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Boxing is a Goddamned Tragedy

Yeah. I know I’ve said otherwise. But how does one make any sense of out of something like this? Journeyman bantamweight Francisco “Franky” Leal has died after being knocked out on Saturday night and never regaining consciousness.

The fight was ugly. Watch if you wish. Or skip to 38 minutes into the film, the end of the eighth round, when Leal is wounded by a body shot, backs helplessly into a corner, and is felled by what looks like a rabbit punch. The aftermath is as hard to watch as anything you’ll see in boxing.

Leal gets up but immediately starts to go downhill. He wobbles in a way that’s sickeningly familiar to those who remember Gerald McClellan collapsing against Nigel Benn or Jose Victor Burgos’s ill-fated fight against Vic Darchinyan. It’s not the usual short-circuit in the synapses: it’s a wobble that means that his brain is broken; damaged irretrievably. The fighter shivers like a ship being battered by troubled waters. When you see it, you instantly know it’s over.


Leal slumps into his corner. There’s not even a stool for him to sit on. His eyes are still open, but he’s already gone. A doctor tries to look in his eyes for signs of recognition. There’s nothing coming back. The bleeding in Leal’s brain is getting worse with each passing second. Everyone knows what’s happening. His opponent - celebrating moments earlier - is ashen. Leal’s body is sloppily placed onto a bright orange stretcher, his eyes still refusing to close even as the last bit of life seems to have already left his limbs. He’s taken away from the ring. He’ll never be seen again.

This wasn’t the first time Leal left the ring on a stretcher. It happened last March, in Texas, against an undefeated Russian prospect fighting out of California’s newest boxing mecca, Oxnard. And he’s been knocked out on several occasions, including a stoppage at the hands of the sole recognizable name on his resume, Celestino Caballero. Maybe he should not have been allowed to continue fighting. Certainly, that’s what most rational people would have decided to do after coming that close to death. But Leal soldiered on because that’s what fighters do. Especially poor fighters who spend their life as what can generously be described as a B-side fighter, or what sometimes more accurately can be called cannon fodder.


I won’t pretend I knew Franky Leal. I didn’t. I knew his name, I’d seen him fight once or twice, but he hadn’t made an impression. If he’d died in a car wreck this weekend, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I wouldn’t have been alone.

Tonight, there is plenty of mourning online. Boxing writers and fans are passing along their condolences on twitter, on message boards, on fan sites. They’ll say the right things. They’ll curse the corner that let him continue after an earlier knockdown. They’ll condemn the doctors who cleared him for the fight. They’ll promise to never forget Franky Leal, and then they’ll go back to rubbing their palms together in anticipation of the surefire knockout that awaits in the showdown between Gennady Golovkin and Curtis Stevens in two weeks.


Franky Leal is dead because boxing fans and the boxing industry are hypocrites. I am. Even as I sit here cursing the sport that let an innocent man die for the amusement of others, I know my disgust will pass, my love for the sport will return, and I’ll be eagerly waiting to plop down $65 to watch Manny Pacquiao fight next month. Manny Pacquiao. The guy whose last fight ended in a horrifying knockout. The guy who was last seen looking like this:

Illustration for article titled Boxing is a Goddamned Tragedy

If Manny dies against his next opponent - the relentless, heavy-hitting, Brandon Rios - will that be enough? Will we admit we should have known? Will we admit that maybe the guy in the ring, the guy who has been told his whole life that he’s indestructible by the people who profit off his pain, the guy who has never known any other life, isn’t the most objective judge of his own mortality? Will we concede that the sport is crying out for regulation - honest to goodness regulation - that will protect fighters from themselves, their fans, and the industry? Would the death of its most beloved star just months after such a clear reminder of his mortality force Congress to act? The casinos? The athletic commissions?


Why should it change a thing? The hypocrisy allowed a broken, slurring old Muhammad Ali - its most beloved treasure - to get humiliated in the ring by Trevor Berbick. Trevor Berbick. A guy who is best known for his own devastating loss to Mike Tyson. A guy who wound up getting beaten to death with a pipe in Jamaica. The hypocrisy lets my childhood heroes, Roy Jones and Evander Holyfield, keep fighting when their talent and health (and, of course, dollars) have long since abandoned them. The hypocrisy somehow let Paul Briggs get into the ring with Danny Green at a time when he was, at best, physically and mentally broken, and perhaps, in the pocket of gamblers to boot. (Go ahead. Watch the clip. I promise you won’t need to wait very long for the ending.)

Franky Leal is dead. And we will keep watching. Franky Leal is dead. And the sport will not change. Franky Leal is dead. We could have stopped it from happening. Franky Leal is dead. His blood be upon us and our children.


Rest in peace, Franky. I surely cannot.

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