Patrick Day’s death from brain trauma sustained in his super welterweight fight against Charles Conwell in Chicago on Saturday 12 October once again shines a harsh light on boxing in a year in which four ring fatalities constitutes a grim and impossible to wish away toll.
Though, inevitably, a chorus of voices will now be calling for the sport to be banned, such talk will always be incompatible with reality. Boxing has remained a fixture of our culture for millennia and will continue to do so as long as men (and increasingly women) feel the primal urge to climb into a ring and seek the transcendence to be found there.
Indeed, and fundamentally, to enter a boxing ring is to embark on a reach for meaning and validation in a world in which both are hard to find. As to the risks involved, Joyce Carol Oates in her classic work ‘On Boxing’ reminds is that “death in the ring is extremely unlikely; a statistically rare possibility like your possible death tomorrow in an automobile accident or in next month’s headlined airline disaster or in a freak accident involving a fall on the stairs or in the bathtub, a skull fracture, subarachnoid haemorrhage.”
Yet though the risk of death may be minimal, we cannot airily dismiss the reality that boxing is a sport which straddles a very thin line between nobility and barbarity. If the sport is to remain on the right side of this line, there now has to be serious review of rules that are not, in this writer’s opinion, currently fit for purpose.
Patrick Day was down three times before being stopped in the tenth round on that fateful night. And though it would be crass and unjust to ascribe blame for this tragedy to any one individual involved in the fight — whether referee Celestino Ruiz, Day’s long-time trainer Joe Higgins, the doctor who passed him fit to fight on, or indeed anybody else — boxing now needs to take a hard look at itself.
That Patrick Day was not of your normal boxing stock — that he did not come from poverty or the hard background that is the hammer and anvil upon which fighters are commonly forged — and fought simply because he loved it; this should not be lost. But the fact that he loved the sport and wasn’t the usual victim of economic circumstances that compelled him to fight does not in any way mitigate the tragedy of his death.
Likewise, the usual assertion bandied around whenever a ring tragedy occurs, namely that the fighter involved knew the risks, is hollow and facile. Knowing the risks in the abstract sense and believing you’re actually in danger is not the same thing. We all know objectively that there’s a risk involved in crossing the road or in getting on an airplane, but if we had so much as a tincture of feeling or belief that do so in a given moment or on a particular occasion would be to actually invite death, we would not.
With this in mind, rule changes should now be seriously considered to the standing eight-count, which is not nearly long enough after a knockdown in most cases, the number of times a fighter can touch the canvas before the fight is automatically stopped, the size of gloves used in professional contests, the role of doctors at ringside, and perhaps most importantly of all an end to the madness of fighters half starving and dehydrating themselves in an effort to make weight.
However the most important thing that needs to change, and by definition the hardest, is the prevailing culture within boxing. It is a sport in which the vocabulary of combat serves to dehumanise fighters and project onto them a romantic notion of warriors for whom the laws of medical science and physiology do not apply. Words such as ‘heart’, ‘iron chin’, ‘warrior’ etc., do much to distort the reality of two men at peak fitness and strength engaging in what amounts to unarmed combat with the objective of rendering one another semi-conscious or unconscious.
This alone sets boxing apart from other contact sports; and this alone is why four ring fatalities in one year makes it high time that a root and branch of the sport is undertaken.
For me boxing remains the greatest sport in the world, whose history is littered with some of the most brilliant, courageous and truly ennobling of men. It is a sport rich in drama and excitement, carrying within it the potential to touch greatness. On the other hand it is also pregnant with danger and has found itself at wallowing in the gutter at various points.
In all things, evolution is the acme of progress, and so let Patrick Day’s tragic death be the catalyst for the evolution that boxing sorely needs.