Sunday, November 10, 2013

What's right, wrong and needs to change in boxing

In a week in mixed martial arts where the UFC had not one, but two free live cards on TV, which featured two first round knockouts in the main event, I am talking boxing; it is for good reason too. There are a few current events I've witnessed, enjoyed and read about in the last week that have compelled me to write about what's right, wrong and needs to change in boxing.

Earlier this week, I came across a story that blew me away. That was because earlier this year, I had written a piece entitled 'The Curse of The Contender', which was all about tragic and unfortunate events that had befallen numerous fighters that appeared on the first three seasons of that once popular reality show. You can read the original blog written back in February by clicking this link:

You can imagine my reaction then when I had found out that Gary 'Tiger' Balletto, a participant from Season 2, was paralyzed and in a wheelchair from a freak accident suffered a few months ago in his backyard. Balletto, one of the more likable and humble characters from the show, who had had retired with a professional record of (31-3, 26 KO's), was a former gymnast who had wedged and nailed a pull-up bar between two trees in his yard for his son to workout on. One day while showing his kids some gymnastic routines on the bar, the bar broke from the trees and he fell head first onto the ground breaking vertebrae in his neck and back.

Lucky to have survived at all, the former fighter who owns a boxing gym in his hometown of Providence, RI now finds himself strapped to a wheelchair with only hopes of someday walking again. His boxing brethren and community decided to hold a fundraiser this past Thursday in Providence to help the Tiger and his family with mounting health care costs surrounding his recovery and rehab. This is what's right in boxing.

Ironically, earlier this week I watched an awesome documentary on HBO that featured another popular fighter from the New England area. 'Legendary Nights' was the story of the now historic trilogy of fights between Mickey Ward and the late great Arturo 'Thunder' Gatti. Having watched all three of those fights when they happened, I had forgotten how brutal they actually were. However, HBO in their infinite wisdom of production was able to put together a tremendous documentary that not only captured the brutality, but the reality of it all as well.

As I watched footage of the fights, especially Gatti-Ward 1 and the all-time classic round nine of their first fight, I found myself getting emotional. Back then when I saw it, I was caught up in the action of the fight. This time as I watched it, I realized what both fighters truly gave of each other that night and found myself almost moved to tears as HBO commentator Jim Lampley was as he recalled it. Whether you've seen the fights, and definitely if you haven't, you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary.

Strangely enough, as I tell you of the brutality of those three fights, it was just one week ago that HBO showcased a fight on their air that ended up being just as violent. It featured two promising undefeated heavyweight prospects in polished Cuban defector Mike Perez (20-0, 12 KO's) and a heavy punching Russian named Magomed Abdusalamov (18-1, 18 KO's) fighting for the WBC United States (USNBC) title. No one, including myself, figured this would get past one or two rounds; especially considering the climate of heavyweight boxing today.

However, these two fighters were the real deal in terms of their skill, athleticism and most of all heart. They pounded on each other for the full 10 rounds, with Perez clearly getting the better of it on the strength of his superior boxing skill; Perez out pointed and out boxed the bigger, more powerful Abdusalamov, while punishing him as well. The less experienced Mago, as he is called, who was used to ending the majority of his fights within one or two rounds, realized he was in uncharted territory when he came back to his stool after round one and started to show concern about his face.

After only one round, he started to ask his corner about swelling and a possible injury he had sustained around his cheekbone; that should've been a tell tale sign right there. As the fight progressed and more damage ensued, Mago continued to show concern for himself, yet his corner just kept imploring him he needed to go out and knock this guy out; just as he had done all 18 times before when he stepped in the squared circle. To Addusalamov's credit, he tried; going the distance even though it was in vain.

The loss was the least of his concern. After the fight, which took place in New York City, Mago was taken to Roosevelt Hospital for what he thought were a possible broken hand and broken jaw. What they found was he also had a blood clot in his brain that heeded to be relieved; thus immediate surgery was required and as you can expect the end of a promising career.

That would have been fine if that is all it was. Four days ago, Abdusalamov took a turn for the worse while in an induced coma and now lies on life support in intensive care. This is a man who had migrated to Florida with his wife and three children with aspirations of becoming a U.S. citizen; now you can only hope he survives, but at what cost? This is what's wrong in boxing, which brings me to what needs to change.

Earlier this week I had read an article where a writer I respect had suggested that boxing needs to move to smaller gloves. He gave reasoning why he felt this would help save fighters, but while I respect his opinion, I totally disagree. The gloves are not the problem; the amount of punishment taken is the problem. This is why I feel boxing needs to get off its proud high horse and take a page from MMA; change it's format to make fights shorter.

I'm old enough to remember when championship fights were 15 rounds and contender fights were 12. However, after high profile deaths in the ring during the '80's, boxing agreed to shorten championship fights to 12 rounds and contender fights to 10; it's time to revisit that. I propose that championship fights only go 10 rounds and contender fights to eight. There are a few reasons why this is obvious and will work.

The obvious of course is the less wear and tear a fighter will sustain; less time, less punishment. Beyond that, the sport will benefit from it as well because the level of action will be lifted. Part of what makes MMA so exciting is because of the length of their fights. Most fights are three rounds, albeit five minutes each versus three in boxing, and five rounds for championships or main events. Three or five rounds do not allow for a feeling out process; thus there is action right from the beginning.

I believe boxing should actually make fights even shorter than the 10 and eight I proposed above, but I know that's a reality that won't ever happen. However, shortening the length of fights is long overdue and will be better for the sport as a whole. There's always talk from casual fans that boxing is dead, which is not true at all; but if boxing doesn't make some drastic changes to ensure the safety of its athletes then that casual assessment will eventually become true because the sport will kill itself.

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