Duk Koo Kim died in Las Vegas on Nov. 17 of brain injuries he suffered in a fight with Boom Boom Mancini four days before. Kim's death attracted a lot of attention because he was fighting on network television for some alphabet world championship. But to this day, the most celebrated boxing death remains Benny Paret's, and it happened way back in 1962. Paret, the welterweight champion, was battered by Emile Griffith as the world's most famous referee watched, apparently mesmerized by the brutality. Plus, it was all on a Gillette fight night. Look sharp. Feel sharp. Be sharp.
Normally boxers don't get much ink for dying, unless they do it while fighting for a title and on a network. For example, if you walk into the Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque, N. Mex., you'll see only one photograph in the lobby. It's over by copies of such patriotic memorabilia as the Declaration of Independence, the Japanese surrender document and Jackson's letter after he won the Battle of New Orleans. That lone photograph hangs high. It's of Victor (Vito) Romero, and under the picture it says: 1960-1980. This is because Romero, age 20, died on Aug. 21, 1980, from injuries he'd suffered in the Civic Auditorium ring three days before. But while Romero is dead, he isn't counted as a genuine boxing death, because he was fatally injured while sparring. So he's not listed among the 353 boxers who have been killed in fights since 1945. Even local boxing historians say that the last boxing death in New Mexico before 1982 occurred in 1956, when John Anthony Lopez was killed in the Golden Gloves in Roswell.
If only boxers would wear headgear, safe, protective headgear, the argument goes. But Charles Love succumbed in Louisville on Oct. 16, 1982 after a fight with Darryl Stitch, a sophomore at the University of Louisville. Love, an Army private from Milwaukee, was, like Stitch, wearing headgear when he was killed. He didn't even get knocked off his feet. It was quite enough that his brain got pummeled while he stood up. He was 19 years old, wearing protective headgear. Love was one of six fighters who died after official bouts in '82. Maxwell Myaica was a South African black killed by another South African black at Bhekuzulu Hall, Umlazi, Natal Province on Nov. 11, a couple of days before Kim went down. Naoki Kobayashi had died a few weeks before, after Yoshsimu Oyama knocked him out in Tokyo. Andy Balaba of the Philippines was the WBA's second-ranked flyweight when he died in Seoul on May 11, four days after fighting Shin Hee Sup. Balaba was 28 years old and gunning for a title shot. Doctors removed 100 cc of blood from around his brain, but it was too late, and so his body was taken from South Korea back to the island of Mindanao, where his three small children watched his remains go into the ground. Six months thereafter, Duk Koo Kim's body was returned to South Korea. Days later, he was married posthumously to his girl friend, and two months after that, his mother, still despondent over his death, drank a bottle of pesticide so that she might kill herself, which she did.
All of these fighters came from poor families. One of the most emotional arguments made on behalf of boxing—usually by people who don't box—is that if the sport didn't exist, poor boys couldn't grow up to be Sugar Ray Leonard or Larry Holmes, with big houses and investment portfolios. It's their choice. Nobody makes these boys bash their brains in for our amusement. If we buy tickets and cheer them on, they might well become millionaires.
April 11, 1983
The problem is, very few poor young fighters ever do grow up to be Leonard or Holmes. Instead, every year, a number of them grow up to be corpses, to be Andy Balaba or Maxwell Myaica or Charles Love or Duk Koo Kim or Naoki Kobayashi. Or perhaps as bad—who knows?—they grow up to be Shin Hee Sup or Chris Naidoo or Darryl Stitch or Boom Boom Mancini or Yoshsimu Oyama.
On Lincoln's Birthday 1982, under the photograph of Vito Romero, Benjamin Davis and Louis Wade walked into the Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque to fight each other in the semifinals of the New Mexico Golden Gloves, 132-pound novice class. You could not hope to meet two nicer boys. One would help kill the other in the ring that night.
