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Boxing has saved countless lives, but when one is lost the pain never subsides

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

It wasn’t much of a day for laughter. The past 72+ hours have been difficult for all those who were part of the fight between Maxim Dadashev and Subriel Matias, a bout that was held Friday at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Dadashev died Tuesday in a Maryland hospital of the injuries he suffered from his fight.

Carl Moretti’s voice cracked as he spoke about Dadashev. The vice president of boxing operations for Top Rank, which promoted Friday’s bout, managed a small laugh when recalling Dadashev.

Moretti told of how he referred to Dadashev as “Gilligan,” the inept sailor portrayed by Bob Denver on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.”

“He wore that floppy hat, that I call a Gilligan hat, and so I’d call him Gilligan a lot,” Moretti said. “He was such a great kid. He was a quiet, unassuming kid who was never a problem. He was so happy to be here and he wanted to fight to make life better for his family. He would talk about his family so much and how everything he put himself through was for them.”

That’s the hard part of all of this. These are real people with families and dreams and aspirations.

McGirt: Dadashev wanted the best for his family

Buddy McGirt is a Hall of Fame boxer who has gone on to become one of the sport’s elite trainers. He was working Dadashev’s corner on Friday and stopped the fight after the 11th.

McGirt is a wise and compassionate man and did exactly the right thing in calling a halt to the bout. There was no one moment when it appeared that Dadashev was in more trouble than any other.

But McGirt is clearly troubled by Dadashev’s passing and was struggling to cope with his loss. For a guy who has seen just about everything, this is the kind of thing that shakes you to the core.

“I really don’t know what to say, to be honest with you, man,” McGirt said. “Great kid. Very regimented. He wanted the best for his family. It’s just tough to put into words.”

McGirt said he decided after the 10th to give Dadashev a final chance. When the bell sounded to end the 11th, McGirt had made his decision. He was going to stop the fight, no matter what. Dadashev, though, poured his heart out in the ring in search of a victory that would have landed him a title shot, and would have been a key in him eventually qualifying for his green card.

So McGirt asked Dadashev if he wanted to go on, even though he wasn’t going to let him. It was McGirt’s way of allowing Dadashev to maintain his pride, to have the microphones recording him pleading with him for the chance to continue.

“I knew going into the 11th, it was the last chance I was giving him,” McGirt said. “When the round ended, my mind was made up that I was going to stop it. No question, I was going to stop it.”

Only seconds after the bout ended, a colleague watching the stream on ESPN+ texted me and said, “Buddy McGirt just saved Dadashev’s life!” Sadly, my colleague was incorrect.

Maxim Dadashev (L) returns to his corners after the fourth round of a junior welterweight IBF title elimination fight The Theater at MGM National Harbor on July 19, 2019 in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (Getty Images)

Boxing’s relative safety compared to other careers

Countless fighters have been saved by boxing, far more than have lost their lives as a result of it. They found boxing and it gave them a purpose in their lives and often kept them out of jail, off of drugs and/or alcohol and in many cases, it helped prevent their deaths.

In times like this, boxing’s critics will be out and call for its abolition and for changes to the rules. Of course, any reasonable person would be in favor of anything that could lessen the occurrence of such incidents.

But statistically, there aren’t that many deaths in boxing. It’s their high-profile nature and the fact that they’re almost always covered by media that creates this perception that ring deaths happen more often than is true.

In 2016, there were 91 total deaths in logging and 135.9 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers. It was the most dangerous job that year. In 2017, there were 99.8 fatal injuries per 100,000 fishermen and 41 deaths.

In 2016, there is only one known boxing death, which came in Glasgow, Scotland. In 2017, there are two known boxing-related deaths, both of which occurred in Canada.

Statistics, though, are numbers on paper and can’t make one feel better about the loss of Dadashev, a young man in the prime of his life. Dadashev was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, but was hoping to get a green card so he could live full-time in the U.S.

The soul-crushing reality of seeing a fighter die

Dadashev’s death was crushing, horrifying news that made me question my commitment to writing about this sport. I didn’t know Dadashev and wasn’t ringside for his fight. I was in Las Vegas preparing for the Manny Pacquiao-Keith Thurman fight the next day.

