Even in cruel sport of boxing, Johnson's death hits hard

Commentary

September 27, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

The nervous feeling crept in during the eighth round, maybe the ninth.

He couldn't win, couldn't keep the tireless man in front of him from pounding his ribs and the sides of his head. But Leavander Johnson wouldn't go down.

He's a tough, old veteran, I thought at first. But then it occurred to me that I might be watching a man get beaten to death for the first time in my life.

I was relieved when referee Tony Weeks stopped Jesus Chavez from hitting Johnson in the 11th round of their lightweight title fight 10 days ago. The deposed champion walked around the ring and seemed to speak coherently. He congratulated his conqueror and headed for the aisle, clearing the way for the bigger names to come on the pay-per-view telecast.

But, moments later, the news came that Johnson had collapsed on the way to his dressing room and was headed to a Las Vegas hospital for brain surgery. Updates arrived throughout the ensuing fights but clarified nothing. He lay in a drug-induced coma, somewhere between life and death.

When I awoke, I walked straight to the computer, seeking news on a fighter I had never watched before the previous night. There wasn't much, and there wouldn't be for days. He seemed to rally a little, but other fighters had hung on for a week or two before the end.

When I heard Johnson had died Thursday night, my heart sank into a guilty pool, and I asked myself questions familiar to generations of boxing fans and writers.

If you pay to watch men beat each other on a Saturday night and one of them dies, are your hands splattered with blood? Are you part of a culture that tells poor people and immigrants that they can strike it rich by tearing each other apart for your pleasure?

I don't think that, at least not most of the time. I accept the boxers' view that they're skilled craftsmen who are willing to assume great risk for great reward.

But on Thursday, I wondered.

I thought back to the fight of this year, Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo. As those lightweights, both possessed of frightful skill and will, hammered away, I turned to a friend and said, "These guys would rather die than lose."

A basketball or football fan might say the same thing but wouldn't mean it literally. That fight was the most compelling sporting event I've seen this year, because it featured great athletes dancing above a pit of real, mortal danger. That's scary.

Such thoughts sent me to my shelf of boxing books to see what others had written about previous fatalities. For writers who examine the nature of fights and fighters, watching a boxer die from ring injuries is almost a rite of passage.

The script is often remarkably similar. An aging or outgunned fighter mounts a gallant challenge. He loses most rounds but looks competitive for half the fight. His resistance wanes, but he remains standing. His opponent isn't quite powerful or sharp enough to end it with a single blow, so the clubbing continues minute after minute as the referee and corner look for the sign that enough is enough. Somehow - not intentionally - they wait a moment too long.

A national audience saw it when Emile Griffith rained 17 unanswered blows on Benny Paret in a 1962 fight that caused boxing to be removed from television for years and inspired the moving documentary Ring of Fire.

Sports Illustrated's Ralph Wiley saw it when Ray Mancini, a conscientious Christian from the Midwest, landed killing blows on South Korean Duk Koo Kim.

"After November 1982," Wiley wrote, "it was quite hard for me to remain cynical about prize fights, as a journalist is usually cynical. I could not laugh off Kim and Mancini, completely separate myself from them. I had seen Kim's eyes dilate."

British journalist Donald McRae saw it when fearsome puncher Gerald McClellan showed too much courage and was pounded into a blind, deaf oblivion that he'd survive but from which he'd never recover.

McRae saw it again when veteran junior lightweight Gabriel Ruelas overwhelmed contender Jimmy Garcia in 1995.

In his book Dark Trade, McRae wrote of Ruelas' guilt and his visit to the young Colombian's family. Chavez, one of the many decent people in boxing, would pay a similar visit to Johnson's family. This reinforced for me a passage in McRae's book.

"My affection for fighters was enhanced by the reaction of those within the trade to their latest calamity," he wrote. "The most sympathetic and considered voices were not those who urged that boxers should be `protected from themselves' or who called for a civilized society's banning of a barbaric sport; rather, at least to my ears, the most tender were invariably other fighters."

Another Briton, Hugh McIlvanney, saw it when a countryman he had been following, Johnny Owen, died after a 1980 bantamweight bout.

That prompted McIlvanney to write a wise summation of a sport some call barbaric and others call beautiful: "Quite a few of us who have been involved with it most of our lives share the doubts. But our reactions are bound to be complicated by the knowledge that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. ... It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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