Benjie and Louis had never met one another, but Louis had seen Benjie fight the night before, in the first round of the tournament. That had been the first fight that Benjie had ever fought. Louis, who had been granted a bye in the first round of the competition, had participated in only two previous bouts.
On the tournament's opening night, a Thursday, the crowd had been sparse, so Louis had been able to move down to ringside to watch the bout that would determine his opponent for the following evening. Louis had a special interest in the boy fighting Benjie, Anthony Tapia, who came from Los Lunas, which is just a few miles up Interstate 40 from where Louis lived, in Belen. Louis had heard that Tapia was looking forward to mixing it up with him. But if Louis was primarily interested in Anthony Tapia, he was impressed by the way Benjie fought. Although the two were almost identical in size, in the same weight class, Louis thought that Benjie seemed taller than himself, and heavier. Indeed, Benjie did cut an imposing figure: His shoulders were wide, his waist a mere ribbon, his limbs all sinewy muscles, lithe and long. What Louis didn't know, though, was that Benjie was six years older than he was. Louis was only 16, but Benjie was a man of 22. That was two years over the age limit for the novice class, but the Golden Gloves wasn't too picky about little details like that. Other things the tournament couldn't be bothered with were the pre-and post-fight physicals it was required to provide.
But then, neither Benjie nor Louis had ever spent a night in a hospital. And both were good-looking, even handsome. Louis' brown hair was somewhat long, but always neatly combed, drawn down over his forehead toward his clear green eyes. He had a glimmering kind of smile. "Just plain well liked by everyone," says Casey Cordova, who was his boxing coach. "No one could help but like Louis." It was the same with Benjie. Phil Belone, his brother-in-law, who works for the Department of Indian Affairs, says: "Benjie? Warm and mischievous. A little Dennis the Menace in him, you know. But always happy. An admirable guy with just so many friends."
Benjie's hair was a bit curly, a silky black, and his dark eyes shone, even when viewed through his big oval eyeglasses. His smile was accented by his copper Navajo skin. He talked a lot, and his family kidded him about that, because as Navajos are the first to acknowledge, they're supposed to be reticent.
Benjie and Louis never said a word to one another. They saw each other in the locker room shortly before they fought, but Benjie had never laid eyes on Louis and had no idea who he was, and even though Louis had watched Benjie fight the night before against Tapia, he didn't recognize Benjie with his glasses on. So they never exchanged a word. Just blows. Even when the referee, Roger Rodriguez, had them touch gloves at the start, they didn't say anything. And in the fight itself, they never uttered a word for the two minutes of the first round and the 57 seconds of the second. The bout was scheduled to go three, but it didn't last that long, because this turned out to be a fight to the death, and that came at 0:57 of the second.
It's too bad that Benjie and Louis never got to meet in the proper way, for they would have liked one another. There was the age difference, and one was Indian and the other, as they say in New Mexico, Anglo, but they had plenty in common. Despite being as small as they were, they'd both tried football and basketball. Benjie was a rodeo champion, while Louis had just joined a rodeo club. They were attractive and popular, with boys and girls alike. Both were poor, too, with parents who had divorced. They were average students, but they worked hard and were proud of their accomplishments in the classroom. They were conscientious, dependable at what jobs they could find. They were all-American boys. A lot of people cared about them.
But here they were, alone, prepared only to hit each other, to entertain a few thousand people who had come to pass the time on a Friday evening, on Lincoln's Birthday, watching brave boys rattle each other's young brains.
Both fighters had received their first boxing gloves as presents. Benjie's older brother, Raymond, gave him a pair when he was 10, while Louis got a pair from his father, Sonny, the Christmas he was 13. They were red and white, without laces, and Louis took a real shine to them and used them to slug it out with his pal, Melvin Maldonado. But it was several years before Louis decided to pursue boxing more seriously. One day he just went over to Becker Street in Belen, to a place where Casey Cordova taught boxing. Louis told Cordova that he'd like to learn to be a fighter.
"Ever box before?" Cordova asked.
"No, not really. But my daddy used to box in the Army."
