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22 JULY 2014

 

Fighters Are Dying: Stop The Nonsense




By Thomas Hauser: On September 23, 2005, Raymond "Skip" Avansino (chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) announced the formation of an advisory committee on boxer health and safety to review the commission's medical guidelines and recommend changes to better protect fighters in Nevada. Avansino's action came in the wake of a four-month period during which four fighters left the ring in Las Vegas with bleeding in their brain. Two of them (Martin Sanchez and Leavander Johnson) died.

The committee consists of three former NSAC chairmen (Sig Rogich, Luther Mack, and James Nave), state assemblyman Harvey Munford, and Dr. Charles Ruggeroli (a cardiologist). Rogich was designated as chairman. Its findings were due by April 1st of this year. April Fools Day came and went. There was no report and no explanation of why not. Finally, on April 27th, the committee held what was only its third public meeting in seven months and announced several initiatives that were largely impractical or insignificant. There is still no report. And remember; things happen quickly in Las Vegas when the powers that be want them to. This is a city where hotel-casinos are built from the ground up seemingly overnight.

Last November, I posted an article entitled (Fighter Safety and the Nevada State Athletic Commission) on this website. Since then, there has been significant public comment about medical issues in Nevada.

Steve Kanagher of the Las Vegas Sun authored a series of articles that highlighted the NSAC's handling of medical matters. Among his findings was the fact that Martin Sanchez's application for a license to fight in Nevada listed his height at 5-feet-9-inches. However, the doctor who purported to examine Sanchez in Tijuana two days before his fatal fight against Rustam Nugaev listed the boxer's height as 6-feet-1-inch. That discrepancy is significant because phony medicals from out of state are of growing concern in Nevada. But the only commissioner who sought to address the issue was Dr. Flip Homansky, and Governor Kenny Guinn removed Homansky from the commission after he raised the issue in a public forum.

Homansky's replacement was T. J. Day (a Reno businessman and one of the largest individual contributors of "soft money" to the Republican Party in Nevada). Day's appointment was poorly received in some circles. Kevin Iole of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, "I'm still trying to figure what qualifications T. J. Day has other than being a large political donor. Day describes himself as an avid fan and a fast learner, but are those qualities enough to earn him a seat on the world's foremost boxing regulatory body at a time when fighters are dying and being seriously injured in the state at a record pace?"

Then, in a second article, Iole declared, "Guinn has never given an indication that he grasps the significance of his appointments to the athletic commission, where the decisions made are, in many cases, life and death. Guinn should be embarrassed for failing to reappoint Dr. Flip Homansky, a long-time safety advocate and the commission's most qualified member. Guinn should be embarrassed about appointing Reno businessman T. J. Day to replace Homansky, given Day's appalling lack of knowledge about the sport."

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times contained some stunning remarks. According to reporter Geoffrey Gray, "Day said his close relationship with Guinn was the motivating factor behind his appointment [and that] a background in business is more important for a boxing commissioner than a background in medicine." Gray then quoted Day as saying, "Boxing has a major financial impact on the state, and I'm a major financial man in the state. If I need some help from doctors and the safety people, I can find these people, but it's a lot harder to find a qualified businessman."

As for the safety committee itself, Tim Lueckenhoff (president of the Association of Boxing Commissions) declared, "What this panel means is that Nevada could care less about their boxers. It just seems like one of these feel-good things where you come out with a report and make a little splash in the newspapers. Then everybody goes back to business as usual."

Jon Ralston (a leading political columnist and television talk-show host in Las Vegas) queried, "Shouldn't people be skeptical that a master PR man [Sig Rogich] is running this show?"

Erin Neff (a political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal) declared, "After the second boxer died in September, the commission created a safety panel to probe whether more could be done to protect fighters. The committee was designed like a ring card girl: to divert attention from what's happening in the ring. In typical hack fashion, the commission appointed a spin doctor, not a neurosurgeon, to chair the safety panel. Sig Rogich may have once chaired the athletic commission, but he also once chaired Guinn's re-election campaign."

Then Neff added, "When the Nevada Athletic Commission meets today [January 5, 2006] to name its 2006 chairman, the best candidate will be nowhere on the board. Instead, one of the four political hacks now serving on the panel will be selected. That's too bad, because the current commission has proved unworthy of regulating the state's top grossing sport and has frayed the state's once-proud mantle of national boxing leader. Two widely respected medical doctors associated with the commission [Homansky and Dr, Margaret Goodman] are gone, the victims of political maneuvering by -- who else -- the flunkies appointed to the board by the governor. With two fighters dead and two others suffering brain hemorrhages in Nevada last year, it is time for the state to focus on safety, not the security of a political appointee's ringside seat."

Still, despite Neff's plea, politics as usual goes on. The advisory committee on boxer health and safety held its third public meeting on April 27th; this one at the offices of Rogich Communications. At the meeting, Rogich said that the panel is examining ways to provide health insurance and pension benefits to anyone who fights in Nevada through a tax on ticket sales.

Really? What kind of health insurance? Rogich said he'd like to cover at least some of the expenses that result from injuries sustained during fights. That's nice. What about injuries suffered while sparring in a Nevada gym in preparation for a fight in Nevada? And what about fighters who hide injuries and take a fight so they can get medical coverage for the injuries they've already suffered?

Pension benefits? How many fights does a fighter need to qualify? What happens when a fighter who shouldn't be fighting anymore needs one more fight to qualify for his pension?

The April 27th safety committee meeting was largely an exercise in smoke and mirrors, the primary purpose of which seemed to be to deflect attention from the fact that there was no report.

