March 22, 2014, Monterrey, Mexico– Vivian Harris dropped to his knees mid-ring at the Arena Monterrey, overcome with emotion. He had just been announced the split decision winner over Jorge Paez Jr.
The usually soft-spoken Harris then grabbed the ring mic to address the pro-Paez crowd.
“Mexico! I love you guys! Great boxing fans! I love you!”
The victory guarantees Harris another payday and, likely, a bigger payout next time– great news for a 35-year-old fighter carrying a he-must-retire stigma.
If many in the media had their way, Harris would’ve been cast from the sport long ago.
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The easiest cliché in the boxing writing business, right behind the outrage aimed at an “inept” judge, is the one where you call for some poor schlub’s boxing license to be revoked.
“So and So’s been beaten so many times, knocked out so many times…nobody should license him.”
It’s canned outrage and an easy way to earn some street cred for being a truth-spewing rebel who calls it like he sees it. But the real issue of licensing and whether a fighter is fit for the sport just isn’t that simple.
Last Saturday night, Vivian Harris was put in the ring against second generation attraction Jorge Paez Jr. in Monterrey, Mexico. As the third fighter signed for the opponent slot (after Erik Morales and Breidis Prescott pulled out due to injury), Harris was expected to lose spectacularly.
Harris, who not too long ago went on a cringe-worthy 0-6-1 streak (with five of those loses coming by way of knockout), was on a two-fight win streak coming into Saturday’s bout and was telling everyone who would listen that he had found God and was carrying a renewed passion for the sport.
Still, a failed physical for a scheduled February bout in the UK against prospect, Bradley Skeete, empowered many a media soapbox. The announced Paez fight a month later energized calls for the 35-year-old to be banned from ever fighting again:
“Harris is damaged goods. I don’t say that because I have read his medical reports. I say it because I’m not blind. Watch a recent fight. It doesn’t take a genius to know when a guy is not only done, but way past done and at risk of being seriously hurt because of the kind of hard head shots he takes with regularity.”
— Dan Rafael, ESPN
“Harris should not have a license to box in Mexico or anywhere else.”
— Tim Starks, The Queensberry Rules
“…Harris is just shot, a spent bullet as they say in the sport…By all reasonable accounts, Harris [is] a fighter that should be put down. If he were a horse, he’d either be taken to stud or the glue factory.”
— Steve Kim, Max Boxing
A year ago, I may have been right alongside these people, calling for poor Vivian to be saved from himself. But I wouldn’t have had any more evidence of danger than the writers quoted above. I wouldn’t have seen any medical records supporting my call to end this man’s livelihood. I’m not sure that I’m okay with that type of blind grandstanding anymore.
Harris, as a former world champion with an ugly losing streak, is a big target for the licensing lynch mob. But how much of Harris’ losing streak was due to life-threatening cerebral damage and how much was simply Vivian Harris being Vivian Harris losing like Vivian Harris?
It wasn’t like he was being knocked out by love taps from pillow-pushing club fighters. All of his losses have come against world class talent and in his most current losing streak, he’d suffered knockouts at the hands of big punchers like Lucas Matthysse, Victor Ortiz, and Ed Paredes as well as prospects Jessie Vargas and Brian Rose. Always considered “chinny,” Harris likely may have lost to these people, even in his prime.
On Saturday, against Paez, he certainly didn’t look like a fighter dealing with any of the usual physical issues associated with being “shot.” His balance was fine, punch resistance was fine, and he had clear eyes throughout the competitive ten-round bout. He looked like a 35-year-old fighter, slowed down a bit, but not in dire need of a forced retirement.
Granted, Paez is no killer in the ring and he’s far from an elite-level pug, but there’s no reason he wouldn’t have been able to send a totally, hopelessly shot Harris to a Monterrey hospital.
Anyone claiming to have the definitive answer regarding Harris’ ring safety would be lying. The old boxing adage talks about always erring on the side of safety, but is it responsible to err in ignorance, without having looked at anything even resembling concrete proof of danger?
“I don’t know how any person with ethics can write something that harms the earning potential of a fighter without having verified information on why a fighter may have been denied a license in one region and granted one in another,” said Sam Geraci of Fightnews when approached for his opinion. “Fighters fight to make a living and before any so called reporter, journalist or blogger makes comments about a fighter’s eligibility to use the ring to feed his family, an in-depth analysis should be undertaken.”
It goes without saying that boxing, even under the best of circumstances, is a dangerous game.
Recent tragedies involving Oscar Gonzalez and Magomed Abdusalamov, the former resulting in death and the latter in permanent disability, featured two fighters with good records, a solid standing on the world stage, and no history of sustained abuse in the ring. Similarly, former world champ Gerald McClellan, who now lives in a permanent deaf and blind world of darkness from brain injuries sustained in his 1995 bout with Nigel Benn, was on top of the world and considered pound-for-pound elite at the time of his tragic fall.
There’s no easy answer in situations like Harris’, at least not for someone careful about the balance between fighter safety and a man’s right to earn a living.
The real battle in all of this, of course, is to find a way to create some sort of trustworthy, centralized authority in a sport that absolutely refuses to regulate itself. But this is a hopeless pipe dream of a cause, too complicated and not sexy enough to ever garner any real attention from the mainstream boxing media.
So, in the absence of a true battle for safety and reform, potshots are taken at fighters’ livelihoods; some surely appropriate, others questionable. There is no definitive answer because nobody ever pursues a definitive answer. Maybe nobody really wants one. Maybe too few promoter-owned media voices and blogging hobbyists care to get beyond the pretend concern and fake outrage.
In the meantime, until someone actually cares enough to really and truly fight for change, perhaps the most logical take is that of writer and former fight manager Charles Farrell.
“Like all of us, I worry about fighters. I’m concerned for their well-being, and I occasionally even question how we can justify watching what we watch,” Farrell told me. “But, at one point, you’re in or you’re out. If you’re in, you live with being in. And part of living with being in entails understanding that you are not the arbiter for who should and who should not be allowed to fight.”
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Please give my related article a read: No One Here Gets Out Alive (Who Really Killed Frankie Leal?). If you like it, please share.