Maxim Dadashev’s nightmare unfolded slowly, just like so many boxing tragedies before.
Punch after punch crashed against his head and body — 319 in all — but after 11 rounds, he wanted to press on last weekend at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill. Trainer James “Buddy” McGirt stopped the fight, hoping to save the 28-year-old Russian from himself. But Dadashev could not walk to the locker room on his own power and began vomiting as medical officials helped him onto a gurney. He lost consciousness in an ambulance on the way to a Prince George’s County hospital, underwent emergency surgery to relieve bleeding and pressure on his brain and died from his injuries Tuesday morning.
Two days later, Argentine fighter Hugo Alfredo Santillán died of similar injuries suffered in a Saturday fight in Buenos Aires.
This was supposed to be a week of pure celebration for boxing in Baltimore as the city prepares to host a world championship fight for the first time in 49 years. West Baltimore native Gervonta Davis will defend his World Boxing Association super featherweight title in a long-awaited homecoming Saturday night at Royal Farms Arena. But even as the city prepared to fete its 24-year-old champion, the deaths of Dadashev and Santillán offered cold reminders of the stakes inherent to a brutal sport.
Davis, who on Friday made the 130-pound limit for his matchup with Ricardo Núñez, said as much when he paused his pre-fight news conference to offer condolences to the loved ones of the fallen boxers.
“I believe that the fighters know,” he said of the life-and-death reality behind his sport. “It’s just the people not actually fighting who need to understand more that we’re putting our lives on the line. … To those outside looking in, it lets you know how serious boxing is. It’s not a game. You can’t play boxing.”
Physicians’ groups such as the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association have long called for the abolition of boxing. “Unlike other sports, its basic intent is to produce bodily harm by specifically targeting the head,” the WMA said in a 2017 resolution reaffirming its opposition to the sport.
Dr. Donald Muzzi, president of the Association of Ringside Physicians, said this week has been a “grim reminder” of the risks associated with any sport that involves head contact. But he chooses to work with boxing instead of seeking to end it.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that getting hit in the head is a good thing,” Muzzi said. “However, boxing, like other sports, is woven into the fabric of our society. It’s not going anywhere, so it’s best that we do it as safely as possible.”
The key, he said, is for the referee, ringside doctors, state regulators and the fighter’s trainer to work in concert to act on any warning signs before a tragedy ensues. Sometimes, their best efforts are not enough.
It’s hard to find a reliable accounting of fighters who’ve died from injuries suffered in the ring, but there have been hundreds over the recorded history of the sport. Muzzi said there were 123 between 1983 and 2007, for example. These deaths are interwoven with the outsized characters and stirring fights that make up boxing lore.
Many fans remember South Korean fighter Duk-koo Kim, who endured a terrible beating from American star Ray Mancini in a nationally televised bout in November 1982 and died four days later. That gruesome spectacle prompted a series of reforms, including the reduction of championship fights from 15 to 12 rounds.
The brutality of the sport drove away prominent sports commentators such as Baltimore native Frank Deford and Howard Cosell, who called some of the most famous fights in history. Some have said it hastened boxing’s fade from the mainstream of American sports, though the biggest fights still attract millions of pay-per-view customers and generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Through it all, the deaths have never stopped. At least a dozen fighters have perished from injuries suffered in the ring over the past decade.
Dadashev’s death evoked so many others from the history of boxing — the way he refused to go down even as the damage to his head accumulated and his chances of winning slipped away.
The Maryland State Athletic Commission, which regulates all fights in the state, has said it will investigate the circumstances surrounding the fatal fight at MGM National Harbor.
Patrick Pannella, executive director for the MSAC, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. But the state agency requires all fighters seeking a license in Maryland to pass a comprehensive physical and undergo neurological testing. It also requires at least two physicians to be present at each boxing event and lists an array of medical equipment and materials that must be available at ringside. Fights cannot be held more than 15 minutes by ambulance from an emergency medical center.
Muzzi said he reviewed tape of the Dadashev bout and saw no evidence that ringside officials mishandled the fighter’s medical situation. He reserved special praise for McGirt, the trainer who stopped the fight when he saw his boxer slowing down.
Dadashev left behind a wife, a 2-year-old son and a team of supporters wondering if they could have done anything different to save him.
“It just makes you realize what type of sport we’re in, man,” McGirt told ESPN.com. “My mind is, like, really running crazy right now. Like, what could I have done differently? But at the end of the day, everything was fine [in training].”
The deaths often leave deep scars not just on families and friends but on the opponents who landed the fatal blows.
Dadashev’s foe, Subriel Matias, said in a statement that he was “devastated” by the news, adding, “No one is prepared to die while looking for dreams and goals.”
Three decades after Kim died, Mancini told his biographer, Mark Kriegel, that the South Korean fighter still visited him in dreams.
Promoter Bob Arum told ESPN that Mancini was never the same: “He didn't have the same zip, the same enthusiasm. He didn’t have the same zest for fighting.”
Those who work in the sport say they’re always affected when a fighter dies, but they also accept the risks.
“Just like any other contact sport, there are always dangers,” said Marvin McDowell, who works with younger Baltimore fighters as the trainer for UMAR Boxing, based on North Avenue. “It’s a chance you take.”
But McDowell is convinced many boxing deaths start with unrecognized head trauma suffered in training. That’s why he emphasizes technique over power in sparring and why he’s wary of extreme weight cutting, which leaves fighters weakened and dehydrated.