09/27/2005 12:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Death in the Ring

On the night of Saturday, September 17, Leavander Johnson of Atlantic City, N.J. defended his world title belt in boxing's lightweight division against Jesus Chavez of Austin, Tx. The fight appeared as the first of three scheduled bouts on an HBO Pay Per View telecast, a set-up for showcases involving the more recognizable welterweight Shane Mosley and junior lightweight Marco Antonio Barrera. After sixteen years as a professional, Leavander Johnson was finally making his first entry onto the sport's biggest stage. Two days before going into the ring, Johnson told his hometown newspaper he was confident he would beat Chavez, "or die trying." It's the kind of thing fighters say all the time.

As a twelve-year-old in 1962, I sat on a sofa in Miami and watched the live Gillette Friday Night Fights telecast of Emile Griffith vs. Benny "Kid" Paret at Madison Square Garden. Paret had insulted Griffith's manhood at the weigh-in. When Griffith caught Paret in the corner late in the fight and pummelled him with right hands, Paret's arms caught against the ropes and held him up for punishment, a freak accident which referee Ruby Goldstein tragically failed to see. Paret was unconscious when he left the ring, and never recovered.

In the early 1980s I watched a live telecast of Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim, the fight which led to the Korean fighter's death from brain injury and helped persuade ring authorities to shorten championship fights from fifteen rounds to twelve. On May 5, 1996 I sat at ringside in Las Vegas and witnessed Gabriel Ruelas's sustained beating of a Colombian fighter named Jimmy Garcia. Garcia's death effectively took over Ruelas' life for the next several years. Gabe repeatedly went to Colombia to minister to the needs of Garcia's family, gave up large sums of money and large allotments of time trying to assuage the guilt he felt, but in the end could only wait for time to dull the pain. As hard as it is for the rest of us to watch fighters die, it's hardest for other fighters.

Two Saturday nights ago Jesus Chavez locked on to Leavander Johnson from the opening bell and delivered the kind of systematic full-body beating that within the savage dictates of boxing can only be admired for its spirited commitment and effectiveness. As the rounds went by, it became impossible to escape a few eery similarities to the Kim and Garcia incidents. Leavander Johnson's opponent was landing with authority more or less at will, but lacked the one-punch power necessary to put Johnson away by knockout. Johnson was an instinctive and brave fighter who continued to fight back and throw punches, even as it was clear he was being overwhelmed. Knowledgable ringsiders in control of the fight well understood that this was the business and competitive pinnacle of Johnson's career, and it was only fair to give him every logical chance to defend the only title he'd ever won. And round after round, Johnson's father/trainer kept sending his brave son out to fight, waiting for the moment when he would land something big to turn it around. That was Duk Koo Kim against Ray Mancini. That was Jimmy Garcia against Gabe Ruelas. And there have been others which fit the identical profile.

By the eighth round, my awareness of this was acute enough that I took what I considered to be a commentary gamble and cited the conditions which were consistent with fighters who were severely or permanently damaged in past fights. As it turned out, the comment was no gamble. My colleagues and I were relieved when referee Tony Weeks stopped the fight less than a minute into the eleventh round. But a half hour later I was told by our producer that Johnson was being taken to the hospital for surgery to relieve bleeding on the brain. Last Thursday, five days after the surgery, Johnson died.

Saturday night I walked into Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, a few blocks from where Leavander Johnson was born and grew up, and narrated a tumultuously exciting night of boxing on HBO. In two fights totaling eighteen rounds, there were eight knockdowns, dozens of huge power punches landed flush, countless moments of breathtaking and bloodcurdling violence. Between the two fights, Larry Merchant and I shared a brief obituary for Johnson, and before the main event they sounded, amid reverent silence, the traditional ten-count in the ring. Somewhere between Thursday when I heard Johnson had died and 10:00 Saturday night when I went on the air, I had to re-examine (again) the way I make a living.

Human combat as entertainment goes back to the beginning of recorded history, which doesn't in and of itself make it valid for our times. But it won't go away, regardless of written law, and the reasons for that are many and complex. This much I can get my head around: Leavander Johnson was a poor African-American man from one of our nation's poorest and roughest cities. Without boxing, his chances of seeing the world beyond the mean streets around him were questionable. With boxing, Leavander Johnson had goals and identity and a purpose for sixteen years of adult life. He saw Paris and Milan, he got introduced in the ring at Madison Square Garden as a world champion, he earned money which may positively affect the lives of his four children. Boxing people have already pledged more than a quarter of a million dollars to a fund for those four kids, and there will be more.

On the night he wound up in a coma from which he would never wake up, Leavander Johnson was in the care of the very best ring physician in America, Dr. Margaret Goodman. He was watched over by a highly competent referee who stopped the fight at the very first obvious moment for doing so under the circumstances. When he was asked by his father in the late rounds whether he wanted to keep fighting, he gave the answer all real competitors give, the only answer which is honored by fans of sports and media who cover them in this culture. When his symptoms surfaced, they were properly observed and recognized immediately and he was in major surgery less than an hour after the fight was stopped.

It's this simple: if you can't live with Leavander Johnson's death, then you ban boxing, because this one came right out of the culture of the sport. There is no obvious flashpoint for criticism or culpability here. Johnson died in the best of boxing circumstances. Either the entire sport is unforgiveable, or this was an unfortunate accident which must be accepted as part of the life.

I can live with it. I know enough fighters to be sure they all know the risk they take when they go into the ring. People who wash windows on the seventieth floor, people who handle high-intensity power lines, soldiers who go to war -- they all know. Fighters know too. They take the risk to improve their lives, and the lives of the people around them, and often they do so because it's the only such option they have. Fact is, most of us couldn't identify in a thousand years.

The very best thing in Leavander Johnson's life, the thing that did the most to make that life worthwhile, led him to a bad end he knew full well was possible. The answer isn't to remove that option from the lives of future Leavander Johnsons. The option is to honor his memory by continuing to work on systems to make fights as safe as possible, while accepting that somewhere, somehow, for as long as there are poor people and foreclosed options, people will fight face-to-face and other people will pay to watch them. The only way to completely eliminate that would be to completely eliminate poverty.