What do you say?
What do you say in the aftermath of something so shocking and yet so plausible? Maxim Dadashev didn’t believe he was putting his life on the line when he stepped between the ropes to face Subriel Matias in a battle of unbeaten contenders last Friday. But the brain wasn’t meant to be bounced around like Dadashev’s was for 11 rounds. Dadashev collapsed soon after he left the ring, was placed in a medically induced coma over the weekend and died on Tuesday, at 28.
What do you do?
What do you do when sports produce such an unspeakable tragedy? You want to blame someone. The referee, maybe. Could Kenny Chevalier have stopped the fight sooner? I was ringside in Oxon Hill, Md., for Dadashev-Matias. Matias controlled the fight, but Dadashev was never out on his feet. He spent most of the night fighting backward, but he was fighting. If you’re looking for a moment the referee missed, there wasn’t one.
How about the corner? Believe me: Buddy McGirt, the Hall of Fame fighter turned respected trainer, will blame himself enough. McGirt told ESPN he thought about throwing the towel in after the ninth round, with Dadashev fading and the scorecards clearly tilting Matias’s way. His pleas to Dadashev in the corner after the 11 went viral, with McGirt desperately trying to convince Dadashev to let him stop it. He ultimately did, but knowing McGirt, it’s likely he will forever wonder what would happen had he stopped it a couple of rounds sooner.
What do you do?
You want this to be a call to arms for something, a precursor to change. But what can you change? Boxing will forever be a dangerous sport. You want to slap on headgear? Watch interest in boxing fade. Force fighters to stuff extra padding in their gloves? Watch television networks bail.
This is a sport that encourages violence, that rewards it. Recently, I spoke with Demetrius Andrade, a middleweight titleholder and one of the most talented fighters in boxing—but not one known for big knockouts. I asked him: Would we see him chase one the next time out? He turned it around: If I get in a war, he asked rhetorically, will you come visit me in the hospital?
In boxing, winning gets you paid. Winning violently gets you paid well. We don’t remember titleholders, not in an era where titles are largely meaningless. We remember warriors. We remember Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. We remember significant fights, like the 30 rounds Gatti and Ward battled or the night Sugar Ray Leonard made Roberto Duran quit.
Google lists of boxing’s best fights. How many chess matches do you see?
This is a problem without a solution. Want to boycott boxing? There’s certainly an ethical dilemma to rooting for violence, to having a gladiator-like bloodthirst that comes with a public stamp of approval. Tragedies like Dadashev’s are horrific, but they are far from the only fallout. Boxers, like NFL players, rarely enjoy healthy retirements. There is a price you pay for taking as much punishment as boxers do, and if you’re in the game long enough, you’re likely to pay it.
And we haven’t even seen the nightmare scenario. Drug testing in boxing is still underwhelming. Advanced testing programs like VADA and USADA have gotten involved in the top tier fights, but the vast majority of matches are subject to state testing, which is often pathetically weak.
What happens when a fighter is killed in the ring … and his opponent tests positive for something?
Is it criminal? Do PED’s make a fighter a weapon?
Still, boxing, like the NFL, isn’t going anywhere. There will always be fighters, all of whom are willing to take the risk. “Tragedies like these bring out many arguments that ultimately won’t be dealt with,” tweeted Sergio Mora, a former junior middleweight champion. “When it comes down to it, WE KNOW what we sign up for and it’s a dangerous passion.”
Here’s another reality: Boxing saves more lives than it takes. Boxers aren’t born in the suburbs. Most often they are raised in the most challenging environments. Floyd Mayweather in Grand Rapids, amidst crime and poverty, with his father, staring down the barrel of a gun, once used him as a human shield. Pacquiao in the poorest sections of the Philippines. Tyson in the violent streets of Brownsville. For many, boxing isn’t a way out. It’s the only way out.
Want to do something? Start here: Don’t complain if a referee stops a fight a little bit early. Don’t be outraged if a corner throws in the towel. Don’t ever, ever suggest a fighter should be allowed to go out on his shield. Demand state commissions be more thorough; in the immediate aftermath of the fight, Dadashev’s manager, Egis Klimas, said doctors were trying to track down Dadashev’s wife to find out if Dadashev had any allergies or had any previous surgeries. It’s bonkers that information wasn’t required beforehand.
Insist all fighters undergo two MRI’s per year, or they can’t fight. When a fighter gets knocked out, issue a mandatory three-month suspension, a rule change Daniel Franco, a former featherweight contender who saw his life nearly snuffed out after suffering a brain bleed during a fight two years ago, has championed. Encourage every fighter to be enrolled in mandatory, year-round advanced drug testing.
There’s no one to blame for what happened to Dadashev last week.
It happened, and it will happen again.
Boxing will never be a safe sport. All it can do is make sure it’s as safe as it can possibly be.