The futility of the search for someone to blame here is the real story. There never was, and never will be anyone to blame because no one knew.
I saw this fight live last October, and even though I’ve had first-hand experience with boxing and brain trauma, nobody in the crowd–and I’d venture to guess no one in the ring either–knew what was happening. People get the impression that boxing is some kind of primitive ritual to determine who can hurt who the most. It’s not. It’s an art and a science, and we’ve focused so much on the artistry that we haven’t worked out the science enough to keep our athletes safe. All the cliches about not knowing the “meaning of quit” and “the heart of a warrior” are just decoration for people putting their lives on the line for a sport they love. It’s no different from football, horse racing and many other sports. We can’t reduce it to a special situation where we ignore the dangers because it’s a “contact sport” or a “combat sport.” The AIBA is moving in the right direction–they removed the requirement for headgear in the games, rejecting the conventional wisdom that headgear prevents brain injuries–but it’s not enough. Everyone involved in the sport has to shift their perspective.
The problem in this one incident was that no one did anything to stop the damage and get help, but the larger tragedy is that no one (other than Colon himself) could have done anything. There’s nothing in the regulations that would have allowed, or even suggested an official way to end the fight based on injury. Nothing to point to that would show that the doctor should have stopped the fight, that the corner should have taken the complaints more seriously, or that the referee should have noticed indicators that something was wrong.
The most frightening part of this incident is that it has happened before. There are dozens of similar stories are scattered throughout boxing history, but even now, nothing has changed. An old-school boxing fan might say that the rules are this way to preserve the dignity of the sport and of the fighters. It’s true, pride and stoicism are a big part of boxing. But does anyone really believe that an entire generation of young athletes would reject the sport if they’re told “we might have to stop the fight even if if you feel okay, because sometimes you don’t know until it’s too late”? They wouldn’t, because it would be a simple reality of the sport, like a rain delay in baseball. But ask that same old-school fan if Colon should have told his corner, or the referee, that he wanted to quit? A pretty resounding “no,” would be your answer. Any boxer or trainer will tell you that the willingness to fight through pain is what makes a fighter a fighter. It’s ingrained in you as fundamental to the sport from the moment you put on the gloves. This means that there were no options that would have resulted in the end of this fight at a time early enough to diagnose and treat Colon. None of the individuals with the authority to stop the fight had any official means to do so available to them.
The only solution is a change in the sport itself. What might that look like? There are much smarter people than me to answer that question, but at the lowest levels, maybe that would mean we stop telling these kids to suck it up if they feel shaky after getting hit. Maybe officials at amateur contests would remind the fighters and the referee that the fight can and should be stopped if someone feels dizzy or off-balance. Maybe one day we could even hear Michael Buffer, before invoking his signature line, reminding spectators before a big fight that we want both men to come out of the ring safely. Some might think of it as a concession to modern sensibilities, but, in reality, it would be an evolution. An advance in the science of sport. Sure, it’ll change the way we look at wins and losses. “Somebody’s ‘o’ has got to go” might be a phrase we hear less often and take less seriously. But there are a lot of people out there who would be grateful for it. There are a lot of human beings out there wearing boxing gloves right now who would rather someone tell them “it’s okay to lose, I’m calling this one,” than listen to a doctor explain the odds of them ever walking again. If that sounds too melodramatic, then think about it in practical terms: this fight was stopped on a technicality when the corner of one fighter thought the fight had ended and began removing his gloves. Would fans really prefer the fight to be stopped for something like that, than for the safety of one of the competitors?
Trainers, fighters–fathers, sons–mothers, daughters–remember Prichard Colon. Have compassion when you’re getting ready, or helping someone you love get ready for their next fight. Use your imagination when you’re picturing what boxing should look like when you or someone you love gets under those bright lights and hears the roar of the crowd. These men and women are not gladiators for our entertainment, they’re our friends, our family. They’re us.