"Well, O.K., glad to have you try," Cordova said. There wasn't much to the building. It had been a bar when Cordova's father owned it, and half of it was still devoted to bingo on Friday nights. There wasn't even a ring in the room, just the essentials—a big bag and a speed bag and kids who liked to mix it up. Cordova has trained 18 state champions, including two of his own sons, although he'd never boxed himself. But he was a good athlete, and when he went to barber school in L.A., he started hanging out at the Olympic Gym, which was across the street from the school, giving free haircuts to the trainers and managers and whatnot. Casey runs the Sportsman's Barber Shop, three chairs, in Albuquerque, when he's not teaching kids boxing in Belen.
You wouldn't call Belen a suburb of Albuquerque, although it's only half an hour from downtown and a number of Belen's residents work there. Louis' stepmother, Evelyn, for example, has a job at Motorola in Albuquerque. But Belen has always had an identity of its own, right back to when it was first settled, in 1741, and it even calls itself the Hub City, which seems like conceit for a place so small. But Belen is the center of what's around, agriculture, and it has always been a railroad town, too. Belen means Bethlehem in Spanish, and it's about 50-50 Anglo and Hispanic. There are hardly any Indians in that valley, where the Rio Grande cuts through.
In February, the time of year when Louis drove up to the Golden Gloves, the land is bare and brown, scrubby. The telephone poles stand out more than anything God provided. The valley needs the spring.
Pinehaven, Benjie's town, is the other way, northwest from Albuquerque, close on the Arizona line, a few miles from the Navajo reservation that spreads across the top of each state. Benjie was born on the reservation and had lived in the vicinity, either just on or just off the reservation, all his life. Gallup is the main town in the area, right on fabled old Route 40, offering, surely, more Indian souvenirs per capita than anyplace else. INDIAN JEWELRY! the neon signs blink, and lots of establishments also hire bona fide Indians to come in and weave blankets right on the site, for the edification of tourists.
The Indian area is high, a mile or more in altitude, and at least in the winter, the diverse terrain is pleasing to the eye. There are trees on many of the mesas, full-boughed evergreens, and best of all, when there's some snow, it clings to the needles in the high dry air and makes it look as if powdered sugar had been sprinkled all around. It was so nice out that last day, before Benjie went to Albuquerque to box, that he talked his girl friend, Debbie, into taking the day off from work, and they drove deep into the reservation, past Sheep Springs, up to Washington Pass, where they could hold hands and look down on the only world they'd ever really known. There, one more time, Debbie tried to talk Benjie out of going off to fight. Maybe if the romance had been going on longer, Debbie could have won out, but Benjie had never been tied down long by any girl; he'd been going with Debbie only a couple of months, and he couldn't be swayed.
That day Louis was in school, at Belen High, where he was a junior. He would have to wear headgear when he fought in the Golden Gloves, because in New Mexico boxers under the age of 18 must wear headgear. Louis had split his two fights. His first time out, in the PAL tournament in Albuquerque, both Cordova and Louis thought he'd been jobbed, a hometown decision. That had been some months before, when Louis weighed only 103. Later, when he was up to 117, Cordova took him to Grants, which is where the Perpetual Ice Caves are, on the high road to Gallup, and this time Louis easily beat a kid from Milan. Had him bent over at the end. Wade, TKO, 3.
Cordova had no illusions about Louis, though. "He was a mediocre fighter," he says. "He could never go anywhere with it. All Louis could do was jab. But he couldn't hurt anybody with those jabs. Trouble was, he always stood flat-footed, and he backed up all the time. A lot of times, I told him, 'Now look, Louis, I'll try and get you a fight, but I'll stop it if I have to.' And he understood. The last time, I said, O.K., I'm going to let you go to the Golden Gloves, but I'm going to watch you close, and I'll stop it real fast if you start to get into any trouble."
The thing was, the bingo on Becker Street was always held Friday nights, and Cordova was going to have to stay in Belen Friday and call the bingo while Louis was fighting either Anthony Tapia or Benjamin Davis in the Golden Gloves.
