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02 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

July - The Month From Hell


Vernon Forrest, a true champion
Vernon Forrest, a true champion

By Matthew Hurlet: The stunning news that junior middleweight champion Vernon Forrest had been shot and killed Saturday night during an apparent car jacking left an already dazed and confused boxing community collectively looking up to the heavens and asking, “Why?” The month of July in 2009 will long be remembered as one of the most tragic months in the history of boxing.

First, on July 1st the legendary Alexis Arguello committed suicide with a gunshot to the chest. Such a violent end for such a gentle soul just didn’t seem to make any sense. Arguello was dignity and class personified, but he had, for many years since his retirement in 1995 suffered from bouts of depression.

Still, his public persona was so regal and his compassion for people so consuming that those of us on the outside looking in assumed his dark days were behind him. But depression is only ever really in remission if it is being treated properly. It never truly goes away. A good day feels like rebirth but so insidious is the disease of depression that it is always lurking in the shadows. Alexis understood that, talked about it and battled it privately. When he lost that battle, those of us who loved and revered him just couldn’t quite make sense of it all. In the end we didn’t live inside his head so we’ll never truly know just how much he hurt.

After writing a tribute to Arguello it took me longer than I expected to get over it. I only met and spoke with Alexis once. It was a special day for me because Arguello represented not only everything I love about boxing but about sports in general – will, skill, professionalism and humility. He was one of my first heroes. His death affected me so deeply because I felt as though I’d lost something that belongs to me. I just assumed he’d always be there.

As I prepared notes for a follow-up article on Arguello’s great rival Aaron Pryor I got the news that Arturo Gatti had died. Only two weeks had passed since Alexis had taken his own life.

Strangely, I was at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut that Saturday night. Walking into the casino with my sister Alison I dragged her over to an event poster under glass that had a large color photograph of Gatti and Micky Ward. I mentioned their famous first fight to her and told her this is where it took place.

After watching the Red Sox game at one of the many bars, then catching a Beatles cover band in the Wolf Den and dropping some cash at the gaming tables I went back to my hotel room and switched on ESPN’s Sports Center. And that’s when I heard the shocking news.

Gatti’s death left me reeling. I just sat on my hotel bed in disbelief, waiting for every update on what had happened.

Walking past that photograph the next morning left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Gatti had come to be the face of boxing when it came to my friends, none of who are diehard fight fans. But the mere mention of Arturo’s name would bring them in droves to my apartment. They all knew that as long as Gatti was involved something dramatic would happen. And it always did.

Sitting alone in my apartment several nights later I watched six Gatti fights in a row – the first bout with Ivan Robinson, his two classic comebacks against Wilson Rodriguez and Gabriel Ruelas and the trilogy with Micky Ward. I just watched, drank beer and hoped I could write something about Arturo akin to what I wrote for Alexis. But nothing came – total writer’s block.

Later that night I received an email from Frankie Pryor, Aaron’s wife. The interview I wanted to do with Aaron would have to wait. “The Hawk” had been overwhelmed with interview requests regarding Arguello and he had decided to shut it down. It was all too much; he didn’t want to discuss it anymore.

I actually sighed with relief because the Gatti tragedy was still playing out in the news and my mind was elsewhere.

I had also been planning to head out to Lowell, Massachusetts where filming had just begun on the ‘The Fighter’. The movie, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, centers on the life of Micky Ward and his brother Dickie Eklund. I’ve interviewed Micky before and I knew how much he cared for Gatti so I stayed away. Micky subsequently made his way up to Montreal for the funeral.

As the details surrounding Gatti’s death initially pointed to murder at the hands of his wife, autopsy results came back somewhat inconclusive, further dragging out the tragedy.

And just then, as everyone tied to boxing had started to clear their heads and prepare to move on, violence struck again in the form of two or more pieces of shit from the streets with nothing better to do than rob an upstanding citizen of his wallet and car keys. It happens all the time, so much so that unfortunately we’ve become desensitized to it. Violence is commonplace in our society and the death of Vernon Forrest amidst a hail of bullets fired at his back makes him another depressing statistic. {Forensic details about the shooting are still pending.}

In the end the deaths of all three fighters reflects the violence that pervades our society. Were they not attached to celebrity the news of their deaths would have been localized and just three more tragic stories that we read in the papers, shake our heads in disgust and then move onto the next story.

That next story could be another sports tragedy, but involving a less celebrated athlete. And yes, there was another fighter who died this month. Marco Antonio Nazareth passed away in a hospital in Puerto Vallarta on July 22nd, four days after suffering a brain hemorrhage in a fourth round knockout loss to Omar Chavez. Nazareth’s death has been overshadowed by recent events, but his loss is no less significant. He just wasn’t as famous.

But the death of a famous person affects us in a communal way because we see something of ourselves in them or, perhaps, we want to emulate them in some way, or we simply appreciate the talent they display on that grand stage. They thrill us; we look forward to their next performance, pine for their glory days in the waning stages of their career, or wonder what they’re doing now that the spotlight has dimmed.

Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and Vernon Forrest performed for us at the highest level of their profession. They were champions all and good guys. Guys you’d want to sit down and have a beer with – as high a compliment this cynical writer can pay.

They were also all too human and their deaths remind us all of the fragility of life. All three led extraordinary lives in their own unique ways. It’s why we as fans were drawn to them in the first place and why now, with the finality of their deaths, we can’t seem to move onto the next story. It just seems to be too much to take in all at once.

We will all eventually move on and the memories of Alexis, Arturo and Vernon will all revolve around their accomplishments and their humanity. But for now we grieve and wonder why the lives of three true gentlemen had to end so prematurely.


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