Requiem for a light-middleweight

Garry White
18/10/2019 9:52pm

Photos: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

As Patrick Day joins the long list of boxing's fallen warriors, Garry White pays tribute and reflects on what the latest ring tragedy means, for both himself and the sport that he loves...

“’Not me,’ said the boxing writer,

Pounding print on his old typewriter,

Sayin’, ‘Boxing ain’t to blame,

There’s as much danger in a football game.”

Sadly Bob Dylan’s bitter, questioning assault on boxing finds extra resonance yet again this week. His poetic lyrics, hammered out in accusatory tones like a musical Inspector Goole, have infiltrated my consciousness too much of late; following the deaths of Maxim Dadashev, Hugo Alfredo Santillan, Boris Stanchov and now young Patrick Day in the space of just a few months.

“Who killed Davey Moore?

Why and what’s the reason for?”

The words are hoarse, half-spoken and half-sung. They hang in the air, challenging someone to provide an answer or at least to accept responsibility. But boxing has toyed with this question for decades and more and still it cannot move beyond platitudes. As the short life of Day is cast painfully into the night, perhaps there is nothing that can be said. The damage is permanent. No amount of talking can make it undone.

Charles Conwell did the punching – two rights and a left sent Day’s head slamming heavily into the canvas - but it wasn’t him. He is only 21, unbeaten in the ring but beaten in life, for now at least. He should be rejoicing in the greatest win of his career, but is instead utterly broken.

His heart-breaking pleas on social media would dissolve the hardest of hearts: “All I ever wanted to do was win. If I could take it all back I would. No one deserves this to happen to them. I see you everywhere I go,” he said, of the fight and of Day.

He is now doomed to tread in the footsteps of Max Baar, Lupe Pintor, Richie Wenton and scores of others that have come before him. Linked forever to the memory of a vanquished foe. There is not one victim here but two. One has fallen and the other must carry their weight forever as a footnote to every success.

The press will talk about an over preponderance of heart, spirit, perhaps even ambition on the part of Day – all elusive, indefinable yet well-meaning clichés. But as we salute him, we loosen our collar and know that it was boxing that was guilty. It was boxing that sent him from Chicago’s Wintrust Arena to an emergency room and ultimately an early grave. It was the sport that first found him as a 14 year-old boy and one that he later chose to make a career from – in plain sight it chose to mutiny against him.

It has happened before and it will happen again on another evening, from small hall to prime-time, somewhere along boxing’s scattered grid reference. If a boxing match is a microcosm of life then it must, on occasion, work to the same certainties.

As someone once said, “It’s only the names that change.”

This time it was the turn of New Yorker, Day. He was only 27 and checks in as the newest, cleanest living member of the gifted, young and dead club. The waste is palpable. The language is brutal, perhaps unnecessary but at least it squarely acknowledges the truth. Perhaps, the time for soft denials has passed. This vicious, achingly hollow end is one of the horrible outcomes that anyone with any connection to boxing understands, only too well.

To answer Dylan’s caricatured hard-nosed boxing writer, there is not as much danger in a football game. Not nearly as much. Not even in the American kind. Though it presents risk of injury, the equipment and the game protects its protagonists from death and serious injury. Boxing, although it tries to control and limit the risks, largely - by its definition - does the opposite.

If the game damages them it is slowly and cumulatively. Boxing frequently does the same, but equally it can turn off the lights and stop all the clocks in a way that is sudden, shocking and instant. Much like a knockout but with unbreakable permanency. The crowd cheer, shuffle uncomfortably, and then they fall silent. It was fun, a barnstormer, a classic: now someone is dead.

It doesn’t matter that no one asked for it…

The eulogies have raced in thick and fast for Day as they have for many others and will inevitably do so again. He joins an unwanted group of fighters that have paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of their championship dreams, to give their family a better life, or simply to make their next mortgage payment. For the gold medallist it’s a sport. On the road it’s often a necessary blue-collar business.

