DENVER, April 5 -- At age 34, Becky Zerlentes was ready to stop boxing, and she told her coach that the Golden Gloves bout Saturday night would be her final match. It was a statement that proved tragically accurate.
In the third round of a sanctioned amateur fight, the geography teacher from Fort Collins, Colo., took a right cross to the side of the head and hit the canvas. Sunday afternoon, without ever regaining consciousness, she was pronounced dead. The medical examiner in Denver said she was killed by blunt-force trauma to the head.
Becky Zerlentes, left, and Heather Schmitz fight in a Golden Gloves bout Saturday in Denver. Zerlentes, 34, a geography teacher from Fort Collins, Colo., who started boxing in her mid-twenties, died after being knocked out in the third round.
(CBS 4 Denver via AP)
Zerlentes is the first woman to die in a sanctioned amateur boxing match, said Julie Goldsticker of USA Boxing, the oversight organization for U.S. amateur and Olympic boxing. Goldsticker said there are no records of women dying in professional boxing matches to date. There has been a reported female death in "Toughman" boxing, an unsanctioned form of the sport with fewer protections for fighters.
Zerlentes's death comes as boxing has been gaining popularity among young women. The big winner at this year's Oscars ceremony in Hollywood was the Clint Eastwood film "Million Dollar Baby," in which best-actress winner Hilary Swank plays a boxer who is knocked unconscious and ends up paralyzed in a hospital.
Goldsticker said that USA Boxing has sanctioned women's amateur matches since 1993, and that about 2,200 female fighters are registered to compete. In the professional ranks, Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila Ali, has become one of the best-known prizefighters of either gender, with a 20-0 record in the super-middleweight division.
A series of deaths and injuries in boxing matches prompted stiff new rules in the 1980s and '90s from governments and sporting associations. According to officials at USA Boxing, the state Golden Gloves championship match Saturday night that Zerlentes was competing in met all the established safety requirements.
Zerlentes and her opponent, Heather Schmitz, 32, both wore protective headgear that padded their foreheads and both sides of their heads. They wore protective body padding. They had both been given physical exams before the bout, and there were three doctors in the arena, the National Western complex in north Denver.
Zerlentes, a teacher and coach at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, was a triathlete and an accomplished competitor in various martial arts, state boxing officials said. She took up boxing in her mid-twenties, and three years ago she won a western regional Golden Gloves championship.
According to Goldsticker of USA Boxing, Zerlentes told her training companions at Fort Collins Hard Knocks gym that she was ready to give up boxing and focus on other sports. She told her coach, Jeanne DePriest, that she would hang up the gloves after Saturday night's state amateur championship bout.
Those present at the Zerlentes-Schmitz bout said that referees stopped the fight for a moment in the second round to check on bleeding from Zerlentes's nose. The fight continued, and early in the third round Schmitz unleashed a hard right that reportedly caught Zerlentes on the left side of her head at about eye level. Zerlentes collapsed.
A doctor quickly entered the ring and called for oxygen. A few minutes later, Goldsticker said, paramedics arrived and took the unconscious boxer to the hospital, where she died the next day. Denver police spokeswoman Teresa Garcia said a preliminary investigation reported the cause of death as subdural hematoma, essentially internal bleeding caused by a hard blow.
"I feel horrible," Schmitz, the other boxer, said in an interview with Denver's CBS 4 News. "I didn't want to hurt her."
The sanctioning body, USA Boxing, put out information arguing that amateur boxing is safer, in terms of injury totals, than other contact sports such as football and wrestling. In a listing of fatality rates per participant, the organization said that horse racing, scuba diving, mountaineering and college football all produced more deaths per participant than amateur boxing.