“Boxing begins in illusion and ends in real blood and tears. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”
― Brian D’Ambrosio, Life in the Trenches
Alexander McKay (3-2) Born 1804, Died June 3rd, 1830
We’re going back a ways with McKay to the bareknuckle era, even before the London Prize Ring Rules were in effect. The Scottish heavyweight didn’t have much experience, facing just three opponents in his five contests. After losing his pro debut to Simon Byrne in 1827, he went on to win three straight before facing Byrne for a second time in London three years later on June 2nd, 1830.
The bout lasted just under an hour at 47 rounds, with McKay being knocked out by a left to the throat. He regained consciousness and complained of a headache, then was cared for by a physician at the scene and passed away the following day at the Watts Arms inn as a result of a brain hemorrhage.
McKay’s death gained widespread attention that resulted in rioting in Scotland that led to seven deaths and the burning of a Roman Catholic Church as rioters assumed Byrne, an Irishman, was Roman Catholic. Byrne was arrested and tried with manslaughter, but was found not guilty after just ten minutes of deliberation by the jury.
*Prizefighting was illegal in Britain at this time
Simon Byrne (4-3-1) Born 1806, Died June 2nd 1833 *Irish heavyweight bareknuckle champion
It’s only fair to include Byrne after mentioning McKay as he suffered the same fate, dying exactly three years after his fatal contest with the Scottish fighter. Following his acquittal in the death of McKay, Byrne continued his career, losing to English champion Jem Ward before facing James Burke who had assumed the English title after Wards retirement.
Byrne had dropped 24 pounds in preparation for the bout, and was said to have been in control for most of the early rounds, even causing Burke to vomit blood at one point. Burke recovered and gained control by the fight’s midpoint with Byrne finally collapsing in the 99th round of the longest recorded prizefight in history at three hours and six minutes in length.
Though he was said to be close to dying after the bout, Byrne’s condition improved over the following two days and he regained consciousness. On the afternoon of June 1st he relapsed and passed away the next day, his cause of death was given as “congestion of blood in the brain”.
James Burke was arrested and tried for manslaughter, but was acquitted just as Byrne had been in his case with McKay.
Robert Wangila (22-5, 16 KO’s) Born 9-3-1967, Died 7-28-1994 *WBB super welterweight champion
Fighting out of Kenya, Wangila was an Olympic gold medalist in the 1988 Seoul Games.
On July 22nd 1994, he faced WBC number 10 ranked super welterweight David Gonzalez in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a close contest that was scored even on two cards at the time of the stoppage, and many saw Wangila winning, but in the ninth round referee Joe Cortez saw fit to stop the bout in Gonzalez’s favor despite the protests of the Kenyan fighter. After returning to his dressing room, Wangila fell into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying two days later. “In the post-fight examination in the ring, he was very alert,” said Robert Voy, the ringside physician. “He responded normally. There were no complaints of headaches.”
According to Standardmedia.co.ke, “a Los Angeles trainer, Cassius Greene, who had worked with Wangila, speculated that Wangila might have sustained the injuries during practice but not in the Gonzalez match”.
Bradley Rone (7-43-3, 2 KO’s) Born 9-30-1968, Died 7-18-2003
Rone isn’t the most popular fighter as you can already surmise by looking at his record. The heavyweight out of Cincinnati, Ohio never amounted to much more than an opponent; to call him a journeyman would be overly generous, but that doesn’t make his death any less tragic. He was so poor of a fighter that he was banned from boxing in Las Vegas altogether in 2000, though he still fought everywhere else.
On July 18th, 2003 he took a bout against Billy Zumbrun, another journeyman who had beaten him just three weeks prior, on one day’s notice. It’s said that he took the contest for a fee of $800, money he needed to fly home to Ohio in order to attend to his mother’s death; she had passed away the day before the bout. Rone collapsed at the end of the opening round after getting hit with a jab, dying on the spot. His death was the result of a heart attack; at 260 pounds it’s believed that combination of his weight, an undiagnosed heart condition, as well as the stress of his mothers’ death and accumulated punishment taken in the ring lead to his passing.
Arizona senator John McCain expressed his feelings that Rone’s death showed that a unified national boxing commission was needed. His final bout was his 27th consecutive loss.
Deuk-Koo Kim (17-2-1, 8 KO’s) Born 1-8-1955, Died 11-17-1982 *OPBF & South Korea lightweight champion
Kim’s death is one of the most, if not THE most widely talked about ring fatality in boxing history. He was 27 years old when he faced Ray Mancini on November 13th 1982 for the WBA lightweight title at Caesars Palace. He had a 15 fight winning streak coming in, fighting five times that year alone but this was his first 15 round outing and he had struggled to make the 135 pound limit.
A tough bout from the outset, it’s said that Mancini briefly considered quitting because Kim was so tough; his left eye was swelling, his left ear was torn, and his left hand badly swollen. The champ managed to turn the fight around, and was out landing Kim, though the challenger still appeared to be very strong despite getting wobbled in the 11th round. The opening of the 14th frame saw Mancini land two hard right hands, the second of which dropped Kim flat on his back, his head hitting the canvas. Using the ropes to pull himself off the floor, referee Richard Greene didn’t hesitate to wave off the bout as Kim struggled to steady himself. Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated stated of Kim pulling himself up the ropes as he was dying “One of the greatest physical feats I had ever witnessed.”
Falling into a coma minutes after the fight, he was taken to Desert Springs Hospital where he was found to have suffered a subdural hematoma amounting to 100 cc of blood in his skull; the neurosurgeon said the injury was caused by one punch. Surgery was unsuccessful, and Kim died four days later. The fighter’s mother, who had been at his side in the hospital, committed suicide three months later and the following year referee Richard Greene did the same.
Many changes took place in the sport following Kim’s death; all three major sanctioning bodies reduced championship bouts from 15 rounds to 12 with the WBO, formed in 1988, following suit. By recommendation of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the number of ring ropes was increased from three to four to prevent fighters from falling through the ropes and out of the ring, and new medical procedures were introduced to fighters’ pre-fight checkups, such as electrocardiograms, brain tests, and lung tests.
It’s been reported that prior to his battle with Mancini, Kim had written (either on his hotel bathroom mirror or on a lamp shade) in blood, “live or die”.
*The 2002 movie “Champion” documents Kim’s life. “The Good Son”, a film about Ray Mancini covers the fatal contest as does the ESPN film “Triumph and Tragedy”.