As always, Andre Diaz was at ringside with his video camera turned on and aimed at the budding boxing star. Through his viewfinder, Diaz could see Prichard Colon step into the ring engulfed in a sparkling robe — fuchsia, blue and gold — with a roaring lion head on the back. The opening bell rang, and over the course of the next 35 minutes, Diaz watched as his friend lost in bizarre fashion, finally wobbling out of the ring and back into the dressing room.
That’s when Diaz had to stop recording.
“I didn’t want any visual evidence of this horror,” he said. “I just sat there in shock as they were putting him on the gurney. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening.”
The horror that was unfolding was almost impossible for Diaz and the rest of the fighter’s camp to process. Colon, 23, had seemed so invincible, a power puncher who had never lost in the ring before the Oct. 17 bout on the campus of George Mason University. He was a rising star who seemed destined for success.
“The kid was going to be a superstar,” said Ray Flores, who served as ring announcer for two of Colon’s fights, including last weekend’s in Fairfax against Terrel Williams.
The bout was to be just another fight for Colon, just another short film for Diaz, just another step on a pugilistic journey. The young fighter entered with a 16-0 record and already had caught the eye of boxing’s kingmakers. The bout marked his first time fighting on network television, a chance to showcase himself to a nationwide audience watching on NBC.
In the dressing room afterward, a large Puerto Rican flag hung on one wall as people swirled around the fighter. Colon was vomiting and struggled to stay on his feet. Finally, he passed out. “A nightmare,” Diaz called it.
In the middle of EagleBank Arena, fans were focused on the evening’s main event — D.C.’s Lamont Peterson against Felix Diaz — but officials began scrambling back to the dressing room. Richard Ashby, the card’s official doctor, left ringside, and David Holland, the Virginia boxing commissioner, quickly gathered with the paramedics on-site. By the time they entered the dressing room, Colon was passed out on the floor. Ashby examined the fighter, and EMTs took his vitals, loading him onto a gurney and then into an ambulance.
Colon was raced to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery because of bleeding on the left side of his brain. He was in a coma for one week. His family kept daily vigil in hopes he might wake up and reported late Saturday night that he was finally breathing on his own. He apparently still has yet to awaken, and his exact prognosis remains unclear.
The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which oversees licensing and regulation of boxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling cards, has launched an official investigation .
Investigators likely will look into whether Colon carried a preexisting condition into the fight, whether he had suffered a previous head injury, perhaps in sparring, and whether something was amiss Oct. 17. They will need to determine whether ringside officials were dismissive of Colon’s complaints about rabbit punches — illegal, damaging blows delivered to the back of the head or neck.
And perhaps most important of all, they will try to determine whether the tragedy suffered by Colon and felt deeply by a boxing community both in the United States and Puerto Rico could have been avoided.
Diaz has been following Colon for more than two years. They met in Orlando following Colon’s second pro fight, and Diaz stuck around, recording videos and editing short documentary films about the fighter’s quick rise through the boxing ranks.
“I was on cloud nine every time I was in his presence because of how he made me feel,” Diaz said.
Diaz was rolling last month when Colon traveled to Toronto for a scheduled six-round bout against Vivian Harris. The day before the fight, they visited the Chelsea Hotel downtown for a pre-production meeting with the Premier Boxing Champions crew.
“What is it for you that you love about boxing?” broadcaster Dana Jacobson asked.
The fighter smiled wide. “I think it’s the adrenaline rush,” he said. “The adrenaline rush of being in the ring, knowing the guy wants to knock you out, but you’ve got to be smarter.”
Colon had been hooked on the sport from a young age. He was born outside Orlando and lived most of his life in either Florida or Puerto Rico. After winning five national championships as an amateur, he tried and failed to make the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 2012 and finally turned pro in February 2013 at the age of 20.
He quickly made a name for himself as a fighter who packed a heavy punch. Nine of his first 10 fights ended in knockouts. Like many young boxers, Colon maintained a busy fight schedule. He fought seven times last year, and Oct. 17 marked not only his sixth fight of 2015 but his third bout in 78 days.
