The Lessons Of The Leavander Johnson Tragedy

By Tom Donelson
Updated: September 26, 2005

Leavander Johnson NEW YORK — When a fighter dies in a very public moment, it leads to various soul searching and gnashing of teeth. One major website has even question if boxing should be abolished. For those of us who follow the sport on a daily basis were shocked by the death but yet we all know that this is a possibility.

So could have the tragedy been avoided? Yes, but hindsight makes us a little smarter. Maybe the referee should have stopped the fight earlier, and certainly Johnson’s corner should have prevented their fighter out for that fateful round but in a championship fight, emotions often take precedence over common sense.

I won’t defend IBF having Johnson as a champion since he was not one of the lightweight elites but he was a top ten fighter. On paper, Chavez came in the fight as the smaller fighter even though it was accepted he was a top five junior featherweight in one of boxing deepest division..

Going in the fight, we had a top ten lightweight fighting one of the better 130-pound fighters in the world. Before the fight, there was no mention that this was a tremendous mismatch that it turned out.

This is not to excuse the IBF for setting up a process that allowed Johnson to claim a portion of the lightweight title. IFB like other sanctioning bodies have given fighters a choice of fighting their mandatory challengers or lose their title.

As IBF exchanges with Ringtalk’s Cliff Rold showed, IBF lightweight champion Julio Diaz was given a choice to either fight a mandatory or fight the then recognized champion Jose Castillo. He chose the latter and was stripped of his title. This has happened with other sanctioning bodies and Johnson was the benefactor of such politics.

Still, what happen was not predicted and it points out the danger of boxing. Any fight could be the last for any fighter but boxing is not the most dangerous sport. When a football player dies in action or in practice, we never hear the same gnashing of teeth about football.

The great hall of fame quarterback Johnny Unitas was unable to hold a football in retirement since his hand was so deformed as result of his football injuries. Many football players finds themselves the victim of long term debilitating injuries that continue to plague them long after retirement.

No matter what safety feature put in as a result of this tragedy, boxers will die. It is the nature of the sport just as there will be deaths in football. In physical sports, death is always a possibility, even if the odds of fatal accidents are improbable.

It is incumbent of us to ensure the sport is as safe as possible. Boxing authorities need to explore all options to make the sport safer. In any fight, those in charge of the action from the ringside physicians, the referee to those in the fighter’s corner must always keep the fighters health their primary concern.

We can make the sport safer but tragedy is but a punch away.