility between the two men. I’m not dismissing Forrest as a fighter here — I wanted to see him against Martinez, against Paul Williams, against Kelly Pavlik, because I knew he’d make for interesting fights against them. It makes me feel even more awkward to admit that Forrest didn’t rise to the level of “meant a great deal to me,” but it is what it is.

I think the boxing story here, the broader arc, is that in the last month, the sport has lost three top pugilists, and that’s sad. One thing I do weigh on with regularity is the broader boxing storyline of the moment. And it is here where I have to be delicate, and where maybe I’d have been better off not speaking at all. In all of these recent instances, I’ve taken a “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” to these recent deaths but aspects of them have gnawed at me.

Boxing is a sport that can be such a wonderful mechanism for someone with demons, for someone with few opportunities, to simultaneously find discipline and catapult himself into riches. And for a while, at least, it seems to work. But I get the impression that for some — if not most — boxers, the demons are never vanquished. They’re just hibernating. And when a boxer gets to the highest level, or after his boxing days are over, all the stress springs them from their slumber.

I am not “blaming the victim” with what I’m about to say. The men who shot Forrest were burglars who are to blame for what happened to Forrest. They shot him. They are murderers. But I can’t ignore the fact that if Forrest had just let them go with his wallet, he’d still be alive today. It is his prerogative whether he wants to risk his life in that fashion. But I don’t think, as William Dettloff* said (in a piece I can no longer find online), that Forrest “died like a man.” I’m not sure what that means these days, but to me, opening fire on someone who stole your wallet and was in the process of getting away — while your 11-year-old godson is with you — isn’t the most responsible course of action. And I associate being a man with being responsible.

We still don’t know what happened to Gatti. There is some evidence that he committed suicide, and there is some evidence that his wife killed him. If it is that latter, I must again say that I am not blaming the victim here, either. If his wife killed Gatti, she is a murderer. Nothing that Gatti has reportedly done justifies that. But there are eyewitnesses who saw Gatti and his wife in a physical confrontation earlier that evening. There was a domestic violence charge filed earlier in their relationship, later dropped. We can’t pretend there isn’t a connection here, if Gatti’s wife is the culprit.

Nor is there any clarity on the subject of what happened to Arguello. Was it suicide? Was it murder by some political opponent? The latter is the one where, of the three, Arguello’s actions had no effect similar to Gatti’s or Arguello’s on what came; if Arguello’s political opponents didn’t like him, there’s no reasonable expectation that he should be met with physical violence in return — or, if they disliked him because of a principled stance that he was aware could result in violence upon his person, it is his duty as an elected official to take that stand anyway. Forrest’s stand was maybe in defense of some principle, but I find it less commendable because he wasn’t trying to help anyone the way a politician sometimes puts others before himself and risks his life in so doing.

What we have with these three men is one for-sure murder, and two possible murders or two possible suicides or some split. It’s hard to determine what the pattern is without knowing all the facts. But with all of the combinations except one involving Arguello’s political opponents, something these three did contributed to their own demise in a way which is not praiseworthy.

We’re all flawed. We all make bad decisions, and that doesn’t necessarily make us bad people. Maybe some day I’ll make a bad decision that contributes to my own death. If so, and there’s an afterlife (one can of worms after the other in this post), I won’t expect anyone not to have a problem with it.

I think what I’m trying to say more broadly is that everyone, especially of late, boxers, need to realize there are consequences for their actions. Those consequences include not only the risk to one’s own life, but what the loss of that life means to one’s families. There will always be fluke deaths for boxers out there, things that can’t be avoided no matter what they do. But with this latest cycle, we would be far better off going forward if everyone recognizes that what they do may not be to blame, but may be a contributing cause, for a later effect.

*UPDATE: So Mr. Detloff dropped me a line to clarify some things, including a remark I made in the comments section, and here’s what he said. I pass along his remarks unedited:

Hello Tim. Someone sent me a link to your recent column and while I have no problem with you disagreeing about what it means to die like a man (even if your quote fails to include the context), I didn’t write that mouthpieces should be abolished. I wrote that the “mouthpiece rule” should be abolished, meaning the one that mandates that a referee stop the action when a fighter loses his mouthpiece.
BTW, here’s the piece: 
Bill —

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.