William Dettloff

Arguello, Gatti only latest boxers to die under strange circumstances

Alexis Arguello (here pictured on right with Matthew Saad Muhammad at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in 2007) is only a recent example of a boxer dying tragically before his time. Photo / FightWireImages.com

The recent deaths of Alexis Arguello and Arturo Gatti, by suicide and apparently homicide, respectively, reminded us of the long history prizefighters have of dying under especially violent, weird or suspicious circumstances.

We’re not talking about the fighters who get more or less beaten to death in the ring or in gyms, or the ones who die in nursing homes consumed by Alzheimer’s disease decades after their careers end.

As shocking and unsettling as the deaths of Arguello and Gatti are, they serve only as additions to a long list that we imagine some time in the reasonably near future might also include the names Tapia, Tyson, maybe Camacho, and who knows who else.

Arguello wasn’t the first fighter to prefer a violent and sudden death to a dark, hopeless life. One-time middleweight king Randy Turpin did too. So did 1960s heavyweight Eddie Machen.

Maybe Sonny Liston did, too, or maybe someone decided for him. We’ll never know.

Middleweight legend Stanley Ketchell was murdered, as was heavyweight title holder Trevor Berbick. Ditto for 1970s heavyweight mainstay Oscar Bonavena (an event elegantly recounted by Don Stradley in the July 2009 issue of THE RING). Same with cruiserweight puncher Julian Letterlough.

There are many more.

It makes you wonder what it is about fighters that brings them to violent deaths, sometimes at their own hands, sometimes at the hands of others. You could say it’s because they live violent lives. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s an over-simplification.

“There have been studies conducted on former NFL players showing that at least 11 percent of those who have had more than one concussion suffer from depression,” RING colleague and neurologist Dr. Margaret Goodman wrote in an email.

“Additional studies on non-athletes have shown a higher than normal incidence of psychiatric problems, especially depression and anxiety in those who have suffered concussions.”

Getting punched on the head isn’t good for anybody. My old trainer used to tell me when I was eating more punches than usual that the human head isn’t made for getting hit. It didn‘t occur to me that a brain bleed or long term cognitive problems weren’t the only good reasons to practice defense once in a while. Turnsout sanity is, too.

Goodman continued.

“Depression and mood disorders are common following a concussion, and most boxers that have been in a tough fight, not even KO’d or knocked down, have absorbed concusssive blows that can contribute to acute or chronic psychiatric problems.”

Substance abuse problems are rampant too in former fighters. Bobby Czyz and Vinny Pazienza have had well-documented troubles with alcohol. So did Gatti. And Gerry Cooney. The premature death of 1980s slugger Edwin Rosario is widely believed to have been fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.

No less a star than Ray Leonard had drug problems. And look at Arguello’s nemesis, Aaron Pryor. And also Rocky Lockridge, and Johnny Bumphus. The list goes on.

According to Goodman, former fighters frequently use alcohol and drugs as an escape without realizing they are depressants and thus likely to aggravate their emotional problems or violent tendencies.

Certainly you can also blame some of this on where fighters come from. Most don’t come from the country club neighborhoods or middle class suburbs that pump out Ritalin and Prozac addicts by the thousands these days. Those are their own poisons.

But real fighters come from places where boys have to fight for food well before they find they also have to fight for respect. Terrible socio-economic circumstances produce dark, desperate men who engage in high-risk behavior and many times bad things happen as a result.

Finally, there’s little doubt that many fighters are thrill seekers.

Diego Corrales, James Schuler and Young Stribling, exciting punchers each, died in fiery motorcycle crashes. Corrales also was legally drunk at the time.

Car crashes took legends Jack Johnson and Carlos Monzon, as well as national icons and world champions Victor Galindez and Salvador Sanchez.

Indeed, the wife of Galindez, the dominant light heavyweight champion of the 1970s who turned to auto racing after retiring from the ring, once told Argentina’s “Gente” magazine, “He's crazy. He's not happy unless he's doing something dangerous.”

You can say the fight business had a role in the deaths of Arguello and, to a lesser degree maybe Gatti, and also in dozens, maybe hundreds of other men whose pummeled, battered intellects led them directly or indirectly to early graves.

But ask yourself this: If not prizefighters, what would Arturo Gatti and Alexis Arguello have been? What would their lives have been like?

Arguello and Gatti didn’t live very long; they were relatively young men when they died. But they lived well. That’s better than many of us do. In the ring, they experienced highs the rest of us can’t imagine. Those highs came with a price, as they always do, and at the end only they knew if they had gotten a square deal. We should hope they didn’t regret much.

Some random observations from last week:

Kudos to HBO for running the Gatti-Micky Ward opera in Gatti’s honor Friday and Saturday night. As all-time trilogies go, I rank Gatti-Ward behind Ali-Frazier, Vazquez-Marquez and Zale-Graziano, but ahead of Griffith-Paret, Pazienza-Haugen and Jake-Vicki LaMotta. …

I’m told there is no truth to the rumor that the injury Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. suffered that knocked him off Bob Arum’s latest “Latin Fury” card occurred when Junior fainted upon hearing that his scheduled opponent, Jason LeHoullier, has a pulse. How do you know it’s a lie? LeHoullier has no pulse. …

Speaking of that card, you’ll recall that last time Arum promoted a big show in Mexico, he told us reports of violence in the area had been overblown by the American press. This time, as violence rages between police and suspected drug dealers, Arum has tried a different tactic: handing out a balloon, a free bag of popcorn and a semi-automatic pistol to every third fan. Limit one per customer. …

Big news out of California last week: Some guy won a fight and his trainer wasn’t Freddie Roach. …

Upsets are always good for business, so while I wish Breidis Prescott no particular ill, good for Miguel Vasquez for a heck of a performance on Friday Night Fights. If you turned it off and went to bed early figuring Prescott was a lock, well, that’s what you get. …

Amir Khan will do fine so long as he’s not matched with punchers. Coincidentally, the WBA, whose super lightweight title Khan won against Andriy Kotelnik on Saturday night, announced afterward that all punchers had been removed from the Top 10 of its super lightweight rankings. …

Arthur Abraham said he was relinquishing his IBF middleweight title because, “It is about time for a new challenge.” Look for WBA poser Felix Sturm to try to fill in the void at 160. Challenges, new or otherwise, are none of Sturm’s business. …

Who else liked Floyd Mayweather Jr. better when he was “retired?”

Bill Dettloff can be reached at Dettloff@ptd.net

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