By John Wight: The tragedies which have befallen boxing over the past year or so would make even the coldest heart weep and the most ardent advocate of the sport begin to question its legitimacy.
First Alexis Arguello, the Nicaraguan legend who graced the ring in the late seventies and early eighties, took his own life last summer whilst in the grip of substance abuse and depression. Shortly after that tragedy another arrived when Atruri Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil, where he’d been vacationing with his wife, similarly a man who’d been suffering substance abuse problems. Then Vernon Forrest was murdered in Houston during an attempted carjacking during the same period, breathing truth into the old saw that bad luck always comes in threes..
The death of young Irish fighter, Darren Sutherland, later that year, again as a result of suicide, merely seemed to add more weight to the arguments of those of the view that boxing damages its practitioners beyond redemption.
Sadly, and most recently, news of the death of the Venezuelan WBC lightweight champion, Edwin Valero, yet again focuses unwanted attention on a sport that transcends human reason and often times the limits of physical, emotional and mental endurance.
If the facts surrounding this latest tragedy are to be believed, Valero, known to his countrymen and fans as El Dinamita after amassing a 27-fight unbeaten record in which every victory had come by way of knockout, first killed his wife in a hotel room, admitted responsibility for her death to hotel security and to the police when they came to arrest him, and then hours later hanged himself in the police cell in which he was being held.
Emerging in the days following news of the Venezuelan’s death was a history of domestic violence, dysfunction and brain damage as a result of a motorcycle accident nine years previously. Inevitably, the old arguments on the morality of a sport in which two men meet in the middle of a roped off ring to trade blows have also resurfaced, with renewed calls for the sport to be banned on the basis that it constitutes one of the few remaining vestiges of humanity’s brutal and barbaric past.
Even for advocates of boxing’s positive aspects – the way it takes young people off the street, instils discipline, self esteem, respect for others, etc. – an acknowledgment that it is so unlike any other sport as to stand alone must constitute the starting point of any debate over its place in society.
Walk into any boxing establishment from London to Los Angeles, from Manchester to Manila, and you encounter a similar story of poverty, dysfunction and the accumulated anger which comes as a by-product in the backgrounds of those you’ll find punishing themselves in an effort to achieve success in the ring and, with it, the promise of material and spiritual salvation.
To witness a fighter in hard training is to witness a human being in the throes of self flagellation. On a certain level it involves young men attempting to expiate the anger of being born into lives short on love and in many cases long on abuse, not necessarily at the hands of parents, but always at the hands of society as a result of poverty. And this is the part which those smug voices of quick condemnation could never begin to even fathom, much less comprehend. For the truth is that boxing neither glorifies nor encourages violence, much less the kind of despair which lies the root of the litany of human tragedy visited on the sport over the past year. Instead, boxing provides sanctuary and hope for the victims of society’s ills, with its redemptive qualities measured in the number of young men saved from a fate of substance abuse, domestic violence and premature death, and not the other w ay round.
Inevitably, however, there are those who will fall through the net into the pit of despair which boxing hitherto helped them avoid. Boxers still need to function outside the rarefied confines of the gym and the ring. Upon retirement they need to find something to fill the vacuum of inactivity and lack of purpose left by the absence of a high octane existence of excitement, challenge, glory and fame. They need to be able to forge and maintain healthy relationships, deal with all of the shit we all have to deal with in our daily lives.
Here, in the space between athletic endeavour and reality, is where the sport needs to take stock. The pressures and expectations placed on championship fighters by fans, promoters, and managers alike to constantly perform is so great as to be monumental. Fans like their fighters to be more than human, to provide them with a vicarious escape from lives of tedium into a world of glory, courage and invincibility. Promoters and managers like their fighters to win, to sell tickets and make them a shitload of money in the process. Like any business – and professional boxing is a business make no mistake – there is no room for failure, with those at the sharp end, the fighters, assuming the status of commodities, their worth measured in ticket sales and pay per view hits.
What we’re describing here is the way in which the sport reflects society and how, with grinding poverty the fate of so many, supporting the unfettered wealth and luxury of the few, the struggle for success is tantamount to a struggle for survival.
Sadly, not only for boxing but for humanity in general, Edwin Valero is yet another casualty of that perennial struggle.
The one certainty is that more will follow.