The words are haunting, dark and terrible, ones a boxer never should utter. Fighters, from those just beginning out fighting for $100 in a four-rounder to the best of the best preparing to compete in a hotly anticipated world title fight, know the risk they take by slipping beneath the ropes.
They walk in, but in some part of their brain, they know there's a chance, however slight, they may not walk out.
I've been ringside for seven fighters who lost their lives in the ring. On Sept. 17, 2005, Leavander Johnson defended a lightweight title against Jesús Chávez at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Chavez was brutally beating Johnson, but the fight continued until the 11th when it was stopped. Johnson walked shakily to his dressing room and was rushed to a local hospital.
He died five days later.
I was in the lobby of the hospital early the next morning, standing with Johnson's father, Bill, and members of his family and team, when Chávez arrived. Tears welled in Chávez's eyes as he strode toward Bill Johnson. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Chávez said, over and over, to Bill Johnson as Leavander lay in a trauma room bed, fighting for his life. Bill Johnson embraced Chávez, assured him he just had done his job, and tried to console him.
I thought of Leavander when I heard the ridiculous comments uttered by Teofimo Lopez in an interview with the YouTube channel Punsh Drunk Boxing. Lopez, who throughout his career has been a gregarious and fun boxer whose personality made him a joy to be around, said he wanted to kill Taylor when they meet Saturday in the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York for the WBO super lightweight title.
"I said it like it is: I want to kill Josh Taylor," Lopez said on the interview posted on YouTube on May 29. "Well, what the f*** does that mean? People are like, 'Get back to boxing.' Well, that is boxing. This is what we sign up for."
It's not boxing and it's not what any fighter signs up for. Anyone who believes that is disturbed and needs help.
Lopez doubled down on his comments during a brief news conference Thursday that was filled with security.
Lopez used a line from Hall of Famer Mike Tyson, saying, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, shoutout to Mike Tyson." Taylor, who was getting increasingly irritated, said, "Mike Tyson again. You never have quotes of your own."
Lopez looked at Taylor and said, "I do have one. I just made it up yesterday. It says, 'Aim for death, for that's where life begins.'"
Taylor shook his head and wisely said, "No comment." But Lopez wouldn't quit.
"You aim at death for that's where life begins," Lopez said, which is bizarre and doesn't even make sense. "Everybody is scared of death. I don't know why. We're all going to die, but at least if I die, I'm dying for something that means something and will last forever. That's what greats are all about."
Yes, death lasts forever, and that is the point. Everyone will die, but it's not their time when they're in the primes of their lives, with children who need them, spouses who love them, family members and friends who care about them.
Lopez is a terrific fighter, but it seems the pressure has put him in a vise and he's not thinking clearly. Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, reached by Yahoo Sports after the news conference, struggled to know what to say.
Lopez looked to be in perfect physical condition, but it's not so clear if his mental state is such.
"I don't know," Moretti said. "I don't know what to think other than it's odd like we've never seen in a way. Now, is it he's crazy like a fox type of thing? There are other ways you could go with it. But I can't say either way."
Moretti, who has been involved in boxing for decades, said the only thing that comes close to this was Oliver McCall breaking into tears in the ring during a fight at the then-Las Vegas Hilton against Lennox Lewis.
McCall wasn't interested in fighting but Moretti said his promoter at the time, Don King, pushed him to fight.
"That was more King pushing him in the ring when mentally he wasn't there and physically he wasn't there," Moretti said. "But that's not the case here, at least not physically."
Lopez said in a 2021 interview he thought multiple times of killing himself.
"People think sacrifice is killing people," Lopez said then. "But the sacrifice really is just love, and that starts with you. That's what happened with me. I took a step back and was like, man, I'm really thinking about killing myself. That's how serious it got. Not once. Not twice. Maybe like three times. I was like, that ain’t right. Why am I going to want to kill myself with the blessings that I'm receiving?
But only weeks after those harrowing words, he performed brilliantly and won the undisputed lightweight title by defeating Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Now, he's not talking about killing himself, but killing his opponent.
He hasn't seen what so many others have seen, or he wouldn't have spoken that way.
He didn't see Pedro Alcázar die two days after a knockout loss to Fernando Montiel at the MGM Grand Garden because of a prior brain injury. He didn't see Jimmy Garcia get pummeled round after round until he collapsed and eventually died on May 19, 1995, a little less than two weeks after he lost to Gabriel Ruelas.
Lopez makes these comments maybe trying to appear tough and mask his own insecurities. Perhaps he thinks he's intimidating his opponent.
But they're inappropriate and they call to question his fitness to fight.
Boxing is a sport, a competition for entertainment. There is nothing entertaining, funny or reasonable about Lopez's comments. This should set off alarm bells inside Top Rank, which is promoting him; within ESPN, which is broadcasting the fight; and within the New York State Athletic Commission, which is regulating it.
If Lopez says this because he's suffering from mental health issues, he needs to receive help quickly. Mental health is so overlooked and it needs to be addressed in a big way in our society.
If he thinks it's funny or intimidating, he needs to understand it's not and be made to stop.
This is an issue far deeper than an ultimately worthless championship belt.