In Albuquerque last month, a 20-year-old fighter named Victor Romero suddenly collapsed with convulsions after a workout, suffering, it was later discovered, a blood clot on the brain. Rushed to a nearby hospital, he died three days later without having regained consciousness.
In an amateur boxing match in January in West Virginia, a 13-year-old named Harlan Hoosier complained of dizziness and nausea after his bout. Hosptialized promptly in Huntington, he died two days later. The cause of death: swelling of the brain brought on by blows to the head.
On Long Island last May, a 24-year-old named John Wilburn suffered permanent brain damage in a fight his lawyer says never should have been allowed to take place. Wilburn is suing the New York State Athletic Commission for $35 million for permitting him to fight.
Seventeen days after the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran welterweight title fight last June in Montreal, Cleveland Denny, fighting on the undercard that night, died after having been beaten senseless in the ring. Six months earlier in New York, boxer Willie Classen died after a similar beating.
Last Saturday, bantamweight Johnny Owen underwent 3 1/2 hours of emergency neurosurgery after being knocked out the night before by WBC champion Lupe Pintor. He remains in critical condition.
Those casualties -- in no way a complete or comprehensive list -- reflect no upsurge in ring-related deaths or injuries. By all accounts, they only represent what has been, for more than a quarter-century, the normal toll that boxing imposes on its participants. Since the end of World War I, an average of 10 fighters a year have died of ring-related injuries.
In all likelihood, most of these deaths could have been prevented.
"These kids are pawns of the system," says Lonn Berney, the lawyer who is representing Wilburn in his suit against the New York State Athletic Commission. "They're taken out and subjected to these incredible beatings. They all think they're going to be another Sugar Ray Leonard. They can't distinguish between their aspirations and reasonable expectations."
The death of Classen, said a New York State legislative committee, "was a preventable tragedy which provides a glaring indictment of an archaic and inadequate system of boxing supervision."
Ferdie Pacheco, former ringside physician for Muahmmad Ali and one of the nation's more prominent boxing doctors, says that any time "fully grown men come into combat, you have the risk of injury. You don't have to be a bullfighter to realize you're putting your life on the line."
Nevertheless, says Pacheco, there are steps that can -- and should -- be taken to cut down on carnage in the ring.
"This could be one of the safest sports there is if we could bring some semblance of order to this chaotic, gypsy-like, circus atmosphere," says Pacheco.
"Managers won't say when the last time was that their fighters were knocked out, so you need some kind of centralized computer system that would keep records to prevent a fighter from fighting too soon after his last knockout. The big guys in this business don't get killed. It's the little guys who get killed. There are winners and losers in boxing, but you need to have the losers. When you have a young fighter coming up, you have to have him fight with somebody he can beat, and that's usually a guy holding down a job on the side trying to pick up $300 on somebody's undercard."
Pacheco and Sheldon Saltman, president of 20th Century Fox Sports, are pushing for a series of reforms that they say could go a long way toward reducing ring deaths and injuries. Foremost among them is a national, centralized computer system that would keep track of all knockouts and injuries.
"The main cause of ring death is the continuous pounding these guys take when they shouldn't be fighting at all," says Pacheco. "There has to be some way of not letting guys fight who have time bombs ticking in their heads. There are a lot of fighters who shouldn't be fighting. Ali shouldn't be fighting, but how do you get a guy who can make $9 million on a fight to say he can't fight. You can't do that any more than you can get an executive at NBC to quit because the pressures of his job are making him smoke four packs a day."
It also should be standard operating procedure, says Pacheco, to have an ambulance standing by at every fight as well as a physician trained in the treatment of ring-related injuries. In New York, he noted, an ambulance is mandatory at cross country races but not at fights.
Classen, the New York fighter who died late last year, "might have made it if there had been an ambulance. They sent him to the hospital in a cab, and they had trouble finding a cab. And the doctor in charge that night was a pediatrician, not a surgically oriented neurologist."
Additonally, says Pacheco, there should be some minimal mandatory paramedical training for managers and seconds who administer first aid in the corners between rounds.
On the perennial debate over whether or not protective headgear should be required, Pacheco says "No," a position supported by two other ringside physicians contacted independently by The Washington Post.
"Headgear doesn't do any good," Pacheco said. "Talking about it detracts from the real issues. It's the continuous pounding you take and hitting the canvas when you go down. It wouldn't have done Classen any good."
Dr. Bennett Derby, a professor of neurology at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center and a member of the boxing advisory board to the New York State Athletic Commission, concurs.
"The adebate over protective headgear is never gong to die completely because the little kids wear it," Derby said. "But the feature of headgear that limits my enthusiasm is the fact that concussive injuries in boxing come from a guy's fist striking another guy's face, and headgear won't do zilch about that.
"Also, there seems to be unanimous agreement that headgear interferes with peripheral vision, and it inevitably starts slipping down a guy's forehead during a fight."
In the best of all possible worlds, observed Derby, fighters would routinely receive a variety of medical services they now do not get.
For example, he noted, it is routine hospital procedure that anyone who loses consciousness, even for a few seconds, is held at least overnight in the hospital for observation. "That's true even if they walk into the emergency room under their own power," Derby said.
Yet a fighter can be knocked out in the ring, regain consciousness and go home that night with no hospitalization at all, he said.
"If there has been a definite knockout, that should be enough to keep a fighter in the hospital overnight," Derby said. Additionally, he said, fighters should regularly receive CAT scans and EEGs to check for brain injuries. At the moment, most boxers balk at paying for them.
"They don't have insurance, and what insurance company would underwrite a boxer?" said Derby.
Conceivably, such tests might have prevented Wilburn, the fighter who suffered permanent brain damage in May, from ever getting into the ring. Berney, Wilburn's lawyer, said the fighter, who had fought five times in the previous six months, already had developed a blood clot on the brain before the May fight and was suffering from extreme sensitivity to light. There needs to be a way, said Berney, for boxing to protect fighters from their own enthusiasm.
In the boxing business, the road to a shot at a title is long and difficult, and it usually begins at one of thousands of neighborhood gyms or recreation centers across America. At the beginning, everyone dreams of a title, but the harsh reality is that the vast majority will never win one.
Oakcrest Center in Prince George's County, about a mile from the District of Columbia line, is one such place.
There, Dave Jacobs, who gave Sugar Ray Leonard his start in boxing, runs a program for about 200 participants. Jacobs knows most of his boxers will never make it to the top, but the fighters start young, and they dream big.
At the age of 10, Eddie Randolph has been working out for two hours a day at Oakcrest for the last nine months. He's had six fights already, and he's won four and lost two. He dreams of being a fighter when he gets older.
"I like the sport of it, and it's fun, but sometimes I got to be pushed," he said.
Lloyd Taylor Jr., 18, another product of Oakcrest, is making his pro debut as a welterweight after an amateur career that has included 95 fights over the last six years. He had lost 11.
Taylor dreams of a title in two or three years, and he's not at all afraid of being hurt. "If I'm not in condition I'd be scared to get in the ring, but when I'm in condition, I feel like I can take on the world," he said.
At 16, Keith West is a two-year veteran of Oakcrest, and his amateur career of 25 fights includes five knockouuts and five technical knockouts. He had an uncle, Sonny Boy West, who died of ring injuries back in the 1950s, but that hasn't dimmed his enthusiasm a bit.
"I'll be fighting until the gym falls down around me," he said.