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Live or Die: The Passing of the 15 Round Era, Part I

By Dave McKee: Saturday, June 7, 1997 the Convention Center in Ruidoso, New Mexico, was a day of particular significance for the sport of boxing. Jose Alfredo Flores beat Eric Holland in a 15 round split decision for the World Boxing Board middleweight title. Following the conclusion of 15 rounds, it is neither this achievement, nor the names associated with it that ring through the annals of boxing history. The fight action itself was to prove of no great significance in the grand panorama of pugilistic memory. The actors in this play are not headed to Canastota any time soon.

However, a matter of trivia associated with this bout serves as an epochal dividing line between then and now, between the nostalgic era of the championship rounds and the modern era of truncated title fights.
On this night in New Mexico the fifteen round fight completed its slow fade into reminiscence.

To be fair, this was but the final glimpse of the 15 rounder as it was dragged out of the ring, kayoed by negative popular reaction to a grim reality of boxing: it is a hurt business, and at times it can be a killing affair.
Fifteen years earlier, on November 13, 1982, WBA world lightweight champion Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini met South Korean challenger, Deuk-Koo Kim, at Caesar’s Palace. Kim was not thought a serious contender, and he struggled to make weight. This struggle, which may have been the first element of an unfolding tragedy, was also a sign of the underdog’s spirit. He had come to America to win. On a lampshade in his hotel room he had written the words, ‘Live or Die.’

Mancini had watched film of the lightly considered Kim. He was impressed and somewhat concerned.

When the opening bell sounded, Kim showed no sign of weakness from his last minute weight loss. He punished Mancini, causing his left eye to swell horribly. Pain racked the champion’s body, and his unlikely challenger showed no sign of quit. For the first time in his career Mancini considered retiring from a match.

The fight was fairly even, and Mancini labored under doubts he’d never known. He fought through, pulling Kim into the deep waters of the championship rounds. Mancini had been slowly gaining an edge in the last few periods, and finally, in the 14th round, he caught Kim with a right hand. Kim collapsed, hitting his head against the mat. He never regained his feet
Taken away on a stretcher, Kim spent four days in hospital, where he died from complications arising from a blood clot on his brain.

Television brought this tragedy into the homes of millions. A
shocked public reacted with horror at the barbarity of a sport they had certainly known was violent. There was just something different about broadcasting the extremes of this violence into the living rooms of America in full color.

Subsequently, Dr. Edwin Homansky, of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, lobbied the major sanctioning organizations to shave three rounds off of championship bouts. The WBC immediately decreed that, henceforth, title fights would be 12, rather than 15 rounds. Other organizations were slow to conform, but the new order was well on its way.
There is some controversy over the actual health benefits of this change. Many fans simply lament that 15 rounds is the purer, historically appropriate number of rounds for a title fight. The most diehard fans point to classic battles that would have had different outcomes had they been 12e, rather than 15 rounds long.

These issues will be considered in Part II and Part III of this series, Live or Die: The Passing of the 15 Round Era.

September 5, 2011

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