It also marked the third time veteran promoter Lou DiBella had included Colon on one of his cards. He saw a future star: the whole package, 147 pounds of talent, charisma and ambition.
“What’s so striking about the kid is he looks like a movie star,” DiBella said. “He’s got those [Oscar] de la Hoya good looks, extremely bright kid; education is a big deal to him, very smart, very well-spoken, bilingual.”
Welterweight is a payday division. It’s where Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao became legends. Now Colon was undefeated, fighting on television with the respected trainer Pedro Diaz beside him, and perhaps most important, he was backed by manager Al Haymon, boxing’s mysterious puppeteer who had launched Mayweather to unprecedented riches and had become the sport’s most powerful figure.
As a fighter, DiBella says Colon was brimming with potential, a natural athlete whose boxing skills were starting to coalesce. He had appeared on smaller televised shows, but the appearance on broadcast TV was his biggest to date.
Colon arrived in Virginia on Oct. 13 and finally saw his opponent face-to-face two days later, when he and Williams appeared together at a news conference to promote the show. Colon had memorized some lines, reviewed them with publicists to make sure he promoted the card properly. He knew the fight was an important stepping stone, and Williams just happened to be another fighter standing in his way.
“I know he’s hungry,” Colon said of Williams that day. “I’ve faced big fighters in my career in the amateurs. No worries. He’s just another fighter, and I know I’m going to be the one with my hand raised on Saturday.”
The fighters saw each other the next day, too, at the official weigh-in. They engaged in a lengthy stare-down that didn’t end until publicists urged them to raise their fists and pose for the assembled cameramen. What Colon saw was a fighter who didn’t look much different from himself: They both stood about 6 feet. Colon’s reach was just an inch longer than Williams’s, and they both entered the ring with perfect records.
Perhaps most noticeable, Williams, a Los Angeles native, was eight years older, and he had walked away from the sport for nearly two years before stepping back into the ring five months ago.
“On paper, you’d think Prichard should win the fight,” Flores said “He’s fought better opposition, and he’d looked more dominant. But the consensus was Terrel Williams was no joke. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
On the day of the fight, Diaz was with Colon in the dressing room as Colon laced his gloves and went through his pre-fight routine. He followed the fighter out to the ring. With his dark hair cropped short and his beard trimmed thin and neat, Colon bounced in place wearing gold trunks with blue trim. He shed the robe and sauntered to the middle of the ring, where the referee briefly ran through the rules and then said, “Let’s shake hands. Let’s throw some thunder.”
Diaz was filming from ringside when the opening bell rang. Early on, Colon was slick, sharp and easily in control, picking off Williams with jabs from outside and scoring early and often. Late in the first round, he first complained about getting hit in the back of the head. The fighters were in a short clinch in the middle of the ring, and as Colon was trying to get out, Williams landed a straight right. Colon, with a puzzled expression, pulled back and pointed his right glove to the base of his skull.
He still cruised through the opening rounds, but in the fifth, Williams started muscling his way back. Colon responded with a low blow that dropped Williams like a cannonball. The referee, Joseph Cooper, ruled the shot intentional and called for a timeout. Williams rose to his feet before falling back down onto the mat, clearly in pain.
Williams finally got to his feet for good, stared at Colon and moved his right glove across his throat in a slashing motion. Cooper sent Williams to a neutral corner and told Williams, “Don’t you retaliate,” before resuming the fight.
Williams was incensed, and when the fight finally resumed, he took out his frustrations on Colon over the next two rounds. In the seventh, Williams had Colon reeling, and he landed an apparent rabbit punch to the back of Colon’s head as the Puerto Rican fighter was turning away. Colon dropped and clutched his head. Rabbit punches are frowned upon and policed closely in the ring because they can be particularly harmful.
Neurologist Margaret Goodman, who worked more than 500 fights as a respected ringside doctor in Nevada, says they can damage the spinal cord, cause circulation disruption between the neck to brain and theoretically detach the brain from the spinal cord. She cautions, though, that most tragic ring accidents aren’t the result of one or two punches, illegal or otherwise, and rabbit punches would most often be considered contributory factors.
