(New York, NY, USA; Magomed Abdusalamov [left] and Mike Perez [right] box during their heavyweight bout at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Perez won via unanimous decision. Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
Heavyweight boxer Magomed Abdusalamov is in an induced coma from which he may never wake up. He was taken to hospital in New York on Saturday night after a bruising heavyweight fight with Mike Perez on HBO, where he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. The New York Post’s George Willis reported Abdusalamov’s prognosis had worsened after he suffered a stroke on Tuesday.
Abdusalamov’s condition has forced boxing fans and writers to take an uncomfortable look at our sport for the second time in as many weeks. On October 22 junior featherweight Frankie Leal died from a brain injury after being knocked out by Raul Hirales in Mexico. Friend of the site Iron Mike Gallego wrote beautifully but painfully on the subject.
But here’s the thing about what happened to Leal: It was preventable. As Gallego points out, Leal had been knocked out four times, had already left the ring on a stretcher once before, and the fight in which he was killed was essentially a protracted beating.
You can’t really say any of those things about Abdusalamov or the fight that put him in a coma.
The Russian had never been knocked out. He finished the bout with Perez with a disfigured face, but apart from the first round, he was never really “hurt” in the boxing sense; being close to losing consciousness. The fight was one sided, but there was not an overwhelming outcry about it until after Abdusalamov was taken to hospital. No moment stood out in which the referee, Benjy Esteves, Jr., or Abdusalamov’s corner should have stopped the fight (at least not by the usual definition of a boxer being unable to defend himself).
The uncomfortable truth is that if Abdusalamov had told his corner he didn’t want to continue on Saturday night, many (but by no means all) would have called him a “quitter.” Going into the bout with 18 knockouts from his 18 fights, he was in many ways a victim of one of boxing’s oldest tropes: “The puncher’s chance.”
Abdusalamov’s life threatening injuries should be even more confronting to boxing fans than Leal’s death: Abdusalamov is not on death’s door because of boxing’s regulatory failings, he’s on death’s door because he boxed.
We’re all hypocrites for watching and then wringing our hands after the fact. Despite what we may say about skill, personality and the triumph of will, we watch boxing because of its brutality, not in spite of it. HBO’s own compulsively watchable “Greatest Hits” segments are all the evidence you need of that.
Abdusalamov fought on a high-rating telecast on boxing’s biggest network in one of the best regulated jurisdictions in America. As arguments for banning the sport go, you don’t get much more convincing.
So if we don’t want to see the sport banned (and if we want to watch with a clean conscience), is there anything boxing fans and media can do to stop young men dying and being incapacitated again and again? I honestly believe there is. We have to wean ourselves off the worst of boxing’s violence, even if it’s what we find attractive. Talk of “early stoppages” needs to become a thing of the past, at least in situations where they’re not obviously corrupt. We in the media need to do our bit to dismantle some of the more macho elements of boxing culture. Springs Toledo has said much the same thing. Our own Tim Starks also had an intelligent, short take. Fighters need to know they don’t betray us by begging out of fights when they get hurt.
Perhaps more importantly, cornermen need to know the same. Abdusalamov repeatedly complained about the damage to his face, which, in hindsight, was almost certainly a sign his corner should have picked up on. Rick Reeno reported that some of his corner wanted to stop the fight. If even one person in the corner wants to stop the fight, then it’s time to throw in the towel.
As much as the regulators hold little direct responsibility for what happened to Abdusalamov, extra training and accountability for cornermen would be welcome. If the resources are available, and I suspect they are in New York and Nevada, cornermen should watch tapes and justify their actions to the commission. Cornermen who repeatedly allow their fighters to suffer beatings should be sanctioned.
This is not self-righteous preaching. I see all the worst elements I’ve been talking about in myself. At the time, I didn’t think the referee or doctor should have stopped the fight. To put it bluntly, I enjoyed the beating that put a man in hospital and may kill him. Last week, more out of a sense of guilt than anything, many of us donated to support Frankie Leal’s family. Let’s all hope there will no appeal necessary for Abdusalamov’s.
On that note, and briefly: I don’t think I’ve read a more spine chilling sentence than “Promoters Leon Margules and Lou DiBella… are establishing a fund to donate and raise funds to help alleviate the financial burden the unfortunate brain injury Abdusalamov suffered Saturday night has placed on him and his family.”
Abdusalamov went to work on Saturday night and he may never return home to his wife and three young children. Even if he does, he may not (and probably should not) ever box again. Forcing him and his family to pay even part of the medical bill would be a gross injustice. While America’s broken healthcare system may be at fault rather than event’s organisers, HBO and the promoters enjoy a far, far bigger share of boxing’s wealth than most fighters — for them to ask for donations borders on offensive. They should step up and pay this man’s medical bill in full.