Worst still, as the years pass, is the curse of the good things ultimately being forgotten. A 22-fight career diverted into a single night where Patrick Day lost a fight and ultimately his life. Condemned to be a name recycled only as a reference point to someone else’s tragedy in the manner of Bradley Stone – 30 years ago this spring at York Hall - or more recently Mike Towell, who permanently lost his battle a world away from the Wintrust Arena at Glasgow’s Radison Blu hotel.

Stone can still be found outside of the Peacock gym in Canning Town, “Forever proud as a peacock” and always just 23. Carved in bronze, where once within those walls he was decent, honest, flesh and bone. He went too soon. None can doubt that. The dream faded to dust.

And then there’s Frankie Campbell, Ernie Schaaf and Greatest Crawford. Distant black and white names from boxing’s dust covered and blood spattered roll of honour. As relevant and understood now as the names on your local war memorial. The drumbeat of time has erased them leaving only their name, dates and an occasional photograph. Their identity stripped, the person underneath the name removed and their death left as the chiefly remembered act of a life that was once vital and real.

Soon, and perhaps worst of all, there will be those that try to recast a smiling athlete like Day as a docile “victim.” To weaponise his death as a means to attack the sport that was such a central component to his identity and future ambition. The son of a doctor and the owner of a university degree he was smart enough to be anything that he wanted to be: he chose to be a boxer. This is no tale of urban desperation or restricted options.

But with each new tragedy the denials become more difficult and less convincing. Where once boxing had the confidence and public respect to fight back, the best it can do now is cover up and roll with the punches. To see out the round until the next blow makes its knees sag and wobble once again.

“You never got me down, Ray” you can hear it murmur. As much is true. But it’s only the heart, decency and integrity of the men and women under the lights that cherishes and protects this truth.

Because at the top there is little to commend so many of those that are charged with defending it: disparate sanctioning bodies, banging their own drums and flogging any bauble they can to the highest bidder. The “lions led by donkeys” mantra, extends far beyond those war memorials to a place that we all recognise.

It's 24 years since I watched Nigel Benn beat Gerald McClellan on prime-time free-to-air television. The build-up was massive and everywhere in a way that is difficult to articulate now. By the time the fight commenced the excitement was unrestrainable, like trying to chain lightning and encapsulated by Frank Bruno at ringside jumping up and down in his gaudy red suit.

For a long-time it remained just a memory, until a few months ago I watched the fight for only the second time; mostly to see if it was as good as my teenage memory recollected.

The ferocity of its spectacle hadn’t dimmed, but knowing the outcome it felt different. Benn didn’t so much as beat McClellan to death but instead with great heart and skill hammered the life out of him. Despite his strength for much of the fight there is the unavoidable and uncomfortable sense of watching a man’s identity being erased brick-by-brick.

It made me recall Don Dunphy’s incredulous words on the Emile Griffith vs Benny Paret tragedy: “They are tuning in to see a man get beaten to death.” I want no part of that, not even from a disparate gap of nearly a quarter century. Yet the hypocrisy isn’t lost on me. It’s akin to watching an execution only to claim innocence by closing your eyes at the final denouement.

So, why do I follow this sport? Why do I write about it? If I am complicit in its triumphs, then I cannot cower away from its blackest days. It is a point I continually mull over, not just in light of this recent tragedy, but longer than that, perhaps back to McClellan, Bradley Stone and beyond.

The sport endures despite its deficiencies and wholly due to the special something that every single one of its protagonists possesses. On any given night from a sports hall to the Las Vegas strip they stand in the way of and confront uncomfortable truths. Boxers front up life and death and provide us with an open window into the human condition.

There are no bums, tomato cans or mugs; only fighters. Those that are willing to nakedly put themselves out there and endure life’s microcosm in three minute bursts. Whilst we watch we not only learn about them but also ourselves. Boxing survives as a vital, uncompromising two-fisted lesson in life.

Like the fictional Terry Molloy from ‘On the Waterfront', we can kid ourselves that: “We coulda had class, coulda been someone, coulda been a contender.”

And then we can take a moment to remember Patrick Day and recall with utter conviction that he was possessed of all three.

Boxing will forever be proud of him.