It was early in the morning Pacific time on Sept. 18, 2005. It was a long night for Bill Johnson, but the veteran trainer stood ramrod straight in the waiting area of the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
His son, former IBF lightweight champion Leavander Johnson, had fought gallantly the night before, giving everything he had in a futile bid to keep his championship. Jesus Chavez was stronger, faster and more accurate, and was delivering a frightening beating.
The fight was finally stopped just 38 seconds into the 11th round and Chavez celebrated wildly. But about eight or nine hours later, Chavez walked grim-faced into UMC and made a beeline for Bill Johnson.
Leavander Johnson suffered a subdural hematoma after the fight and was fighting for his life. Chavez and Bill Johnson embraced, with tears filling Chavez’s eyes as he apologized to the father of his stricken opponent. Johnson embraced the new champion and comforted him, telling him he’d just done his job.
Several days later, Leavander Johnson would die from injuries he suffered in the bout with Chavez. He was the seventh — and, thankfully, last — fighter in a bout I covered to die from injuries he suffered in the ring.
It was hard not to think of that emotional scene on Saturday as budding star Teofimo Lopez battered Diego Magdaleno mercilessly around the ring in their lightweight fight on ESPN+ from Frisco, Texas.
The two men most responsible for ensuring Magdaleno’s safety, referee Gregorio Alvarez and trainer Ismael Salas, stood silently.
When Lopez finally dropped Magdaleno viciously in the seventh, Alvarez was so clueless and so unaware of what was happening that he went over and began to count. After the sixth round, which was at least two rounds after the fight should have been stopped, Salas was chiding Magdaleno in the corner and urging him to wake up.
Fighters place their trust in the referee and their trainer to protect them in this most brutal sport. They’re too proud, and the sport is too macho, for them to quit. Roberto Duran is one of the greatest, and toughest, fighters who ever lived, but for all of his accomplishments, he’s still known by fans for two words: “No mas.”
He quit in a 1980 rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard and never lived that down.
Magdaleno is too tough and too proud for his own good and he was shouting at Lopez to come at him Saturday even as Lopez was pummeling him with crushing shots.
Lopez, who was the Yahoo Sports Prospect of the Year in 2017 and 2018, is clearly a special talent. He is like a young Mike Tyson with his fast hands, devastating power and ability to put combinations together.
Top Rank’s matchmakers pitted him with Magdaleno, a savvy veteran with no power, in an attempt to get him rounds. Getting all first or second-round knockouts will stunt a young prospect’s growth in many cases.
Magdaleno did what they wanted. He didn’t go down the first time Lopez touched him. He threw back. But it was only a minute or so into the bout when it was obvious Lopez was going to win this fight.
By the third round, Lopez was landing almost at will, catching Magdaleno with a combination of hooks, uppercuts and crosses.
Had Salas stopped it after the third, some might have thought it was a tad early, but it would have shown he was paying attention and realized the mismatch that was going on in front of him.
After the fourth, Alvarez had to be thinking carefully of stopping it if the corner did not. The referee’s No. 1 job is to protect the fighter. Let me repeat that: The referee’s No. 1 job is to protect the fighter.
Alvarez failed miserably. As Lopez was going for the finish in the final minute of the sixth, Alvarez stayed a distance away, as if the fighters were pawing at each other with jabs. He wasn’t even willing to stop it in the seventh when Magdaleno took a dead fall to the canvas and landed on his back without trying to support himself in the fall.
After that beating, Magdaleno may never fight again. He’s close to the end as it is, and that kind of punishment he took is the type fighters often never recover from. If he does come back, the first thing he should do is call Salas and fire him immediately. According to Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, Magdaleno went back to his hotel room after the fight and wasn’t checked at the hospital.
The Texas commission had better, at the least, put Alvarez on suspension and make him undergo remedial training on how best to protect fighters.
In 2005, I watched two fighters die in a span of 60 days. In July, Martin Sanchez was knocked out of the ring by Rustam Nugaev and rolled under the bottom rope and would have fallen to the floor. Dave Cokin, a Las Vegas radio sports talk host, and myself were sitting on the apron and we caught Sanchez and kept him from falling to the floor. When he went back into the ring, he took a knee and let referee Kenny Bayless count him out. He appeared fine as he left the ring, and even thanked us for saving him from hitting the floor.
In the dressing room, though, he also suffered a subdural hematoma and was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent emergency brain surgery. He died several hours later.
A bit more than two months later, Johnson died.
This is a sport. It’s a great sport which has saved so many fighters from who knows what kind of life, but they pay a price for that. They need the referees and their trainers to be there for them when they’re being so brave and to take the heat if they stop a fight that fans, the media and, yeah, the fighter, thinks was too early.
There are some things you can’t come back from, and if Magdaleno can’t come back, the blame falls not on Lopez, who was just doing his job, but on Salas and Alvarez for not doing theirs.
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