On Nov. 2, heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov fought 10 hard rounds against "Irish" Mike Perez at Madison Square Garden. Today, Abdusalamov sits in a bed in Roosevelt Hospital, in a medically induced coma. It's worth reflecting on when fights should be stopped.
Abdusalamov broke his hand early in the fight. Soon after, he complained of a broken nose. Soon after that, he broke something in his face, which caused him to take on a noticeably grotesque appearance. Still, he fought on. He's an unpolished boxer, but a big puncher, and everyone—his corner, the judges, the doctors, the referee, and the fans—watched him gamely fight on, taking a vicious beating but never collapsing. We all assumed he still had a puncher's chance. He finished the fight on his feet.
After the fight, he was cleared by doctors. He left the arena, threw up outside, and caught a cab to the hospital. He was found to have a blood clot in his brain. Doctors placed him in an induced coma. For a while, he was expected to die. Now, he's expected to live, although what condition he'll be in after he's awoken is still unknown. His boxing career, a promising one, is over. His ability to live a normal life may well be over. He finished the fight on his feet. But he shouldn't have been allowed to.
Many things could have been done differently that might have prevented this horrific outcome for Magomed Abdusalamov. (And for the Mexican fighter Frankie Leal, who died last month after a fight that he never should have been allowed to participate in.) Medical oversight in the sport of boxing is clearly inadequate. But let's focus on the simplest measure of all: the fight could have been stopped. The culture of boxing often prevents a fighter from making a request to stop a fight, even if he really, really wants the fight to end. That leaves it to the referee, the cornermen, and the doctors to stop the fight. More generally, everyone who makes the sport of boxing possible—the fans who buy the tickets and watch the fights, the trainers in every gym around the world, and the media that covers the sport—bears a certain responsibility to demand a sport that is as humane as possible, given the givens. No one needs to die after a boxing match. Fights should be stopped before death, disfigurement, or permanent damage become unavoidable.
Referees stop fights when a boxer can't answer a 10 count after a knockdown, or when, in the ref's judgment, a boxer can no longer protect himself or is simply taking too much punishment. The problem, of course is that the ref's judgment is fallible, and varies from person to person. A few common sense guidelines could go a long way towards standardizing when fights should end.
Stop a fight when a fighter breaks his hand. Boxers break their hands during fights all the time. Some guys are known for doing it on a regular basis. And yes, it is possible to win a fight with a broken hand and a large heaping of will and pain tolerance. But a boxing match is not much more than two people with two hands each. Asking someone to box with one hand is like asking a baseball player to continue hitting after breaking his bat. It shouldn't be done. If a fighter breaks his hand, stop the fight and go to the scorecards.
Stop a fight when a fighter's vision is impaired. Fighting with one eye isn't quite as bad as fighting with one hand, but boxing without depth perception or peripheral vision on one side of your head is not safe, fair, or rational. Yeah, fights are routinely stopped when a cut is bleeding into a fighter's eye—but fights are routinely not stopped when vision is impaired for some other reason, like swelling from a big punch. For example, this is the face of a man who was allowed to finish an entire fight. It's a recipe for disaster.
Stop a fight when a fighter sustains a broken facial bone. Again, there is a brutality level in boxing that is accepted as perfectly normal, which, if you are able to escape the "it's always been done like this" mindset for a moment, will strike you as clearly inhumane and borderline insane. Sometimes, a punch will break a boxer's cheekbone, or orbital bone around the eye, or their nose. If someone has a broken bone in their face, they should not be getting punched more on that broken bone. Not for one more round. That's how faces get turned to soup. Yes, I am advocating that fights be stopped if a fighter suffers a broken nose. (Broken noses are in some ways worse than other facial injuries, because they also prevent a fighter from breathing properly.) Yes, I am aware that, traditionally, a fighter who asked for a fight to stop merely because he had a broken nose would be considered a pussy by the average boxing fan. If the average boxing fan thinks it is such a minor matter to punched in an already broken nose, I advise the average boxing fan to volunteer to try it.
Boxing will never be easy, painless, or safe. But it can be safer, if we all agree to treat it as a sport, rather than as a gladiatorial battle. I can defend boxing as a beautiful sport. I cannot defend boxing as a way for us all to get our kicks by watching men kill each other. In sports, players who are too injured to continue get to stop playing until they heal. In boxing, we expect fighters who know they are being severely physically damaged to rise and walk back for more, round after round, until their bodies and brains literally give out. Only in Rocky movies does this process result in stirring triumphs of the human spirit. In real life, it ends on a bed in Roosevelt Hospital. And it's not worth it.
You can donate to Magomed Abdusalamov here.