Boxing Again Finds Itself Under Cloud

June 04, 1995|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

Only a month after he lay unconscious in the ring at USAir Arena, throwing involuntary punches at junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway, Simon Brown has returned to the gym, preparing for his next fight.

"It was the first time I'd been knocked out -- amateur or pro," said Brown, who has won two welterweight titles and a junior-middleweight crown in his 13-year professional career.

"Watching the tape, I wasn't surprised to see myself throwing punches while I was on my back. I swear to God, I'd always told my family and friends, 'If I ever go down, I'll go down fighting.' "

The recent death of Jimmy Garcia of Colombia after his pummeling by super-featherweight champion Gabriel Ruelas, and the lengthy convalescence of former middleweight champion Gerald McClellan, who underwent brain surgery after collapsing following his February fight with England's Nigel Benn, have medical groups seeking to abolish boxing.

"McClellan is making steady improvement," said his former manager-trainer, Emanuel Steward, who visited the fighter in a Milwaukee hospital last week. "But it's going to be a long process."

But none of those incidents -- his own knockout on April 29, the death of Garcia, McClellan's collapse -- has dissuaded Brown from fighting again.

"Naturally, I feel very distressed for Gerald. He's a good friend of mine and a fearsome fighter, and I pray to God for him," said Brown. "But that has not made me entertain thoughts of quitting. I'm not like Sugar Ray Leonard, who kept retiring and coming back.

"If I was getting beat up, I'd probably retire. But with Pettway, I know it was just a case of getting too relaxed. I was winning and got careless. I threw a lazy jab, and he caught me flush on the temple with a terrific hook.

"I never saw the punch coming," Brown said. "If you're fighting hard fights, something bad might happen. But you can't dwell on Before every fight, I just pray I came out the same way I came in the ring."

The terrible risks are known to all fighters. They bury the fear in the recesses of their mind during a brawl, but can talk of their inner dread after making a successful escape.

"Life is a gamble," said Muhammad Ali, now suffering from Parkinson's disease, a nerve disorder. "People die every day in car and plane crashes. Same with fighters. Some die, some get hurt, some go on. You just don't let yourself believe it will happen to you."

Pettway, a Baltimore native who was stopped four times in fights before becoming a champion at 29, said, "Anytime I knock a man down, I hope they don't get up until the referee counts them out.

"At first, I was joyous when I saw Simon wouldn't recover in time, and then I was very concerned for his well-being. Before every fight, I pray for myself as well as my opponent. Basically, it's him or me. But there's no malice involved."

There have been no ring fatalities in Maryland since 1963, when Baltimore heavyweight Ernie Knox died 26 hours after brain surgery at Providence Hospital following his ninth-round knockout by Wayne Bethea at the Coliseum on Monroe Street.

The official weights listed Bethea at 201 pounds and Knox at 178. But when the autopsy report showed Knox's weight as 153 pounds, it prompted a grand jury investigation into possible negligence by the Maryland State Athletic Commission and alleged ties between late boxing promoter Benny Trotta and the Mafia.

The grand jury decided Knox's death "was without criminal act, criminal negligence or malfeasance," but recommended new guidelines to minimize risks in state-run boxing shows.

Thirty-two years later, Knox's trainer-manager, Mack Lewis, is still haunted by Knox's death. Lewis secluded himself in his home for weeks after the tragedy. Only the urging of his amateur and pro fighters brought him back to his Eager Street gym.

Lewis has since trained countless boxers, including Pettway. But Knox is not forgotten.

"Just the other day, I was going through some old clippings and saw Ernie's picture," Lewis said. "It brought back a lot of memories, but I don't like talking about his dying.

"Funny thing, the fight before that we were in Pennsylvania, and Ernie beat the heck out of a guy named 'Slim Jim' Robinson. The referee told me he had to stop it or Ernie might have killed him. And Robinson didn't fight again.

"But there's no hiding the fact that boxing is a vicious sport and only the strong survive.

"You have to teach your fighter he must hurt the other guy before he hurts you. Fighters have to be tough inside. That's why you don't see rich kids in the gym. But if a boy wants to fight, and shows ability, no doctor or anyone else should stop him from doing it."

The American Medical Association has long called for the abolition of boxing. Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has said: "Boxing seems to be less sport than cockfighting. Uncivilized man may have been bloodthirsty. Boxing, as a throwback to uncivilized man, should not be sanctioned by a civilized society."

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