Of the nine children in Benjie's family—now ranging in age from 14 to 31—he was born smack in the middle, No. 5. His mother, Katherine, 48, like many of her contemporaries, can speak only Navajo. There were so many mouths to feed that even when Benjie was in elementary school he had to be shipped away from home to attend a free government boarding school on the reservation. Even now telephones are a luxury up that way; paved roads are the exception. Four-wheel-drive pickup trucks—so many of them, it seems they must be the New Mexico state animal—the mud caked to their underpinnings, are requisite around Gallup. In winter, snow can make conditions even worse. In the cities—suburbs, too—old snow piles up on the sidewalks, growing dirtier there. But in the countryside, around the reservation, the snow doesn't get dirty. It just melts and makes the dirt dirtier.
Still, no question: Of the two boys, the Anglo, Louis, had had the harder life. His parents separated when he was very young, his mother all but fading from his existence, his father going off to Vietnam and then to Belen, where he remarried. Louis stayed with his paternal grandmother in Florida. He was going to rejoin his father in New Mexico sooner than he did, but the grandmother grew sick and she loved the little boy, so everybody decided it would be unwise to take Louis away from her. So he stayed in Florida until she died. He was eight when he came out to Belen, to his father's new family, with a stepsister three years younger and a half brother on the way.
One of the reasons Louis couldn't concentrate on boxing as much as he wanted to was that he had to devote a lot of his time to working. About the time of the Golden Gloves, one of the jobs he had was doing yard work for an elderly lady in town. He felt close to her. The closest adult in his whole life had probably been his grandmother, and the old woman he worked for must have reminded him of her. He told friends he would go visit the old woman when things weren't good at home, "when things close in on me."
What Louis liked best about boxing was the solitude, the road work, running alone. It wasn't the hitting. He wasn't street-tough. His aunt, Sylvia Burns, says, "If there was ever any confrontation, Louis would walk away from it." He was never in any trouble.
Not long before the fight, Louis also joined the rodeo club at Belen High. Rodeo is an individual sport, too. Louis hadn't chosen a rodeo event to specialize in by the time he had to go up to Albuquerque, though.
Benjie, however, was already very accomplished in rodeo. As a bull rider, he had finished second in the New Mexico high school finals in 1978, which earned him a trip to the nationals, in South Dakota. He lasted seven seconds on the bull he drew. Eight is the limit you have to reach. The only reason Benjie got involved with boxing was that the Indian rodeo circuit wasn't starting up again for a few weeks. He had some time on his hands, that's all. Surely, he wasn't any kind of troublemaker, no macho brawler. "Spit in Benjie's eye," Phil Belone, his brother-in-law, says, "and first he'd ask you why you did that." If there was ever any confrontation, Louis would walk away.
Benjie was always a hard worker, too. After he graduated from high school at Wingate in '78, he took special vocational training and became a heavy-equipment operator. But work was scarce in the winter of '82, and Benjie met a guy named Dave Peterson on the reservation, in the Navajo hamlet where Debbie was living. Peterson was coach of the Navajo Boxing Club. Benjie started working out.
All he talked about, though, was how itchy he was for the Indian rodeos to start again. He even got some lumber, and with two of his brothers he planned to build his own rodeo arena, chute and all, down in Pinehaven, where he'd lived with his father, Charlie, since his parents' divorce.
The breakup had wounded Benjie. Unlike Louis, who never really had a family, Benjie was used to a whole household. His folks didn't split apart until he was a 10th-grader, and he brooded a lot, longing for the time when he would have his own family. Louis would go talk to the old woman when he needed someone. Benjie got the same sort of solace from being around children. He loved to play with his nieces and nephews. One day, not long before he went to Albuquerque to fight, he took Ernessa, his sister Lena's little girl, and held her on his lap, hugging her, for the longest time.
"Hey, what are you doing with my baby?" Lena said at last, laughing.