I called several Top Rank employees who knew Dadashev. Most of them were too emotional to speak.

Maxim Dadashev celebrates after defeating Antonio DeMarco during a junior welterweight bout in October. (AP)

I talked to my friend Dave Cokin, a professional sports bettor/handicapper and a popular Las Vegas radio sports talk host. I have been ringside for seven fighters who died, and it’s a soul-crushing experience. Cokin was at many of those fights with me.

We often laugh about the fights we’ve covered together. On Aug. 9, 2002, we were seated next to each other at a fight card at The Orleans casino in Las Vegas. Miguel Barrera and Roberto “Mako” Leyva fought for the IBF minimumweight title that night.

It was a bloody, brutal and entertaining battle that Barrera won by decision. But Cokin and I always remember one of the fighters losing a tooth after taking a punch. It flew through the air and plopped, blood, saliva and all, on my laptop.

We could laugh after those things, but it was much more somber on July 1, 2005. Martin “Bombero” Sanchez fought Rustam Nugaev that night at The Orleans. Nugaev knocked Sanchez down in the ninth and through the ropes. He fell on Cokin and I, who were seated in the same spot, on the ring apron. We stopped him from hitting the floor.

“I remember him shuffling back to his corner between rounds and you and I talking about that during the fight,” Cokin said. “And I remember clearly him falling on us. That’s not something that happens a lot. But I think we left that night thinking there were no problems.”

Sanchez rolled under the bottom rope after we stopped him. He took a knee in the corner and referee Kenny Bayless was shouting the count to him. I was struck at the time, seated so close, how loudly Bayless was doing the count. When Bayless got to 10 and waved his arms to signify the bout was over, Sanchez immediately jumped to his feet.

That was a good sign — or so I thought — because it showed he was alert and just decided he’d had enough and didn’t want to go on. As he was leaving the ring, ring announcer Joe Martinez asked the crowd to applaud Sanchez for his effort in defeat. Sanchez stopped, blew kisses to the crowd and then noticed Cokin and I seated there.

He pointed and gave us a thumbs up, to thank us for stopping him from hitting the floor. He collapsed a while later in the locker room and died on the operating table.

Less than three months later, it happened again. Leavander Johnson died on Sept. 22, 2005, of injuries suffered five days before in a loss to Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

“The [Johnson death] at the MGM was the worst I’d seen, and you have trouble forgetting that,” Cokin said. “I think that may have been the only time I stood up out of my seat and was yelling for them to stop the fight.”

Johnson collapsed in his dressing room and was rushed to a local hospital. When I got to the hospital, I saw Johnson’s father, Bill, in the lobby. Bill Johnson trained his son.

At that point, he was optimistic his son would recover, but having been in boxing so long, he knew things could change quickly. As I was speaking to him, Chavez walked in.

His voice was breaking as he approached Johnson and kept apologizing. Bill Johnson tried to console him and kept saying, “It’s OK, champ. You just did your job.”

It was one of the most surreal and emotional moments of my life.

Thankfully, it was the last time I’ve been ringside to see a fighter die. Safety measures have improved in the last decade-plus and far fewer deaths occur in the ring.

But it’s important to note that what happened to Dadashev and all of these fighters probably came long before the first bell of their final bouts ever rang.

“Rarely does a fighter die in a terribly blatant mismatch,” said Bruce Trampler, Top Rank’s Hall of Fame matchmaker. “ … It’s not those kinds of fights, where they end quickly and spectacularly with a big huge punch or two. It’s the fights where they’re really going hard at it and one guy is taking a lot of shots but the other guy doesn’t really have the power to finish the fight. So he keeps landing and the other guy keeps taking them until eventually, the bleed on the brain begins.”

And then it’s too late.

Boxing is exhilarating on so many occasions, and it was on Saturday as Pacquiao and Thurman put on a magnificent display of heart, courage, skill and determination. As they battled to the roars of a sellout crowd, a couple of thousand miles away Dadashev lay dying in his hospital bed.

Boxing takes us from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a matter of seconds.

I didn’t know Maxim Dadashev in life.

In death, I’ll never forget him.