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As the boxing world mourns, Brett Popplewell reflects on the sport’s problematic and unflinching violence

As a sportswriter, Brett Popplewell learned to box at age 30 to understand the physical toll of the sport.James MacDonald/Handout

Brett Popplewell is an author and assistant professor of journalism at Carleton University. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Mother Jones and The Best American Sports Writing.

Minutes before he collapsed onto a gurney and began vomiting into a bucket, Maxim Dadashev, a 28-year-old undefeated Russian welterweight boxer, walked to his corner of the ring inside a Maryland casino and took to his stool. Blood exited from his nose as he stared absently forward and shook his head at his trainer.

Nobody knew how damaging the last 44-minutes of Mr. Dadashev’s life had been. Not the fight doctor, not his trainer and not the 2,100 spectators ringside. There were others watching, too – a diminished mass of devotees who follow fights on specialty apps on their phones and TVs. None could feel the blood seeping out of the burst vein inside his brain. All they could see was a fighter arguing for one more round.

Inches from Mr. Dadashev’s face was Buddy McGirt, a boxing hall-of-famer who’d watched, as trainers do, while the signs of brain damage revealed themselves slowly over multiple rounds – the unsteady legs, lethargic behaviour and awkward movements. He could have stopped the fight 100 punches earlier, but hindsight, like a boxer’s vision in the ring, is never really 20/20. As Mr. Dadashev sat on his stool after the eleventh round, his trainer had seen enough. He wanted to stop the fight. “You’re getting hit too much,” Mr. McGirt told his fighter. “Please, Max, please, let me do this."

Mr. Dadashev rinsed his mouth and spat out more blood. He was dying, even if he was still blinking and breathing and shaking his head as his corner crew cut off his gloves.

As Mr. Dadashev climbed out of the ring, Mr. McGirt took to a mic to tell the crowd that he’d stopped the fight because he knew, just as everyone else does, that “One punch … could change a whole guy’s life.”

Except it wasn’t one punch. It was 319 of them.

Mr. McGirt was still talking as his fighter began to stumble nearby. Then, the vomiting started. Rushed to hospital, Mr. Dadashev was medically induced into a coma. His head was shaved, his scalp opened and his brain exposed in a two-hour attempt to staunch the damage.

It took four days for Mr. Dadashev to die. That was July 23. Sports networks that hadn’t bothered to broadcast any of his fights to an audience that has largely disappeared in recent years, filled the airwaves with the sad details of Mr. Dadashev’s life – how he’d hoped to obtain a green card after that fight and dreamt of bringing his wife and two-year-old son with him to the United States.

Mr. Dadashev’s story seemed to prove an old adage true – that every fighter who gets in the ring leaves with less of themselves intact. It doesn’t matter whether they win; they always lose something. Two days later, the vicious nature of that reality revealed itself yet again, when Hugo Santillan, another fighter, collapsed into an unresponsive heap in his trainer’s arms while still in a Buenos Aires boxing ring. He was essentially lifeless when the referee raised his arm to celebrate that he’d fought to a draw.

Oct. 20, 2018: Maxim Dadashev celebrates after defeating Antonio DeMarco during a junior welterweight bout in Las Vegas. Less than a year later, he would be dead.John Locher/The Associated Press

July 21, 2019: Argentine boxer Hugo Santillan is placed on a stretcher in San Nicolas, Argentina, after he collapsed at the end of a WBC title fight against Uruguay's Eduardo Abreu. He died a few days later from head trauma.Jorge Feres/The Associated Press

As the ever-shrinking world of boxing does its best to mourn the deaths of two promising young fighters, they do so while simultaneously lobbying that nothing should change about the sport. And that’s the problem.

Every sport has a lifespan, and if boxing is nearing its own end then it is just a victim of its own unflinching brutality, a societal casualty in the age of growing public awareness that frequent blows to the skull are bad for the brain.

In Canada, the gyms where fighters train are generally tucked out of sight in warehouses next to train yards or slaughterhouses where rent is cheap and spectators slim. Organized fights are less commonly held in grand auditoriums, than in aging branches of the Royal Canadian Legion. It’s in these often lonely and dank environments that the professionals differentiate themselves from the amateurs and become prize fighters, monetizing their fists and graduating to what’s essentially a casino circuit. From the inside looking out, the fight game hasn’t really evolved much since the days of the famed Canadian heavyweight champion, George Chuvalo. Except for this one simple fact: Most people on the outside can’t name a single Canadian boxer other than Mr. Chuvalo.

It has been a long time since the general public flocked to a radio or TV set and tuned into a heavyweight title bout. The sport has become somewhat of a sideshow, rich in lore, but poor in contemporary taste – abandoned by many, including those who prefer to get their combat fix from watching safer sports such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Yet to boxing’s admirers, its gritty resiliency is also part of its attraction. Boxing is at once an underbelly sport and an Olympic contest. Innately vile, yet also pure.