"Just practicing," Benjie said, flashing that gigantic smile of his. "Just practicing for when I have my own."
He knew most of the family members wouldn't like it one bit if they learned he was boxing. Benjie wrestled, played football at 130 pounds, learned the martial arts, broke a pony when he was only six years old, rode some mean horses and would jump on a 2,000-pound bull's neck in a rodeo. But in those activities the potential for danger was random. In boxing, the hurt was intentional.
Benjie did tell his younger brothers, Raymond and Augustine, what he was up to, but he also cautioned them, "Don't tell Mom." His sisters didn't know, either, and his girl didn't like it. But he told Debbie he couldn't let Dave down, couldn't let the team down. And so Benjie came down from Washington Pass, left Debbie behind, left the reservation behind, and went to fight in Albuquerque, on another one of those days when all the pickups were dirty and splattered.
At the motel where the Navajo team put up, Benjie took a room with Johnny King, his best friend in the club. Then they all went over to the Civic Auditorium. It had been built in 1957 but had become something of a white elephant, because all the top events in town play The Pit, the beautiful, 18,000-seat arena a couple of miles away on the University of New Mexico campus, where this week's NCAA basketball final was held. The Civic seats only around 4,000, maybe 5,000 with the extra folding seats that can be put on the floor for boxing. The Civic is conveniently located, though. It's right off the Interstate, in the middle of town, and easy to spot because it shares its parking lot with St. Joseph's Hospital, distinguished by its deep blue cross, set high up in its white facing.
On that first night Louis wasn't much impressed by the Anthony Tapia-Benjamin Davis fight. Tapia was so worn out from his exertions in the first round that he couldn't even come out for the second. Cordova was watching, too, and he didn't see anything for Louis to worry about; he was sure it wasn't going to make much difference that he had to be at the bingo in Belen Friday and wouldn't be looking out for Louis from his corner.
Still, come Friday morning, Louis was becoming nervous. He had permission not to go to school that day, but he couldn't sleep, and his friends were surprised to see him come to class. He stayed half the day.
By contrast, after winning his fight against Tapia, Benjie seemed at ease. Certainly he showed no concern that anything consequential was going to happen that evening—"and Indians usually have strong premonitions," Phil Belone says. As a matter of fact, although Benjie was usually an early riser at home, in the motel he slept late. It was past 10 that morning before Benjie stirred, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and said good morning to Johnny King.
There was a respectable crowd that night at the Civic Auditorium. The Navajo Boxing Club had come over from the motel as a group, Benjie included. Steve Pena. Cordova's assistant, had driven Louis up from Belen around six o'clock. There was no sense getting there too early. Davis vs. Wade wouldn't be till the 12th fight on the card.
So it was going on a quarter to nine when the two boys got the call, walked out into the smoky arena, climbed through the ropes and looked at one another. They both wore gold tops, but Benjie was in maroon trunks, Louis in blue. And, of course, they both had on protective headgear.
The two boys moved to the center of the ring and listened to Referee Rodriguez' instructions. Lots of fighters will use this moment to try to intimidate the other fellow, but neither Louis nor Benjie was that kind of person. The whole thing was so incongruous—just their being in this position, having to hit each other. Louis did peer thoughtfully into the older boy's face, but even that little gesture seemed too much of a confrontation for Benjie, and he ducked his dark eyes.
The bell rang. This would be the third fight for Louis, the second for Benjie. and the last for them both. They came to blows.
Louis, though younger, clearly had more ring experience, and he gained the early advantage. He shot his long left out, again and again, bothering Benjie, scoring points, compensating for his flat-footedness, so that Benjie could not close on Louis. Jab, jab. Down in Belen, Cordova was calling off the night's bingo numbers: N-43. 1-24. G-68, and so forth. Up near the reservation, the Navajos were pouring into Gallup from all around, pickups parading, the way they always do on Friday, payday. The town was lit up bright. Tacos! Mucho Munchies! Rooms $13.95! $12.95!! Indian Jewelry!!!
