"In the gym after the funeral there was no mention of the other knockdown, and he devoted himself to the benefit fight that raised for the widow 10 percent of a $1,600 gate. Gradually he overcame the memory of the face in the casket. With a toupee over the shaved skull, it had resembled no one he had ever known anyway . . .he felt the hopeless folly that was his life." -- from "Fat City," by Leonard Gardner
An off-duty cop shot and killed a man during the third Ali-Frazier fight in 1975. The funeral parlor in South Philly was the living room of a first-floor apartment. Wooden folding chairs sat in front of the man's casket. A floor lamp with no shade cast a harsh light up into Muhammad Ali's face as he stood there, looking at a man who died arguing about a fight.
"Is he cold?" Ali asked.
It was a child's question asked in childish wonder. Ali reached out with the tip of his right index finger and touched the corpse's right hand. He pulled his finger back abruptly.
"He is cold," Ali said. He seemed frightened.
This was a winter's night, a dozen years after Ali knocked out a man named Alejandro Lavorante, a long time after Lavorante lapsed into a coma and died, and on this cold night in a funeral parlor Ali said he knew how the cop felt.
"He didn't mean to shoot nobody," the fighter said, "and I didn't mean to kill nobody."
Once again a fighter is dying, his skull shaved for brain surgery, and once again we ask all the sadly familiar questions about stricter licensing, fairer matchmaking, more complete medical examinations, quicker decisions by the referee. This time the victim is Duk-Koo Kim, 23, a South Korean who was knocked out by Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini in the 14th round of a lightweight championship fight in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Unlike the Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello fight in which Pryor landed 22 straight punches before knocking out Arguello, Mancini appeared to stop Kim on two punches. On the second, Kim fell backward and struck his head on the ring floor. A doctor said Kim suffered a torn blood vessel in the brain. The fighter is kept alive by machinery.
The "hopeless folly" of Leonard Gardner's fictional fight manager lasted only until his latest meal ticket, unconscious on the canvas, fluttered his eyelids. That sign of life gave the parasite a reprieve from the memory of his fighter who had died from one too many knockouts. The parasite lifted up his host and took him back to the corner. The kid would live to fight another day for another dollar.
Boxing is the cruelest game, and anyone connected with it must ask himself, "Why am I here?" Why be part of a game in which the goal is to rattle the other guy's brain against his skull so hard as to injure it? Why do newspapermen, including me, condone by our presence a business that panders to people's atavistic taste for violence?
Jimmy Cannon wrote sports for 30 years. He had eye trouble once and his young doctor asked him how he could cover fights. "I told him they were thrilling when they were good," Cannon wrote. "Often, I admitted, they disgusted me."
Nothing in sports is meaner or uglier than a fighter born of desperation. You don't want your sister to be a prostitute; you don't want your brother to be a bad fighter. He will work four-rounders for $100 a week. He will sell his body to the madding crowd whose ancestors sat in the luxury seats at the Colosseum and turned thumbs down on his kind. And then the parasites will throw him away.
It is not enough for a newspaperman to say he should stay away from fights. That accomplishes nothing. The game will go on. The newspaperman must see the game as it is. He must see Willie Pastrano, a former champion, as a man who fell into drug addiction because the game stole his soul. He must tell you that a prelim fighter from the outback of Texas fights for $100 because he damn sure is going to show his daddy, who kicked him out of home, what he's made of.
They were thrilling when they were good, Cannon said, and he is right. Ali at his best was a work of art, graceful, powerful and brave in the game that asks the most of an athlete's courage and ability. If games are a metaphor for our lives, it is boxing, at once heroic and mean, that most truly reflects the terrible and the beautiful.
Yet we return to a man with a shaved skull, and we ask if a moment of Sugar Ray Leonard's majesty is worth that? Once someone upbraided Jack Dempsey for what seemed an unecessarily violent left hook that knocked out a stumbling Jack Sharkey, and Dempsey said, "What was I going to do -- write him a letter?" It is a cruel game, and the best a newspaperman can do is write about ways to save a Duk-Koo Kim.
Boxing commissions should be legitimate parts of the government. If necessary, create a federal commission to regulate the unconscionable promoters and managers who feed on desperate fighters. Get rid of today's commissions that too often are depositories of political lackeys who sell their integrity to parasites needing certification of mismatches.
Fighters should pass medical examinations of the most sophisticated kind. Perhaps Duk-Koo Kim came into the ring with a congenital defect in his brain's arteries. The commission should learn that beforehand, not in the autopsy. The commissions, reporting to a federal clearing house, should keep medical records of every fighter.
Until the public demands it, no one will protect these athletes.
Until then, newspapermen can expect more of the weekly news releases reporting the fight news from Atlantic City.
You read in these mailings of men fighting for a couple hundred dollars. You suspect these men are gladiators bought for made-for-TV shows. The mailings refer to the fighters by nicknames such as Mad Dog and Animal, Cobra and Bone Crusher, Hard Rock and Assassin.
Life stinks sometimes.