The committee also announced its intention to fine fighters who fail to make weight ten percent of their purse, require at least three doctors to be in attendance for each card (the previous requirement was two), mandate an in-ring doctor's examination of each fighter immediately after a fight, request more money from the state legislature for random drug and steroid testing, and allow electrolyte drinks to be consumed during fights. It said nothing about improved training for ring doctors, phony medicals, and a dozen other pressing medical issues that need to be addressed.

Dr. Margaret Goodman (who, unlike some people on the safety committee, actually studies these issues) says, "A fighter in the ring doesn't need a sports drink. It's total nonsense. All a fighter needs is water. The next thing you know, fighters will be testing positive for banned substances, and they'll say, 'Gee, someone must have put something in my sports drink that I didn't know about.'"

Erin Neff was more pointed in her criticism. Writing for the Review-Journal on April 30th, she declared, "Six months after an inaugural set-the-agenda meeting, the advisory panel on boxer health and safety was still trying to determine that agenda during a public meeting inside a PR office. The panel voted to approve things that are already in practice or regulation; decided boxers should be able to quaff sports drinks between rounds; and agreed to ask the legislature for more money. There wasn't specific talk, mind you, about how much money or which sports drinks. And after another session around the round table in a conference room at Rogich Communication Group, we still haven't gotten past the spin."

But the most troubling moment at the April 27th meeting came in reference to the four fighters who left the ring in Las Vegas last year with bleeding in their brain. James Nave (one of the committee members) acknowledged, "We had people tell us that three of the fighters that got in trouble had major gym problems. One of them got knocked out three days before. Somebody shouldn't get knocked out in a gym and then, three days later, fight in the ring again at the Thomas & Mack."

Thereafter, Marc Ratner (the departing executive director of the NSAC) confirmed that he was told by a trainer that a fighter who died in Nevada as a result of injuries suffered during a fight had been knocked out in sparring three days before the fight. But Ratner declined to give further details because he said he had promised confidentiality to the trainer.

Wait a minute! Am I missing something? Ratner directs a government agency. He's not a priest, lawyer, or doctor. There's no confidentiality that attaches to communications between Ratner and licensees of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

For the record; there have been rumors for months that Leavander Johnson was knocked out in the gym several days before his fatal encounter with Jesus Chavez in September of last year. The Johnson camp says that isn't the case and Leavander cut a sparring session short because he was suffering from "a touch of the flu." Ratner said last week that the fighter in question was not Johnson.

Whoever the fighter was, the matter should be investigated. If a fighter has been knocked out the week of a fight, he shouldn't be allowed to fight. And he wouldn't be allowed to fight in Nevada unless lies were told during the fighter's prefight medical examination. Telling those lies would constitute a felony. In some instances, they might constitute manslaughter. The Nevada State Athletic Commission has been accused in the past of having a double standard. In this instance, it appears to have no standards at all.

But Nevada isn't the only state that's falling short of the mark in dealing with medical issues. On March 24, 2006, Lamon Brewster was given an opthalmological examination by Dr. Thomas Anthony Baudo in Vero Beach, Florida, preparatory to his April 1st fight against Sergei Liakhovich in Cleveland, Ohio. Baudo filled out a form entitled "Opthalmological Exam for Professional Boxer." On that form, under a heading that read "specify abnormalities," he wrote that Brewster had undergone surgery for a retinal tear and detachment but that his eye was now "stable." He also wrote, "Mr. Brewster understands the increased risk of RD [retinal damage] when boxing."

In accordance with Ohio law, Brewster also underwent a general pre-fight physical examination in Vero Beach prior to receiving his license. The "Physical Examination Report" for that exam includes three questions under the heading "Eye History." It asks if the applicant (1) has ever had blurred vision or (2) has ever had a surgical procedure on his eyes or the tissue around his eyes other than simple sutures to the skin around the eyes. And it specifically asks (3) "Has applicant ever been informed by a physician that [he] had significant eye problems such as retinal detachment, retinal tear, or dislocated lens." In each instance, the answer Brewster gave on this examination form was "no." His history of retinal surgery was covered up.

It's now known that Lamon suffered from vision problems while training for his fight against Liakhovich.

Brewster underwent surgery for a detached retina after the Liakhovich fight. He says that the vision in his left eye "went out" when he was hit by a jab in the first round. It's unclear what, if anything, the Ohio State Athletic Commission has done to follow up on this.

In other words, there's plenty of blame to go around. What makes the situation in Nevada more troubling than in other states is that advanced medical standards for boxing emerged in Las Vegas. Nevada was once in the forefront when it came to protecting fighters, and it's not anymore. Telling the world "we're making boxing safer" doesn't necessarily make it so.

That point was passionately made by Larry Merchant at the Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner in Las Vegas last week. At the dinner, Dr. Homansky and Dr. Goodman were presented with the James S. Farley Award, which is given in recognition of a career marked by "honesty and integrity" in boxing.

Both Homansky and Goodman have been longtime advocates for high medical standards in boxing. During their tenure with the Nevada commission, they fought for the implementation of life-saving medical reforms and refused to deviate from their commitment despite pressures that were put upon them. Powerful economic interests fought relentlessly against their reforms, but they stood their ground. In presenting the award, Merchant spoke of Nevada as a "once great commission." Not one of the five NSAC commissioners was in attendance to see Homansky and Goodman honored.

Shortly before she left the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Dr. Goodman declared, "Our job is to give these boxers the best medical care we can, and we need to be doing a much better job. How many deaths will it take for us to start taking this stuff seriously?"

If the NSAC spent as much time and effort promoting good medical care for fighters as it does on spinning the facts, boxing in Nevada would be a much safer sport.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.



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