Despite years of societal evolution and scientific discovery, ardent fight fans still congregate in those legion branches and casinos to knowingly encourage an archaic, ritualized form of violence that pushes the boundaries of our societal acceptance of suicide and murder. But the question of “how is this still a thing?” is as personal as it is societal. Because despite everything we’ve learned about brain damage in recent years, grown men and women are still willing to enter a ring where they are permitted to do things to each other that are illegal outside the ropes.

Why any right-minded individual would voluntarily place themselves in a scenario where they could kill or be killed in the name of sport, is a question I asked myself repeatedly for 16 months while boxing with accountants, lawyers and real estate agents whose chosen pastime involved putting on boxing gloves every other evening and punching each other in the face.

Brett Popplewell spent 16 months learning to be a fighter.

He would take more than 319 hits to the head and face in the process.Photos: James MacDonald/Handout

For me it was a combination of literary seduction, physical poignance and journalistic interest. I was a 30-year-old sportswriter who’d spilled more ink than most on the concussion crisis in sport. I’d interviewed the parents and widows of athletes whose brains had been sliced up and placed in a freezer in a brain bank in Boston. I’d seen in person some of the brains of the men I’d written about.

I understood the emotional wreckage that sport-induced brain damage could have on a family, but I wanted to understand the mindset of the fighters who were actually willing to risk their lives in the name of sport. So I began to box and ultimately competed in a heavyweight bout in the Ontario Golden Gloves Tournament, where I lost in front of a crowd in the cafeteria of Mohawk College in Hamilton. But not before hitting a perfect stranger so hard in the face that he went temporarily blind out of one eye (in the moment, I found that last bit rewarding, although I now find it troubling.)

It wasn’t until I actually got into the ring that I fully understood the physical toll of the sport or what it was that Robert Anasi (another writer-turned-boxer) was talking about when he said, “Time hangs over all of us, but it strikes no one more swiftly than boxers, who can become old men in three minutes.”

I may have taken more than 319 hits to the face and head in the 16 months it took to turn myself into a fighter. I suffered cartilage damage to my nose and for a time I couldn’t look at the sun coming through the leaves without suffering a headache. But it was the emotional and mental strain of it all that I found most alarming. It was in the dark of a sleepless night before a fight when I became overwhelmed by thoughts of tomorrow and the stranger who would try to concuss my brain, bruise my kidneys and break my jaw. That’s when I found myself dry heaving into a toilet.

In the years since leaving the sport, I’ve interviewed other boxers and NHL enforcers. They all describe the same anxiety. Some live off it. I hated it. I only met one person in boxing who was actually in it because they wanted to hurt somebody. Thankfully, he wasn’t very good at it. Everyone else dragged themselves into the gym because they either genuinely liked the sport or because they had discovered they were naturally gifted once in the ring.

The best boxer I ever trained with was a 120-pound bartender named Marianna. She once told me that boxing made her feel more confident and strong than anything else she did in life. She said she was addicted to it. I never experienced any of what she experienced in the ring, but I did discover something intrinsic to the sport that I did admire. And I discovered it in my own defeat.

Brett Popplewell found he was most alarmed by the emotional and mental strain of boxing.James MacDonald/Handout

The boxing ring is a socioeconomic equalizer. It has been since at least the 8th century BC. That’s when Homer recorded one of the first matches known to history, which ended when one combatant, a water-bearer from Parnassus, knocked out a prince from Thebes and walked away with a mule.

There’s an age-old mystique that lures certain people into the ring. But it’s fleeting. Nelson Mandela was a boxer before he became something greater than himself. I liked that. Justin Trudeau is a boxer too, but we as a country roll our eyes at that more than we celebrate it. And I understand why.

But the power of boxing is in its capacity to connect us to a part of ourselves that we don’t often connect with. It’s not simply the animalistic side, the natural creature that can kill each other. It’s more lineal. Something A.J. Liebling captured when he wrote that every fighter can trace their “rapport with the historic past through the laying on of hands.”

There was a time when that sort of thought inspired me to keep taking punches. It’s why I know that a fighter once tapped me with the same hand he used to knock out Leon Spinks, who once beat Muhammad Ali. The connection is tangential, but when you’re living it, it feels real.

When I fought, I did so with all the privilege of a journalist engaging in some exercise of intellectual curiosity. But it didn’t matter who I was before I got in the ring. All that mattered was how well I could fight once the bell rang.

I haven’t boxed competitively in five years. I write this from the position of privilege as a professor and a young father who doesn’t need to fight for a green card or for much else in life.

Boxing will never be made safe. They can shorten fights or mandate increased medical training in the gyms. They can change the gloves. But the sport will still be easier on the fist than it is on the brain.

I don’t pretend to understand what could have led Mr. Dadashev and Mr. Santillan to fight to the death, because I know I’m incapable of doing that. But I also know that it wasn’t just their opponents punches that killed them. Nor their trainers who couldn’t see what CT scans would later reveal. It was our societal acceptance of it all. Because even after all this time and everything we’ve learned, there are still those among us willing to cheer.

James MacDonald/Handout

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