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Boxing frequently attracts the desperate, the dregs and the down-and-out who need the hope-and-a-prayer that a home run punch can provide.
A young man may have no education, no job and few prospects, but if he’s got a big right hand, a sturdy chin and the arrogance to believe he’s the toughest guy around, there’s always the chance that some day soon you’ll yell out “Hey, Champ!” as he drives around the block in his sleek new Mercedes.
Boxing is often cruel and heartless, but it’s a winning lottery ticket dangling tantalizingly close for those precious few with the talent and hubris who believe they can buck the odds.
Patrick Day wasn’t one of those. He was a bright and charismatic young man with a smile that would have made a model jealous. He was college-educated with a degree in nutrition and an interest in advancing his studies.
He didn’t box because he had to; he boxed because he loved it. It’s what he wanted to do more than anything else.
On Saturday in a fight in Chicago against 2016 Olympian Charles Conwell, 27-year-old Day suffered serious brain injuries and was taken to a local hospital. On Wednesday, he died as a result of traumatic brain injury.
His trainer, Joe Higgins, a hero of the 9/11 terror attacks who ran into the fire to try to help people and has suffered a lifetime of illness and health issues as a result, was distraught. Day’s family lived across the street from Higgins’ and Higgins still remembers the day when Day’s family brought infant Patrick home from the hospital.
“Our families are family,” Higgins wrote in a text message to Yahoo Sports. “He was not just my boxer, but my son.”
We grieve because we’ll never see that brilliant smile of his again, and never get to hear him tell a joke.
But Day is one of the lucky ones in that he died doing what he most wanted to do and he was surrounded by the people he loved the most when he died. Many young people die in war in a distant land fighting for who knows what cause.
There’s a famous quote that says, “Somebody should tell us right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it, I say! Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
Day, tragically, has run out of tomorrows.
Day knew, like every person who pulls those gloves over their hands and bounds up those steps and into a ring, the horrible possibility that might await him. Every one of them does.
Few of them talk about it because, well, would you? But they know. They all know. They just sort of play the odds. There are very few deaths and a lot of fights and the odds of you being the one are infinitesimal.
Former world champion Jessie Vargas, who is carving out a terrific second career as a boxing analyst, said fighters understand what they’re getting into but they love the challenge the sport presents.
“As fighters, we don’t think of those risks, plain and simple,” Vargas said. “We know they’re there. We just try to minimize it the best way we can. We try to have the best defense possible. We try to stay smart and coherent during the fight. Listen, though, I’m going to be honest: This is a difficult thing for a fighter to talk about. It’s hard to find even one fighter who wants to speak about this. We know we are at risk. We know the sacrifices we’re making. It’s common sense, and I think the fans are realizing it now, as well.
“But the minute we are inside that ring, the only thing that is on our minds is winning. Even if you’re down on points, if you’re behind on cards, you’re still looking for a way to win. At the end of the day, you’re doing this for your family and your people and the fans who are tuning in. We also do it out of pride. All of that has something to do with it. You hear the cheers and you hear the people chanting your name and as fighters, when that happens, it’s inspiring and you’ll see us step it up a notch. We understand what could happen, but we choose not to think of that because you can’t perform that way. We instead take this risk because we want to do this for our families and we want to hear that crowd go crazy and get that big win.”
Organizers have a solemn duty to the fighters, to provide the best pre-fight medical care possible and screen fighters for injuries they may have suffered in sparring that they bring into the ring with them. Those small bleeds on the brain they get in sparring are ticking time bombs that could go off at any time.
The fighters are owed education on the dangers of cutting too much weight and failing to rehydrate properly. They’re owed the best referees who will protect them and stop a fight no matter how the crowd may react.
But sometimes, no matter our best efforts, these things happen in a sport like boxing. Everything can be done correctly and a bad outcome still ensues.
The best way to honor Day, and Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Santillan and Boris Stanchov, fighters who died in 2019 as a result of injuries suffered in the ring, is for everyone involved to do his or her best to improve the sport and minimize the risks.
Day, sadly, has been silenced forever, but if his death can help save other boxers in future from a similar fate, we can at least take solace knowing he did not die in vain.
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