By Thomas Hauser
The Nevada State Athletic Commission is at a crossroads. In the past, the NSAC has been in the forefront of setting medical standards for boxing. It has instituted mandatory MRI testing for fighters. Its medical director is the equal of any ringside physician in the world. And the commission has dealt appropriately with important test cases involving boxers like Joe Mesi, Terry Norris, and Augie Sanchez.
But over the past year, there have been signs that normal NSAC medical procedures are being circumvented by a minority of commission members. More specifically, it appears as though ring physicians have been assigned and several fighters have been removed from the suspension list to placate certain promoters.
Now Marco Antonio Barrera is scheduled to fight Erik Morales in Las Vegas on November 27th. Barrera-Morales III is notable for two reasons. First, it's the third installment of a classic trilogy between two superb boxers. And second, Barrera's return to the fight capital of the world will force the Nevada State Athletic Commission to deal with some thorny issues.
One year ago, on October 23, 2003, it was revealed that Marco Antonio Barrera had undergone brain surgery in Mexico City in 1997. The surgery, known as a craniotomy, was related to a congenital defect; not a fight-related injury. Barrera's skull was opened and a group of small malformed blood vessels were removed.
When the above information was made public, Barrera was in training for a November 15, 2003, fight against Manny Pacquiao in San Antonio. His promoter at the time was (and still is) Golden Boy Promotions. On October 24th, Richard Schaefer and Stephen Espinoza (respectively, the CEO and attorney for Golden Boy) issued a statement that read, "Marco's former promoter and manager were fully aware of the procedure. They were each provided with copies of Marco's medical records with the understanding that they would disclose the information to the appropriate parties, including the relevant boxing commissions. When Marco very recently learned that the information had not been timely disclosed, he immediately acted to remedy the situation."
Four days later, Schaefer elaborated on that statement and explained, "About six weeks ago, I got a telephone call telling me about it. Right away, I asked Marco, and he was very up front with me. He told me everything about his condition and said that, all along, his manager and promoter knew about it. Then we informed the Nevada commission and asked for their guidance and made certain that the commission in Texas knew about it. It should not have taken six years for this to come out."
Thereafter, as part of the process of being licensed to fight in Texas, Barrera underwent a neurological examination by Dr. Andres H. Keichian. In a November 3, 2003, letter to the Texas State Athletic Commission, Dr. Keichian wrote, "The prognosis of this condition in Mr. Barrera is excellent. Based on his clinical history and neurological evaluation, I believe that Mr. Barrera is fit to participate in combative sports. He's completely cleared. We did a special three-dimensional CT-scan of the cranial bone. When the bone does not completely enclose the craniotomy area, then you've got a problem. This is completely closed now. His cavernous angioma; all that is is a dilated blood vessel. This is a dilated vein that had no pressure in it and has been taken away."
Barrera was knocked out by Pacquiao in the eleventh round. He has fought once since then; on June 19th of this year, when he prevailed on a tenth-round stoppage of Paulie Ayala in Los Angeles.
That brings us to the present and Barrera-Morales III.
The first issue to be resolved is whether or not Barrera is fit to fight. Nevada's chief deputy attorney general Keith Kizer (who represents the NSAC) says that the medical advisory board of the Nevada State Athletic Commission will meet to study the matter on October 26th. The board will then either recommend that Barrera be licensed to fight or ask for additional information and testing.
Barrera's situation is different from that of a boxer on the decline in that he is not impaired as a fighter. Nor is it clear that he is significantly more likely than other fighters to suffer bleeding in the brain. Rather, he is at increased risk, the degree of which is hard to quantify. He is also an intelligent man who understands the issues involved.
The danger to Barrera is that, after surgery of this nature, small blood vessels grow around metal implants that have been inserted in the brain to protect the area where the intrusion occurred. If an implant shifts, the vessels tear. In other words, if Barrera is hit with a punch in a way that causes an implant to shift, there is an increased likelihood of bleeding in the brain.
If Barrera were a four-round preliminary fighter, the NSAC probably wouldn't let him fight. But the reality of boxing is that, often in making medical decisions, financial considerations are weighed. A heavyweight championship bout in which a combatant is hurt is allowed to proceed longer than a undercard fight. Also, Barrera has fought eighteen times since his surgery with no apparent ill-effects. This too, has to be weighed in the decision-making process.
On November 4th, the five-member Nevada State Athletic Commission will meet in open session to act upon the recommendation of its medical advisory board. Barrera is expected to attend that meeting. Most likely, he will be found medically fit to fight.
But there's an issue beyond medical fitness that the NSAC must face: "What action, if any, should it take with regard to the withholding of information and the making of false statements to the commission?"
As previously noted, Barrera has fought eighteen times since his surgery. Ten of these eighteen bouts were in Nevada. In each instance, medical questionnaires were filled out (apparently falsely), signed, and submitted to the commission. Additional questions were asked and answered (again, apparently falsely) at pre-fight physicals.
There is no indication that anyone at the Nevada State Athletic Commission was aware of Barrera's surgery at the time he fought in Nevada. Nor does there appear to have been wrongdoing on the part of his present promoter (Golden Boy Promotions). But someone is to blame.
If Barrera is called to testify, he will probably repeat what Richard Schaefer and Stephen Espinoza have said publicly; that his former promoter and manager were fully aware of the surgery and that they were each provided with copies of his medical records with the understanding that they would disclose the information to the appropriate parties, including the relevant boxing commissions.
At that point, if the NSAC wants to sweep the matter under the rug, it can end its inquiry with the declaration that "only Barrera's license is at issue here; not those of his former manager and former promoter."
But that would be an embarrassment.
Let's spell out what's at stake. The case of Marco Antonio Barrera goes to the heart of the integrity of the process. Someone committed a crime in Nevada. Now is the time for the Nevada State Athletic Commission to conduct a full hearing with testimony under oath from Barrera, his former manager, and his former promoter. Any licensee, past or present, who violated the law should be held accountable.
The manner in which the Nevada State Athletic Commission handles this matter will send a clear signal regarding whether or not the state respects its own high medical standards. If the NSAC doesn't take its own rules and regulations seriously, no one else will either.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org