Bernard Fernandez: Death hovers in the ring

Francisco Rodriguez (left) falls back during his Friday night fight with Teon Kennedy at the Blue Horizon. (Photo by Peltz Boxing)

"The idea is to hit your opponent, to batter him if necessary. If you don't, he'll hit and batter you. Every so often, a boxer dies. Whenever that happens, some people like to shout that boxing should be outlawed, that it's unnecessarily brutal. Most of the time, the shouters are politicians who know it's an easy way to get their name in the newspapers. But an occasional death doesn't mean a sport should be abolished. If that were the case, auto racing should be abolished. So should football."

- Sugar Ray Robinson

THE GREATEST boxer ever to lace up a pair of padded gloves told collaborator Dave Anderson that in his 1969 autobiography, "Sugar Ray." Robinson was reflecting on his world welterweight title defense against Jimmy Doyle, who died as the result of injuries suffered in their June 1947 bout in Cleveland. Hardly anyone in the audience that night gave Doyle much chance to dethrone Robinson, who took a 78-1-1 record, with 52 knockouts, into the ring; few, however, could have anticipated just how high a price the challenger would pay for even making the attempt.

So now we add the name of Francisco Rodriguez to those of Jimmy Doyle, Benny "Kid" Paret, Duk-Koo Kim and any number of others who discovered that a boxing match sometimes can become a fight to the death.

Rodriguez was removed from life-support at Hahnemann University Hospital on Sunday evening, 2 days after his 10th-round technical knockout by North Philadelphia's Teon Kennedy in a bout for the vacant USBA super bantamweight title at the Blue Horizon.

Death is the shadow that hovers above every fighter who accepts danger as an occupational risk.

Alex Rodriguez is the eldest of three boxing brothers; Francisco, 25, was the youngest, a five-time Chicago Golden Gloves champion who was the family's last, best hope of hitting the big time. Alex was Francisco's manager, and their shared goal was for the kid brother, known to his family and friends as "Paco," to go all the way to a world title. Alex believes it can still happen, in a sense, through the harvesting of Francisco's organs.

"My brother had a perfect heart, perfect lungs, perfect kidneys, perfect pancreas," Alex said yesterday, his voice choked with emotion. "Because of him, other people will have a chance for better health, more birthdays, the fulfillment of their own dreams. Paco is going to continue walking through this world through them."

Alex also wants to believe that a part of Francisco will live on in Kennedy, for whom he holds no animosity. The new USBA champion was just doing what he was supposed to do, which was trying to win. He did not enter the ring with lethal intentions, nor did Francisco Rodriguez.

"I talked to Russell Peltz, the promoter," Alex said. "I told him I don't know this Kennedy guy, I don't know what he's feeling now, but I hope he understands that my family is not upset at him. I hope he goes on to achieve everything my brother wanted to achieve. I wish him nothing but the best. He's a good fighter, and I know Paco would not want him to stop doing what he does because of this. Fighters fight. You can't stop being who and what you are."

For his part, Kennedy said he didn't think he would hesitate the next time he has an opponent in trouble, but he sounded as if he couldn't be absolutely certain. Perhaps the sight of Rodriguez being strapped onto that gurney is too fresh in his memory.

"I don't believe I would hold back [in a similar situation]," Kennedy said. "This is my job. I want to become a world champion. If I can't give it my all, that can never happen."

As much as anyone, former WBA lightweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini knows how heavy a burden those who kill a man with their fists can carry. Perhaps no boxing death has had the ripple effect of Mancini's fatal, 14th-round knockout of South Korea's Duk-Koo Kim in 1982. After undergoing emergency brain surgery, Kim died 4 days later. Soon afterward, his grieving mother committed suicide by ingesting a bottle of pesticide, and on July 1, 1983, the bout's referee, Richard Green, also took his own life.

Mancini continued to fight, but, he said, the joy had gone out of boxing for him, never to return.

"It was horrible," Mancini said of the aftermath of the Kim fight. "People - some very young - would come up to me and ask what it's like to kill somebody. I couldn't believe the lack of compassion. I still don't.

"The only thing that kept me going is that I relied on my faith. I prayed and prayed. I prayed for peace, and I made my peace with what I'd done. I asked God to forgive me, and I think he did.

"You tell yourself that this is the business you chose. You seek answers, but you don't always get them. Mostly, I asked myself, 'Why him and not me?' I'd only recently won the title. I had the opportunity to financially secure my future, and I, fortunately, was able to do that.

"But after that fight, I lost my zest for boxing. And without that zest, that passion, I knew it was the beginning of the end for me. I was already looking to get out. Besides, my style wasn't made for having a long career anyway."

Mancini said that he would counsel the Rodriguez family and particularly Kennedy if they sought him out.

"I knocked out guys after the Kim fight," he noted. "I had guys in trouble along the ropes. But I knew if I froze up, that probably would be me getting the worst of it. And once that happens, once you become afraid to just let it go, you're finished as a fighter."

Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, declined to comment when asked whether there will an investigation into the Rodriguez-Kennedy bout or whether anything different might have been done to prevent its tragic outcome. *

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