And now it was the middle of the first round, and Louis was scoring so well with the jab that he got a little confident. This time when he jabbed, clipping Benjie, he tried to follow with a right upper-cut. It missed, though. Benjie slipped that, and he remembered the sequence. Moments later, when Louis tried the same thing again, Benjie was ready.
He couldn't duck the jab, but he was waiting, and when Louis tried the right, Benjie dodged it easily, cocking his own right fist as he did, and there was Louis standing flat-footed, his weight back. He was caught open, and the blow crashed hard into his face. Louis shuddered, pain rushing to his nose. In his three fights, in all his time in the ring, Louis had never felt a punch like that.
Perhaps if Benjie had been more experienced he could have finished off Louis before the bell. Of course, it's also a possibility that Benjie did know what to do, but he just couldn't manage to do it because his reaction time was dulled from blows he had taken from Tapia only 24 hours before. Whatever, Louis was able to get his jab going again.
Back in his corner after the first round, Louis mentioned how much his nose hurt, and he said he thought he would take it easy this round, conserve himself. Pena nodded. He assured Louis that despite Benjie's one good punch, Louis had scored almost all the points in the first round with his jab. He was ahead, he could afford to take it easy for a round.
But almost as soon as the bell rang, Louis had to change his plan. He couldn't coast. Benjie didn't seem to put up any resistance at all. Jab, jab, jab. And this round, when Louis followed the jabs with crosses, they crashed home, Benjie's head snapping back. After the second of these combinations rang true, Benjie let his hands drop, and he just stood there. But the referee did nothing, and nobody threw a towel up through the smoke. The crowd yelled in appreciation. Louis waited for a signal to stop, but there wasn't any, so he poked Benjie with a left. Then a right. Another left. More raucous cheers. And now Benjie staggered and fell across the ropes, his stomach against one of the strands. Again Louis held back. There was no sign from the referee, even though when Benjie struggled back and righted himself, Louis could see that his eyes were glassy. But Benjie was back on his two feet now, and the crowd was cheering, and Louis fired out one more time, another left. This time Benjie crumpled and fell in a heap to the canvas, his brain now swimming in blood, bruised and purple and of no more use to him.
Suddenly, Louis was scared about what had happened to Benjie. "I had seen the way his eyes rolled back in his head," he said. So, in a neutral corner now, Louis fell to a knee and prayed.
The referee took off Benjie's gloves and his shoes. The one doctor there climbed into the ring. Benjie needed oxygen. There was no oxygen in the building. He needed to get to a hospital. And there was St. Joe's right out the door, just across the parking lot, its blue cross shining down like a star, but there was no ambulance, not even a stretcher. They had to tend to Benjie where he had fallen.
After a few minutes, the referee went through the ritual of raising Louis' hand in victory. And then Louis left the ring. He remembers hearing someone say "Good fight" as he passed through the haze and the crowd. Pena drove Louis back home to Belen, but he couldn't sleep. He kept seeing Benjie on the canvas, "lying there with his eyes all white." Good fight. Wade, KO, 2.
It wasn't until past four in the morning that the cops could reach the Davis family. Even then, the only news at first was that Benjie had suffered an "accident," so the family members assumed it involved an automobile. Except for the two younger brothers, sleeping, none of the Davises knew about Benjie's boxing. His mother and his three sisters, Elsie, Lena and Loretta, drove to Albuquerque, but they didn't learn about the boxing until they finally got to St. Joe's, around eight in the morning. It was already too late. Benjie had gone without a heartbeat for 10 minutes or more. By the time they finally got him across the parking lot to St. Joe's, in an ambulance that had to be called, he was no more than a bunch of organs. The first night that Benjie ever stayed in a hospital, he slept there dead.
"What made it even harder," Phil Be-lone says, "is that there were no bruises on him. It just looked like he was lying there, sleeping." When the family finally decided to have the life-support machines turned off on Feb. 17, after Valentine's Day had come and gone, they all went in to say their last goodbys. "We're Christians," Belone says. "We just believed that Benjie went to sleep in the ring and woke up in heaven."
