Coulda been a contender

“What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.”

— Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall

Returning to the Municipal Auditorium to reconnect with its fabled boxing past might seem a futile exercise considering how the local boxing scene has been brain-dead in the 21st century. Yet 35 years ago, in the era before the Spurs, boxing was the only game in town. Many aficionados del box still speak of the stellar boxing cards promoter Tony Padilla brought to San Anto.

It was at Municipal in 1978 that I saw my first pro fight as local legend Mike Ayala successfully defended his North American Boxing Federation featherweight belt against Shig Fukuyama. Often the bouts turned into celebratory victories for both local boxing heroes and the working-class community.

So it was somewhat out of nostalgia and hometown pride that I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend the evenly matched fight between San Antonio’s Oscar Diaz (26-3) and Dominican-American rival Delvin Rodriguez (23-2-1) for the vacant United States Boxing Association welterweight crown. And out of loyalty I bought my Diaz T-shit at the door and found a decent $20 seat in the peanut gallery.

Earlier, Rodriguez accurately nailed the fight’s significance: “This is do-or-die for both of us. The winner propels himself into the upper echelons of the division, the loser has to start over.”

The first two rounds were a breath of fresh air for any fan of the pugilistic art.

Near the back, the working-class crowd rooted: “Terminalo ya, Oscar.”

Rodriguez aficionados were just as blunt: “Matalo, Delvin.”

Never wish for something that might come true.

By the fifth round, it was evident that Diaz, despite some good punches, wasn’t going to finish Rodriguez.

Unfortunately, while Diaz is a better than average fighter, his chance to be a viable contender in his division evaporated in 2006 when he suffered a brutal 11th-round TKO loss to Golden Johnson in the Alamodome.

The head and eye injuries he suffered in that bout and the cold fact that his corner allowed him to go into the 11th uncannily echo what occurred last week until the referee stopped the fight before the start of the 11th despite protests from his corner. `See sidebar, this page`.

Fans watching the nationally televised event at home may have channel-surfed during commercials to catch the heavyweight rematch between James Toney and Hasim Rahman. That bout ended in the third round when Rahman suffered an accidental head butt over his right eye. Between rounds, Rahman complained to the ring physician that the blood from the cut wasn’t allowing him to see his opponent. The bout was ruled a TKO despite protests that it fell under the no-contest rule. “I’m not going to fight with one eye,” Rahman said. “I couldn’t see the punches.”

Wise man. In the myopic world of professional boxing, the one-eyed jack who complains isn’t king, but pariah.

Back in San Antonio, Diaz’s left eye was completely shut by the eighth round. Whether the ring doc or his corner or the referee examined Diaz is doubtful. Whether he was asked if he wanted to continue fighting is questionable.

However, when the ref asked Diaz between rounds 10 and 11, “How many fingers do you see?” Diaz was unable to answer. Yet his corner still wanted him back in the ring. Luckily for Diaz, the ref ended the fight.

At Wednesday’s event, representatives of the Department of Licensing and Regulation that oversees boxing in Texas were celebrating its 75th year of making boxing safer for pugilists. Still the agency provides little if any preventive measures or targeted interventions for its constituency — and, according to some, often rules in favor of the promoters. Despite Diaz’s previous head injuries in 2006, which took nearly a year to heal, he was not required to have an MRI for this or an earlier bout. Texas only requires boxers 36 years or older to do this. In actuality, few fighters reach age 30 in the boxing game.

One would think that Lou Duva, his daughter, and son-in-law, who promote and train Diaz, would have protected their investment by requiring and paying for the brain scan. And if the Duvas and ESPN are so shattered by what occurred last week, will they set aside their pieties and put their money where their mouth is by providing a medical-expense fund to cover Diaz’s astronomical cost of recovery? Or is it only a respectful and humble community that truly cares about Diaz, doing anything in its power — from a benefit barbecue to a prayer service — to help Oscar and his family get through this?

As a former boxing writer for the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s, I’ve seen my share of boxers’ lives shattered because prudent precautions weren’t taken in or out of the ring. I’ve seen young men left to fend for themselves and abandoned by the promoters after such tragic events. I reported how Gerald “G-Man” McClellan, one of the most talented fighters of his generation, had to sue King for medical expenses after he suffered traumatic brain injuries that left him blind and deaf at the age of 28. `Disclosure: I briefly worked for Don King as Julio Cesar Chavez’s press liaison.`

These tragic events are also devastating to the fighter who inflicts the fatal blows. I witnessed the toll this took on Gabriel Ruelas, whose boxing career was shattered after his opponent Jimmy Garcia died from injuries inflicted by Ruelas in a title fight. Ditto Austin boxer Jesus “El Matador” Chavez, whose opponent died from injuries suffered in their bout. Many of these survivors never receive counseling or medical benefits to help them move on with their lives.

In the dialogue following the Diaz tragedy, little attention has been focused on a fighter’s bill of rights. Diaz’s opponent Rodriguez asked why Oscar’s corner didn’t stop the fight sooner. The Duvas yelled “Foul” for his second-guessing of their decisions.

Wait a minute! That was Rodriguez in the ring throwing the punches, wasn’t it?

It is often the sport and not the venal promoters who are the subject of misguided and elitist pundits’ wrath when these events occur. The statistics for boxing fatalities or permanent life injuries are miniscule when compared to those suffered by U.S. high-school football players in a typical season. Yet nary a hue and cry is raised to ban those amateur sports by those who call boxing a deadly blood sport.

If people want a free-for-all bloodbath, they can watch the Toughman contests or the slightly more regulated mixed-martial-arts Ultimate Fighting brawls. There is no art to those spectacles as there is in boxing, although they are indeed mano-a-mano combats. Boxing isn’t called the sweet science for nothing. A good fighter is defined not just by his ability to inflict damage, but to make the other fighter look bad by making him miss or by psyching him out.

Recall De La Hoya’s comment after the last round of the Trinidad fight: “I gave him a boxing lesson.”

True — but the judges wanted blood.  

It is unconscionable for those who wag an accusatory pinkie at young athletes, male and female, trying to make their names in the sport of boxing and who continue to find a role model in boxing legend Muhammad Ali. These are not the unskilled and uneducated, as their critics and promoters might portray them. These are young people who can often better handle what life throws at them and accept defeat in the name of good sportsmanship.

“To be a great champion, you have to accept things the way they are.”

— Mike Ayala, 18, July 24, 1978

Tale of the tape

For those who saw the Oscar Diaz-Delvin Rodriguez fight at the Municipal Auditorium Wednesday, July 16, none of the following was audible, or even visible. Television cameras, however, recorded the following exchange between the 10th and 11th round of the bout. Originally on ESPN2, the video is now available on YouTube:

Gregg Barrios

Referee Bobby Gonzalez: Oscar, how many fingers do you see?
Trainer Tommy Brooks: Three.
Gonzalez to Brooks: That’s a nice trick. I saw that.
Asst. Trainer to Diaz: Hey, come here man, come on.
Gonzalez to Brooks: You fool around, you get him hurt.
Gonzalez: Oscar, how are you doing? How are you doing Oscar? I’m asking you.
Diaz: Aaaarrrhhhhh
Gonzalez: You wanna go on? You wanna go on?
`Diaz stumbles`
Gonzalez: `waves his hand` That’s it.
Brooks: Give him water. Give me water.
Gonzalez to Brooks: That’s it. The fight’s over.

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