The story always starts the same: a boxer has collapsed. Sometimes, like with Michael Norgrove, it's happened in the middle of a round. For Choi Yo-sam, it happened in the ring while celebrating a points victory to retain his title. Usually it occurs when the fighter has made their way back to the dressing room. For Pedro Alcazar it happened the next day, after completing a sight-seeing trip around the Las Vegas Strip where he'd lost his belt the previous night. Pressure from a bleed in the brain builds, and they fall into a coma.
Doctors will try their hardest—drastic surgery and ventilators—but the damage has been done. A fighter is left dead, a family is left broken, and a sport is left questioning why.
The universe doesn't care who you are. Robert Wangila was an Olympic champion. Sonny Banks had been the first to put Cassius Clay on the canvas. Greg Page sparred with Mike Tyson. Braydon Smith was in his final year of law school. No boxer is immune, and it's always tragic.
There is another story, though, that runs alongside each death. For every boxer who loses their life in pursuit of their dream, there is another who dealt the fatal blows in pursuit of the same glory. They get to live, yes, but they also step back into the ring with the burden of what has come before. How do you box when you remember so vividly the fate of your last opponent, or with the knowledge that next time it could be you?
"I've been dealing with this thing the best way I know how," Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini told the press when he returned to Youngstown, Ohio after successfully retaining his WBA Lightweight title. It was 1982, and it'd be easy to picture Mancini "dealing with" his victorious homecoming with all the decadence of the decade, arriving home still reeling from enjoying the exuberant nightlife which Las Vegas affords to its latest champion prizefighter. That wasn't what he meant by "dealing with it."
"I'm very sad and very sorry it happened, and I was a part of it. I realize too that I can't blame myself. It's just something that I will have to deal with. And I will. I've had to deal with tragedy before, and I will again."
Mancini was just 21 years old when he was speaking, and was three days removed from watching Kim Duk-koo, his world title challenger, collapse into a coma during the 14th round of their Las Vegas bout. At the time Kim was still clinging to life in a Las Vegas hospital, but the next day, on the 18th of November 1982, he would pass away. Kim was 27 years old.
Mancini tried to speak positively to the press, adding that "I'm not about to go into seclusion. I've got to go on with my life as I feel I have to. I'm ready for whatever's to happen." However, the more he spoke, the more the true strain of the aftermath of his 15 round fight showed.
"The next time it could be me. This is what I have to think about now… I really don't know if I want to go on. Boxing is a violent sport at times. Am I ready to take that chance? I'm the one that's in there taking the shots. I'm a mental and physical wreck, I can't sleep… Who wants to keep going through this though? I can't feel any happiness… Right now I'm a very weary young man."
Mancini managed to get back in the ring, and successfully defended his title four more times, before back-to-back losses to Livingstone Bramble pushed him out of the sport. Mancini was 24 when he retired from boxing in 1984 (he would return to the ring twice in later years). By that time, Richard Green, the bout's referee, and Kim's mother had both committed suicide. Mancini's retirement did not come as a surprise to Bob Arum, his promoter. "He was never the same," Arum told ESPN, "he didn't have the same zip, the same enthusiasm. He didn't have the same zest for fighting."
Kim's death was not in vain. The damage that he and Mancini did to each other saw boxing begin to end the practice of 15-round championship fights, limiting them to 12 rounds like regular bouts. Mancini too seems to have recovered; aware of his past, "November 13 is a day of grieving for me," he told an ESPN documentary, "I grieve for that day in remembrance of Kim and his family. I always will."
George Khalid Jones found redemption elsewhere. Jones never reached the heights that Mancini did, although was still a credible boxer. When he stepped into the ring against Beethavean Scottland on June 26, 2001, he was an undefeated prospect looking to make it to the next level. To get there, Jones was due to be fighting David Telesco, who was himself looking to bounce back from being outscored by the legendary Roy Jones Jr. in a championship bout. However, Telesco was forced to pull out at the last minute. On a big night of boxing, broadcast live on ESPN in America and held on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid docked in New York City, Scottland was drafted in to replace him.
Khalid Jones was the bigger and better fighter, but journeyman Scottland was all heart and knew he'd never get a chance as big as the Jones fight again. Unfortunately there was no fairytale, and towards the end of the fight the gulf in class was showing.
"Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. visits Scottland's corner after the [seventh] round," recounted ESPN journalist Tom Rinaldi. "He won't let it go much longer unless Scottland fights back. But this is the one thing Scottland will always do—it's in his DNA. He always fights back, until the fight is over. And so it is this night."
Scottland tried to mount a comeback, but Jones had a lot left in the tank and deftly ended the bout by knockout in the 10th round.
The story then played out: collapse, hospital, coma, death. Beethavean Scottland was 26 when he died two days later on July 1, 2001, survived by his wife and three children. Jones's immediate reaction was to quit boxing, a decision not taken lightly given that the sport (along with his conversion to Islam) saved him from a troubled life peppered with stays in prison. However, a phone call from Denise Scottland, Beethaeven's widow, changed that. She recounted to Tom Rinaldi how she told Jones that she didn't blame him for what happened, and how her husband would want Jones to carry on boxing. In turn Jones did fight on and eventually even met Denise; the two solidified a most unlikely friendship.
Jones never reached the heights of boxing his undefeated days before the Scottland fight indicated he could, retiring in 2005 at 38. Still, the sport, and his relationship with Denise, left a mark on him.
"I lived a crazy and corrupt life," Jones told Rinaldi, "I still question, why not me? Is there a purpose to me being here? I never want anybody to say [Beethaeven] was killed by a drug addict or a drug dealer or a nobody. That's what makes me live my life better." Families of boxers can often take comfort in this way, too, finding meaning in their own lives from the one lost. When Francisco Rodriguez died in 2009, his family did it by donating his organs.
"I would think he'd be disappointed to see all the hard work he did to keep his body in the shape that he kept it, his heart, to stop beating," his brother Alex told "E:60." Rodriguez's widow Sonia added that "what happened didn't happen in vain… it was meant to happen, for [the recipients] to receive this gift."
Chris Eubank could find a similar solace when he finished the London Marathon side-by-side with Michael Watson in 2003, 12 years after their fateful bout. In their rematch for the Super-Middleweight title, Watson collapsed in the ring after the referee stopped the fight. Despite no oxygen or doctors being at ringside, Watson somehow beat the odds and survived the bleed on his brain, although he suffered permanent neurological damage.
Eubank continued boxing after that night in London, but was never the same. The eccentric middleweight had lost his killer instinct, a fact that he's both claimed and denied in the past but which the statistics prove. In his last 23 fights Eubank managed only five stoppages, all against relative journeyman fighters, compared to 18 across his first 29 bouts. Whether Eubank wanted to admit it or not was irrelevant: he'd not lost his ability to box. The way he ground out points victories proved that; he could no longer find it within himself to knock his opponents out.
Boxing does what it can to prevent these tragedies. By 1988, six years after Kim Duk-koo's death, all title bouts were only 12 rounds. Boxing commissions around the globe, especially in Asia, work harder to ensure that fighters traveling across jurisdictions are not endangering themselves by taking on opponents who are dangerously superior. Medical standards at ringside are improved. After the deaths of Bradley Stone and James Murray, promoter Frank Warren set up the Murray Stone Fund in order to help pay for MRI scans for all professional British boxers. Still, deaths happen.
Boxers seem to accept the reality of it in their sport. According to Tom Rinaldi, while George Khalid Jones was traveling to his fight with Beethavean Scottland, Jones was saying over to himself "whoever I fight, I just hope I don't kill him." Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Royce Feour said that when he interviewed Kim in his hotel room, he saw a note on a lampshade which said, in Korean, "Live or Die."
If it is accepted, though, why is it so hard to fight back from?
Being involved in one of these awful events changes something deep within a fighter. Having an opponent die at your hands changes the idea of death in the sport from a vague, existential, 'it can theoretically happen' to, as Ray Mancini put it, "the next time it could be me." Suddenly, there are more important things in life than the next fight, or getting a title shot. It breaks that singleminded confidence and aggression needed to succeed in a combat sport, because it forever puts the question into the boxers mind of whether or not the risk of them being next is worth it.
This is the true fight for a boxer trying to recover from the death of an opponent: to make sense of their own life afterwards.