Frankie Leal: Are Boxing Fans Complicit in the Sport's Tragedies?
Tragedy is not new to boxing. It is the inevitable consequence of a sport that revolves around determining who most excels at damaging another person’s brain.
The most recent casualty of the sport is Francisco “Frankie” Leal, who died on Tuesday as a result of brain injuries suffered in his knockout loss to Raúl Hirales on the undercard of Saturday night’s Omar Chavez-Joachim Alcine fight.
In light of the tragedy, Mike Gallego has penned a thought-provoking piece on boxing fans’ complicity in Leal’s death.
It amounts to a figurative flogging of every single person who has ever derived pleasure from a boxing match.
“Frankie Leal is dead because boxing fans and the boxing industry are hypocrites. I am. Even as I sit here cursing the sport that let an innocent man die for the amusement of others, I know my disgust will pass, my love for the sport will return, and I'll be eagerly waiting to plop down $65 to watch Manny Pacquiao fight next month.”
Intuitively, I agreed with every word of Gallego’s article. Line after line, I found myself nodding approvingly.
However, intuition is ill-equipped to parse nuance.
There is a superficial hypocrisy in the way we mourn fighters like Frankie Leal while simultaneously demanding that they provide increasingly violent content for our entertainment.
Unfortunately, this oversimplifies the issue somewhat.
I have no trouble reconciling my love for combat sports with my desire to see its athletes live a long and healthy life.
I recognise that, even with their flaws intact, these sports are relatively safe.
Gallego argues that, as fans, we should demand better regulation:
“Will we concede that the sport is crying out for regulation—honest to goodness regulation—that will protect fighters from themselves, their fans and the industry?”
Of course, I completely agree that boxing could be better regulated. The sport is currently at the mercy of athletic commissions that routinely fail our fighters on every level.
That being said, I fail to see the connection between regulation and the fans’ complicity in Leal’s death. Gallego never really attempts to make the connection clear, either.
We could stop tuning in on fight night, but this would only serve to deprive the fighters of their livelihood—and their passion, to boot.
Does Gallego think that protesting en masse would have a net positive effect on the sport? Does he think that complaining to the various athletic commissions would be in any way productive?
People like Keith Kizer have demonstrated that these commissions are all but immune to criticism. The more we complain, the less they seem to care about enacting change.
We are acutely aware of how many lives boxing has taken, but what about the countless lives it has saved?
The manner in which the sport takes lives is more immediate, dramatic and affecting, but the positive impact boxing has had on the lives of so many fighters is too often overlooked.
How many times have we heard the “I would either be dead or in jail if it wasn’t for boxing” story? It has become so commonplace that it has seemingly lost its power to move the listener.
Allow that fact to settle in your mind for a moment. Boxing has positively affected so many lives that these life-changing stories have now become banal.
It’s also puzzling that we so rarely hear these criticisms being aimed at sports that are perceived to be less dangerous, but that possess safety records that would make even the most incompetent regulator blush.
The standard response to this argument is: “[insert dangerous sport] doesn’t revolve around damaging the brain, though.”
To be perfectly blunt, so what?
Boxing is about knocking your opponent unconscious, and a high wire act is about getting to the other side. Is the latter any less dangerous simply because the risk to safety is merely implicit in its purpose?
Is it relevant that the purpose of cheerleading is completely benign when its safety record arguably makes it more dangerous than any combat sport?
The outcome is what should matter to anyone who cares about consequences.
I’m with Gallego when he demands better regulation. Our fighters deserve better.
What I refuse to get on board with is the claim that fans are responsible for every boxing tragedy that occurs or his tacit endorsement of the view that anyone who watches combat sports is a “horrible person.”
I chose not to post this article on Wednesday night because the tragedy was still too near. Rational discourse didn’t seem possible while emotions were running so high.
Two days might not seem like much, but hopefully it’s enough time for those operating under the weight of cognitive dissonance to regain some sense of perspective.
I won’t apologise for being a fan of combat sports and nor should anyone else.
An online fund-raising campaign has been set up for Frankie Leal's family. Donations can be made here.
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