Notebook > Sports

Boxing debate outlasts the boxer

Sports | Leavander Johnson's death has revitalized a longstanding debate over whether the sport's brutality is excessive

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

Minutes after losing his lightweight boxing title by technical knockout Sept. 17, Leavander Johnson told a ringside doctor he felt fine. Less than an hour later, surgeons scrambled to relieve massive swelling that had pushed Johnson's brain from one side of his head to the other. The 35-year-old fighter died Sept. 22.

Johnson's death, among the more prominent boxing fatalities in recent years, has revitalized a longstanding debate over whether the sport's brutality is excessive. Anti-boxing lobbyists point to statistical data suggesting more than 10 deaths per year from amateur and professional fights worldwide since 1920. Despite harboring far more participants, the amateur ranks have accounted for just 30 percent of those deaths, due largely to better protective gear and closer referee supervision.

But many professional boxing supporters oppose increased safety regulations. They argue that current fatality numbers are no worse than those of other dangerous sports, such as horse racing, motorcycle racing, or football. The financial motivation to maintain the status quo reaches billions of dollars each year, as professional fights draw pay-per-view television revenues, sellout crowds, and high-stakes gambling.

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Thousands of spectators at the MGM Grand hotel-casino in Las Vegas watched Johnson absorb repeated blows to the head during his lethal 11-round bout with Jesus Chavez. Johnson was lucid and upright as he left the ring under his own power, but he faltered before reaching his dressing room. Doctors remain unsure whether the bleeding in Johnson's brain, the most common cause of boxing fatalities, resulted from one punch or many.

Fight promoter Lou DiBella said Johnson died doing what he loved. "There'll be a lot of people who'll take pokes at boxing for this. We can be better for protecting our athletes. But this was not a situation where anyone failed Leavander Johnson," Mr. DiBella told the Associated Press. "It was just God's will. It's a sport that's inherently dangerous."

Around the Horn

Baltimore Orioles slugger RAFAEL PALMEIRO continued his plunge from grace Sept. 23 when team management told him not to bother returning for the remainder of the season. The all-star first baseman, who earlier this year became only the fourth player ever to amass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, was suspended Aug. 1 for steroid use. Mr. Palmeiro has maintained his innocence, suggesting his positive test may have resulted from a vitamin B-12 shot he received from teammate Miguel Tejada. But Mr. Tejada, who regularly takes the same shot, has tested clean three times.

Philadelphia Eagles kicker DAVID AKERS did wonders for his position's image Sept. 25, debunking an NFL stereotype of kickers as softies. After badly aggravating a hamstring injury on the game's opening kickoff, Mr. Akers winced his way through a pair of extra points and powered through a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. Before the 29-year-old kicker could raise his arms in celebration, he collapsed to the turf, clutching his right hamstring as teammates mobbed him.

The latest chapter in the tragic career of KEN GRIFFEY JR. once again centers on a surgical knife. But unlike past season-ending operations for the Cincinnati Reds outfielder, this one comes bathed in optimism. With the Reds already eliminated from post-season contention, Mr. Griffey decided to undergo necessary knee and hamstring procedures now to get a jump on rehabilitation for next year. The 35-year-old slugger, considered washed-up by many, proved critics wrong this season in batting .301 with 35 home runs and 92 RBI-his best production since 2000.

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