Let's Stop Discarding Our Boxing Heroes

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Let's Stop Discarding Our Boxing Heroes
Jesse Hart, Al Mitchell with David Reid (right) (Photo by Danielle Pemble)

My father couldn’t stand Merv Griffin, the legendary talkshow host. Could. Not. Stand. Him. I was too young to realize why.

It goes back to a show when Griffin pushed out in a wheelchair a drooling, frail, quivering Joe Louis—my old man’s hero, and the hero to every American boy who grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Louis was forever etched in Pop's mind as the smooth, round-shouldered slugger who still owns the record for consecutive successful heavyweight title defenses (25). Dad even went so far as to briefly hate Rocky Marciano for ending the career of “The Brown Bomber,” that lasting image of a fallen Louis lying there, an old man helpless through the ropes. And we’re talking about Rocky’s people here, an Italian-American family from South Philadelphia.

It just hurt my father’s generation to see Louis in the latter stages of his life like that on the Griffin show. A crumpled hero reduced to no control of his nervous system. When this was explained to me at my young age, I understood: You want to remember world champions the way they used to be, not the way they are.

Through time, however, I came to disagree. We need to remember our fighters, because we tend to forget them after they’re no longer able to perform. It seems society, too, forgets them. Especially in the sport of boxing.

They become discards on the scrapheap, like non-persons once the cheering is over. The fanfare gone, the money not pouring in like it used to and all of a sudden the entourages get thinner, the media attention peels away, and you’re a non-person again.

There was an internal debate going on that I had skirted for some months: Should I go public with what I knew about an Olympic gold medalist, a true hero whose life took a drastic upward arc thanks to one punch? Someone that pulled himself up from the depths of his North Philly blight to reach national acclaim.

It’s when I opted to investigate and write the story of 1996 Olympic boxing gold medalist David Reid. What I found was someone who suffered from depression that wanted nothing to do with the outside world, and was lucky to even be alive.

When you hear someone from the national sports media claim to be "unbiased", don’t listen. They’re not.

If you have any conscience, you never show a partiality in your stories or reporting. But as human beings, with blood coursing through our veins, you can’t help but be a little swayed in someone’s direction.

David Reid was one of those guys.

He was an approachable, affable young star who seemed to have great balance in his life. What he had, regrettably, were parasites that sucked from him. What he also had was a droopy left eye that truncated his career to 19 pro fights. He essentially fought with one eye.

Reid made good money, cashed in on a fight with superstar Felix Trinidad, who terribly exposed Reid—and that was it. “The American Dream’s” career was finished almost, it seemed, as fast as it began.

Off to the scrapheap. Off to being a non-person.

I remember seeing a tall, lean man in tattered clothes about 10 years ago while covering a fight in Atlantic City. I was among a group of boxing people walking to the venue when a few of their eyes were diverted in the direction of the tall, lean man.

I asked later who the man was and was told it was Jimmy Young, the former heavyweight contender who ended the first incarnation of George Foreman’s boxing career, supposedly living on the streets of Atlantic City. Young had no one, not even those who recognized him and could have reached into their pockets for a dime or two that night.

Fortunately, Reid has always had Al Mitchell, his trainer who first met David when he was eight, as a constant companion and benefactor, and a few others. But that was it.

My internal debate was over.

David Reid’s plight deserved to be told. It was important for people to know what the last American to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing prior to Andre Ward was doing—and that people, a small, dedicated group, still cared about David.

There are 78 class-action lawsuits filed and 2,200 former players currently suing the NFL for what they claim was the league’s woeful neglect when repeated concussions were concerned.

At least someone was willing to listen. At least someone cared.

When broached about the David Reid story, a number of fight people approached to be interviewed had a troubling, yet frequent refrain: Who cares about David Reid?

That response emboldened me further.

It was important that David Reid be counted again, at least for a brief spell, and realize he shouldn’t be discarded, like we tend do with our boxing heroes when they’re no longer able to punch for a living.

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