Watching a man die isn’t as difficult as you’d imagine.
Show up to the arena a little late — before the big fights start, but after the clubbers have taken their clumsy swings. Climb into the rafters and putter around the empty rows in search of a suitable view. Fall into your seat and scan the lower bowl, pockmarked with the like-minded, who’ve wandered in unfashionably early. Lift your eyes, if only just so, for the aftermath of the first knockdown — which stuns but doesn’t stop the downed fighter. Tilt your head as the second knockdown, coming on a clean right hand, widens the scoring margin, yet only stokes both fighters. The fight, not close on the scorecards, is at least competitive. Efforts are respected, emerging skills are appreciated. Call it The Theater of the Expected. You’ve seen this movie a thousand times over. A main event awaits, and later, a long drive home. The mind wanders. You glance at your phone. Tomorrow’s obligations tug at your attention. Time and life march on.
Then, in the 10th, Patrick Day falls. And he is still.
Watching a man die is even harder than you’d imagine.
Beyond family and friends, most of us didn’t know Patrick Day. Twenty-seven years old. A more-than-capable amateur. Rose from beginnings that were, as far as boxers go, decidedly unhumble. He had been afforded opportunities others in his profession had not, then chosen the brambled path anyway. Take from that what you will. Day had compiled a record of 17-4-1 as a pro, having fought mostly no-hopers, before he met Charles Conwell in the ring — but the circumstances hardly matter. Or, if they do, they’re just more grist for the mill: Boxing is blood, fear, longing, sweat, and dread. It is lifetimes of the loneliest heartbreak and a cafeteria line of shit sandwiches as far as the eye can see. Boxing selects its prey. Day walked willingly into the fucking lair.
I’m not smart enough to know exactly what that says about him. I just know it has to count for something.
Watching a man die is unimaginable.
I have wanted to write about Day since I watched him leave Chicago’s Wintrust Arena on a stretcher, surrounded by EMTs and nervous energy, followed by seconds, minutes, hours of radio silence — no definitive notice of his condition. Day is currently being monitored at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, but he is conscious and speaking to visitors. That’s the news we waited for inside the arena, on the other end of the broadcast feed — the only acceptable update. Anything else was a rattling lid on a pot bubbling with anguish and stupefying guilt.
I have wanted to write about Patrick Day since October 12, when Conwell landed the left hand that sent his opponent to the canvas for the last time. I’ve wanted to write about Day since October 16, when, succumbing to the brain trauma he suffered in the fight, Day died. I have wanted – or even more grippingly, felt an obligation — to write about Day in the weeks since. I have avoided it — even blew a deadline — because I wanted desperately what I wrote to be about Day, not about me. His family’s pain doesn’t belong to me. His death wasn’t mine. I just happened to be in the goddamn room.
And yet here we are.
I was in the room. So, too, were thousands of others. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more watched at home. While Day — all but unknown to us when he stepped into the ring — slowly faded in a hospital room, millions hung on the news of his status. Fame, like boxing itself, can be as unfeeling and gruesome as a meat grinder.
I’m not the reason Day is gone, and neither are you. Conwell, who took the same risks as his opponent, is no more to blame than Day himself. The sport’s safety protocols? Let’s try to be the adults in the room. Water will always be wet.
Strangers, me among them, mourn Day, as is customary when a person his age dies. He will, in fact, be missed. But after all the RIPs, it’s impossible to thoughts-and-prayers our way around a few grim facts: We wouldn’t know Day if not for boxing. And if not for boxing, Day would still be with us.
Whether or not, in this case, we’re conflating grief for a sort of sinister indifference, we at least owe Day the courtesy of saying what shouldn’t be left unsaid: Boxing isn’t going anywhere, and neither are we.