“From my experiences with serious brain injuries, it’s usually a result of something they carried into the fight,” she said, “either a preexisting condition, maybe something from sparring, maybe they were predisposed to this type of injury.”
Cooper scolded Williams and gave Colon five minutes to recover from the foul. Williams shook his head as he walked to a neutral corner, and fans upset with the delay showered the ring with boos. In the ring, Williams tapped his gloves together and appeared to be telling Colon, “Let’s go.” Colon struggled to get to his feet, still holding his left glove to the back of his head as he moved to the opposite corner. Ringside physician Ashby examined Colon and deemed him okay to continue.
According to judges’ scorecards, Colon was leading the fight through eight rounds, just six minutes away from a majority decision. But then came the disastrous ninth.
Williams pinned Colon against the ropes and unloaded. Colon fell, and Cooper started counting. Colon rose to his feet, but Williams landed an uppercut to the body that sent Colon sprawling forward. Williams then caught Colon with a right to the back of the head, and the young fighter came crashing onto the canvas.
When the bell finally rang, the two boxers retreated to their corners. With one round remaining, Colon’s corner, including Diaz, the head trainer, and Colon’s father, Richard, curiously began to remove the fighter’s gloves. Most sitting ringside were confused. “I did not at first understand what was going on,” said Holland, the Virginia boxing commissioner.
Realizing their mistake, Colon’s team quickly tried to get the gloves back on for the final round, but it didn’t matter. Once the seal on the gloves is broken, a fighter is automatically disqualified, which gave Williams the win and spoiled Colon’s unbeaten record.
While the television broadcast commentators insinuated that Colon’s corner was stalling for more time, the fighters’ representatives had a different explanation. Holland addressed the corner. There’s no injury, Holland said he was told; they just thought the fight was over.
Colon and his cornermen exited the ring. Those at ringside described him as dazed but showing no signs of a major injury.
“I’ve been around the game for a little while,” said Flores, the announcer. “You could not tell that anything — you just could never have predicted it’d be as bad as it turned out.”
Colon appeared to be walking out of the ring under his own power, his arms draped around family members as he disappeared into the shadows of EagleBank Arena.
“I had no reason to think he was sick or ill,” Holland said. “He seemed okay.”
The ambulance raced Colon to the hospital, where surgeons awaited. Meanwhile, word began to spread in the arena and beyond that something was amiss. News traveled fast that night. In Puerto Rico, there was mostly confusion.
“People here were very upset,” said Carlos Gonzalez, a reporter for the Puerto Rican tabloid Primera Hora. “This is not something anyone could have expected.”
Puerto Rico has always treasured its boxing champions, from Carlos Ortiz and Wilfred Benitez to Hector Camacho and Felix Trinidad. Colon was still far too young and unaccomplished to be on that list, but he was on the doorstep and Puerto Rican boxing fans excitedly followed his budding career.
“You have to remember: This kid was very down to earth,” Gonzalez said. “In his home town, he acted just like anyone else, visiting restaurants, going to baseball games. Just a normal, nice kid.”
Diaz noticed that early in their friendship. When he flew to Puerto Rico to visit Colon, Diaz didn’t have money for a hotel, so Colon gave his own room to his friend and shared a family member’s twin-size bed.
“Prichard has an energy that was loving, warm, happy, and genuine,” Diaz said./
Colon emerged from surgery but was comatose. In the days that followed, his family reported on Facebook that Colon appeared to show some reflexive movement in his hands, feet, arms and legs. Late Saturday night, they posted an update in Spanish:
“Prichard is breathing without machines!! The glory of God!! Only thing missing is to wake up.”
The boxing community has banded together in support of the young fighter. Everyone associated with the sport knows the risks, understands there’s a thin line separating a boxing champion from a hospital patient.
Back in 2013, Colon had just finished a workout at an Orlando gym when Diaz turned on the camera for one of their first interviews.
“This is what I was born to do,” Colon explained. “This is what I’ve waited for all my life. This is what I’ve dedicated 100 percent of my time to. This is what I’ve sacrificed everything for.”
Gene Wang contributed to this report.