On the 17th, Louis was drifting off in his own bed when his father and stepmother came into the room. Up to then Louis hadn't come to grips with the obvious truth. "I just thought it was a boxing injury," he says. Now his parents had learned the news, and they wanted Louis to hear it from them first. He took it hard. His stepmother gave him a sleeping pill, but it was hours before he slept. The next morning he didn't go to school, but instead rode aimlessly around on his bicycle. After a while it started to drizzle, and he went over to the house where his friend the old woman lived. She had heard the news, and asked him if he wanted to talk it out. No, Louis said, not even with her. Instead, he asked her if she minded if he raked some leaves. She said that would be fine, and so Louis spent the next few hours raking leaves in the rain.
By the time Benjie was buried five days later, on Monday, the 22nd, George Washington's Birthday, the skies had cleared. It was uncommonly warm for February in Gallup. A lot of the people who overflowed the Christian Reformed Church hadn't even worn overcoats.
The service was conducted in English and Navajo. The eulogy was delivered by Raymond Pinto, a distant relative who had been Benjie's science teacher at Wingate High. "In Hebrew, Benjamin means son of my right hand," Pinto said. "It was always a fitting name, for Benjamin was always willing to help. He was a particularly loving son."
Then Benjie's cousins, Sharon and Cecil Benally, came up to sing Amazing Grace. The church was hushed.
"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound..." the cousins began, but after only a few more words Sharon began to cry, and soon she couldn't go on. Cecil moved closer to her, and without missing a note, he put his arm around her and held her as he kept on singing by himself:
"Through many dangers, toils, and snares;
I have already come; 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.
And grace will lead me home."
Sharon had come up to sing with her brother, and now here he was singing alone, while everyone out in the pews was with her, crying.
"He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures...."
Cecil held steady to the end.
Three more cousins were among the pallbearers, along with Benjie's high school basketball and wrestling coaches and Andrew Chicharello's older brother. Andrew was Benjie's best friend, but, at the last, he couldn't bear to come, and so his brother took his place. The casket they carried was black with silver trim. Benjie lay inside on a Navajo blanket. He was wearing a Western-cut suit, and his black Stetson rested beside him.
He was put to rest under the warm sun in Sunset Memorial Park, just off Business Route 40, the main drag, at the western edge of Gallup. Another time of year, Benjie might have been buried in a family place on the reservation, but in February the roads are usually so bad that it would be hard to get there, even for pickups with four-wheel drive.
"His was an honorable death," Phil Belone says. "Benjie died as an athlete."
While Benjie had still lain at St. Joe's, technically alive, Evelyn Wade, Louis' stepmother, had gone up there. The members of the Davis family whom she met told her to take the word back to Louis that no one blamed him. To this day they only have compassion for him, and everybody keeps assuring Louis that it was not his fault. Sometimes he believes that.
Louis' school was especially supportive. The teachers knew he hadn't ever had much of a male influence at home, and so, led by Ron Hodges, the principal, the men teachers rallied to him. There was also a middle-aged man in town whom Louis knew, and one day he asked Louis to come see him. He told Louis something that even the man's own children didn't know, that once, when he was young and working in an oilfield, there was an accident that he was involved in and another boy was killed, and he had had to live with that knowledge all these years. And Louis and the man both began to cry, out of the pain that they shared.
There were no cruel taunts from the other students. Still, there are times when Louis walks by some kids and he hears the word kill mumbled, and he knows what they're talking about. "You almost forget it sometimes, until you see something, like when the Korean was killed," he says. "Then it comes back." And he tries to stifle his tears.
In the fall, for a few weeks, he tried boxing again. "But I guess I still haven't gotten far enough away from it," he says. "I started working out, but I just couldn't get into it." Just about everybody understands that, except for his father, who tells Louis that if he doesn't box again, he'll be a coward. So, not long ago, Louis moved in with other relatives.
