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BOXING AGAIN FINDS ITSELF UNDER CLOUD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Only a month after he lay unconscious in the ring at USAir Arena, throwing involuntary punches at junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway, Simon Brown has returned to the gym, preparing for his next fight.

"It was the first time I'd been knocked out -- amateur or pro," said Brown, who has won two welterweight titles and a junior-middleweight crown in his 13-year professional career.

"Watching the tape, I wasn't surprised to see myself throwing punches while I was on my back. I swear to God, I'd always told my family and friends, 'If I ever go down, I'll go down fighting.' "

The recent death of Jimmy Garcia of Colombia after his pummeling by super-featherweight champion Gabriel Ruelas, and the lengthy convalescence of former middleweight champion Gerald McClellan, who underwent brain surgery after collapsing following his February fight with England's Nigel Benn, have medical groups seeking to abolish boxing.

"McClellan is making steady improvement," said his former manager-trainer, Emanuel Steward, who visited the fighter in a Milwaukee hospital last week. "But it's going to be a long process."

But none of those incidents -- his own knockout on April 29, the death of Garcia, McClellan's collapse -- has dissuaded Brown from fighting again.

"Naturally, I feel very distressed for Gerald. He's a good friend of mine and a fearsome fighter, and I pray to God for him," said Brown. "But that has not made me entertain thoughts of quitting. I'm not like Sugar Ray Leonard, who kept retiring and coming back.

"If I was getting beat up, I'd probably retire. But with Pettway, I know it was just a case of getting too relaxed. I was winning and got careless. I threw a lazy jab, and he caught me flush on the temple with a terrific hook.

"I never saw the punch coming," Brown said. "If you're fighting hard fights, something bad might happen. But you can't dwell on Before every fight, I just pray I came out the same way I came in the ring."

The terrible risks are known to all fighters. They bury the fear in the recesses of their mind during a brawl, but can talk of their inner dread after making a successful escape.

"Life is a gamble," said Muhammad Ali, now suffering from Parkinson's disease, a nerve disorder. "People die every day in car and plane crashes. Same with fighters. Some die, some get hurt, some go on. You just don't let yourself believe it will happen to you."

Pettway, a Baltimore native who was stopped four times in fights before becoming a champion at 29, said, "Anytime I knock a man down, I hope they don't get up until the referee counts them out.

"At first, I was joyous when I saw Simon wouldn't recover in time, and then I was very concerned for his well-being. Before every fight, I pray for myself as well as my opponent. Basically, it's him or me. But there's no malice involved."

There have been no ring fatalities in Maryland since 1963, when Baltimore heavyweight Ernie Knox died 26 hours after brain surgery at Providence Hospital following his ninth-round knockout by Wayne Bethea at the Coliseum on Monroe Street.

The official weights listed Bethea at 201 pounds and Knox at 178. But when the autopsy report showed Knox's weight as 153 pounds, it prompted a grand jury investigation into possible negligence by the Maryland State Athletic Commission and alleged ties between late boxing promoter Benny Trotta and the Mafia.

The grand jury decided Knox's death "was without criminal act, criminal negligence or malfeasance," but recommended new guidelines to minimize risks in state-run boxing shows.

Thirty-two years later, Knox's trainer-manager, Mack Lewis, is still haunted by Knox's death. Lewis secluded himself in his home for weeks after the tragedy. Only the urging of his amateur and pro fighters brought him back to his Eager Street gym.

Lewis has since trained countless boxers, including Pettway. But Knox is not forgotten.

"Just the other day, I was going through some old clippings and saw Ernie's picture," Lewis said. "It brought back a lot of memories, but I don't like talking about his dying.

"Funny thing, the fight before that we were in Pennsylvania, and Ernie beat the heck out of a guy named 'Slim Jim' Robinson. The referee told me he had to stop it or Ernie might have killed him. And Robinson didn't fight again.

"But there's no hiding the fact that boxing is a vicious sport and only the strong survive.

"You have to teach your fighter he must hurt the other guy before he hurts you. Fighters have to be tough inside. That's why you don't see rich kids in the gym. But if a boy wants to fight, and shows ability, no doctor or anyone else should stop him from doing it."

The American Medical Association has long called for the abolition of boxing. Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has said: "Boxing seems to be less sport than cockfighting. Uncivilized man may have been bloodthirsty. Boxing, as a throwback to uncivilized man, should not be sanctioned by a civilized society."

In a 1986 study conducted for Johns Hopkins University, Lawrence Charnas, a former neurological consultant to the Maryland State Athletic Commission, found that boxing can produce two types of injuries to the brain, acute and chronic.

"In most instances, acute injuries, which include contusions of the substance of the brain and hemorrhaging, become apparent during or shortly after a match," Charnas said.

"Chronic injuries may develop a few weeks after a match, but usually appear gradually and insidiously over an athletic career or even a lifetime."

Other doctors say that boxing does not need to be banned, as long as it is carefully regulated.

Dr. Steven Manekin, a Baltimore neurologist, works with the Maryland State Athletic Commission. He was the physician at ringside for the Pettway-Brown fight, and he received a letter of commendation from state licensing chairman Mario Francioli for his prompt emergency treatment of Brown.

Manekin said he would urge the athletic commission to require Brown to undergo an MRI before allowing him to fight again. He has also called for a seminar to educate referees on looking for potentially dangerous situations.

But he does not want to see boxing abolished.

"My main concern is keeping the boxer's health paramount," he said. "A referee can be afraid to stop a fight because of outside pressures by the promoter and the fans who want to be entertained, and many are driven by sadism or blood lust.

"We can't stop the politics of boxing. It's beyond supervision. But you have to try and minimize the risks. In the amateurs, they stop mismatches quickly. It should be the same with the pros.

"We can't let egos get in the way. I don't presume to be a referee, but it's also not fair for a referee to play the role of a physician. The two have to work in unison."

Manekin watched the Garcia-Ruelas fight on television and came away with the belief that the death of Garcia could have been avoided.

He suggested that Garcia's death was quite possibly the result of a pounding by Genaro Hernandez in his previous fight, coupled with a crash diet Garcia underwent to shed some 25 to 30 pounds for the fight.

"A subdural hematoma is almost always a cumulative effect," Manekin said. "It's not just the result of one or two hard punches, but too many hard fights. And the rapid weight loss probably left Garcia very dehydrated.

"But the bottom line was that after a few rounds, it was obvious Garcia had no chance of winning. He just kept eating Ruelas' hooks. That's where the referee or ringside doctor has to intervene."

Manekin said he supports the position of London neurosurgeon John Sutcliffe, who performed surgery on McClellan.

"I don't personally think boxing should be banned," Sutcliffe said. "Of course, feelings run high when such a tragedy occurs, but it's not the role of the medical profession to decide if boxing should carry on. If boxing is banned, it will be driven underground with no serious control or safeguards."

But no possible safeguards can make boxing completely safe. Testifying before a 1947 investigative board in Cleveland about his intent after his ring rival, Jimmy Doyle, died of brain damage, Sugar Ray Robinson replied, "My job is to put people in trouble."

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