I’d always told myself that if I ever sat ringside at a fight in which a boxer was actually killed, I’d quit. Then one night in Carson, California, I watched Victor Burgos, a mediocre but game junior flyweight out of Mexico, get hammered into a coma by the freakishly hard-hitting Vic Darchinyan. Burgos lasted into the twelfth round before collapsing. He survived a coma and brain surgery. Weeks later he left the hospital and melted into a barrio across the border. His promoter was Don King, and King’s spokesman at the time told me that King had paid Burgos’s hospital bills. Perhaps he provided for him in other ways as well. Perhaps not. The fight was in 2007. About a year ago I spoke with a bantamweight who had run into Burgos down in Tijuana. I asked how he was doing, hoping for a fairy-tale answer. The bantam just shook his head. Well, I still hadn’t seen a fighter die in the flesh. Not exactly.
My former colleague William Dettloff used to argue that by enticing high-risk youths off the streets and into gyms the sport does more good than harm. He’s got a point. Amateur programs are mostly positive experiences for the athletes. But when they graduate to the pros, using smaller gloves, removing headgear, and competing in additional rounds, it becomes a battleground. In fact, luring kids into the pros is remarkably similar to recruiting high school seniors to fight unending wars for vague purposes. In both cases you scoop up inexperienced youngsters from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
Fighters as a rule are the nicest, most personable professional athletes around. The impossibly rigorous training regimen usually drains them of the anger that got them into boxing in the first place. And there’s a measure of grace and purity in what they do. What we refer to as the sweet science, when it’s done right, is like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins dazzling us by turns, feeling their way through a composition right on stage. Buddha, thousands of years ago, elaborated on the suffering of change. Nothing you touch will stay the same. It will deteriorate and die unless you do first. But that doesn’t stop you from clinging to it. Eventually you might hang on to a dream or idea that’s imperceptibly replaced a greater purpose, as when Colonel Nicholson’s determination to build a bridge on the River Kwai supersedes his objective of defeating the Japanese Empire.
There’s much to love about a sport packed with colorful, fascinating characters. The late cutman Chuck Bodak, for instance. If you watched boxing even a little back in the nineties you’ll remember Bodak, a gnome-like character who on fight night taped little photos all around his bald skull to inspire his fighters. Chuck was witty, interesting, and an inspired eccentric. He lived simply and gave away much of the money that came his way. Shooting the breeze with Bodak was light years more fun than covering sewer commission meetings for The Washington Post, a job I held in another lifetime.
In boxing journalism I’d found a refuge from tedium and the nagging suspicion back at the Post, surrounded by Ivy Leaguers and such, that I was an imposter. Violent though it may be, the boxing world is welcoming. Amateurs, hobbyists, and world-class pros train under the same roof. Anyone can enter a gym, walk up to a champion fighter or trainer and start a conversation. The fight game attracts interesting people. Even Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention Hemingway and Mailer. Because of that, Nigel Collins was able to acquire a classier stable of writers for The Ring than a magazine paying such awful fees could ordinarily expect.
Bodak, a few years before he died in 2009, told me he was fired from the corner of crossover superstar Oscar De La Hoya. Chuck said he never forgave him for delegating a flunky to break the news. De La Hoya is president and principal owner of Golden Boy Enterprises, the outfit that owns The Ring. So you could say he fired both of us.