It might help Louis to know that many people think the greater damage was probably done to Benjie in his first fight, on the Thursday. The fact that Benjie slept so uncommonly late Friday is a telltale sign of coma. Later in the day he complained to Johnny King of a headache. Even the most cursory examination would have resulted in Benjie's being prohibited from fighting Friday. But Louis is hard to convince. He saw the Thursday bout, and he's positive Benjie "just didn't get hit that hard."
Louis prays for Benjie. He goes to church more regularly now. He's a Pentecostal. Recently he enlisted in the Army for four years and will report for basic training shortly after he graduates from high school in June. It's best that he get away. "Maybe I'll try boxing again when I get in the Army," he says. "You know, after I let everything settle."
Cordova is against that. "You've got to be really mean in the ring to box well," he says. "Louis just isn't mean; he's too nice. He never wanted to hurt anybody."
And that makes two of them. When Katherine Davis talks about her son, the first word she chooses for Benjie is baatei-abin, Navajo for "gentle." She starts to cry. It has been a year now, and she has eight surviving children near her, but that doesn't help. "I was never sick before," she says. "Now I'm sick all the time." She wears an aqua-colored bandanna about her head, Indian jewelry upon her wrists and clothing. "Baatei-abin" she says again. "Gentle. And always with a smile. That's how I think Benjie would want to be remembered."
But no one—none of the men, anyway—on either side wants to blame boxing for the tragedy. "I like boxing. It's my favorite sport," Louis says. Indeed everybody goes out of their way to absolve boxing. The Davis family is suing every principal, individual and corporate, involved with the fight, except Louis, and everyone from the U.S. Olympic Committee—which sanctioned the bouts—on down denies any responsibility whatsoever for the events that took a healthy 22-year-old's life. But nobody is mad at boxing. It's only, they say so conveniently, as ever, the corruption within boxing that's accused of poisoning the sweet science. Corruption is the best thing boxing has going for it, because as long as it is there to divert attention, who will ever say, no, it's not the corruption that corrupts but the science itself. Good fight. KO, 2.
Ernie Arviso, who is married to Benjie's older sister, Lena, brushes back the snow and scrapes away at the ice on the headstone that lies flush with the ground. Without headstones sticking up, it's easier to mow the grass. Lena picks up the flowers they left here last time, now withered, colorless in the cold. Ernie has cleared the ice away from the headstone enough now to read: 1959-1982. And above that: BENJAMIN DAVIS. And above that: IN MEMORY OF BROTHER AND SON. That was what Benjie was; he never had the chance but to practice at holding his own child.
What could he have been—what else, anyway, besides a husband and father? "I think if he was still around, Benjie would be in the rodeo," Herman Arviso says. He is another brother-in-law, and he was a rodeo champion himself.
"The last time I spoke to Benjie, just before the fight, he was really excited about getting ready for the rodeo," Lena says.
"Oh yeah," says Herman. "He could've been a champ bull rider. He was that good."
Someone translates that for Benjie's mother, and Mrs. Davis nods and smiles and fingers the blanket she has just finished. Over in Pinehaven, though, no one ever bothered to try and complete the rodeo arena Benjie had started just before he went down to Albuquerque to fight another boy.
Now that Louis has given up boxing, he is concentrating more on rodeo. It has been months since Cordova last saw Louis. He hasn't been by the room on Becker Street at all. In what spare time he has, Louis goes out to a rodeo arena known as the Sheriffs Posse. He looks the part, too. This day Louis is dressed in boots, Western shirt, jeans, a cowboy belt, bandanna and rodeo club jacket. It's black with silver trim. He says he has a rodeo specialty now, too. It's bull riding.
What a shame it was that the two boys, the Anglo and the Indian, never knew each other except for two minutes and 57 seconds one night in a boxing ring, pummeling each other's faces in the haze, for the roar of the crowd and something dark in all our souls.