Know Your Sport, part 3

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July 5, 2011 by David Gillaspie

Boxing and Wrestling

by David Gillaspie 

The story of boxing can’t be told without Muhammad Ali, but it doesn’t need the chapter where he fights a Japanese professional wrestler. 

What was he thinking?  He had a few million ideas coming his way for showing up.

While that sideshow is unusual with a boxer and a wrestler facing off, it wasn’t the first to pit two unlikely foes against each other. 

Consider any fight that includes Nikolai Valuev, the seven foot Russian boxer. 

If Ali can fight Antonio Inoki, then Valuev ought to fight Andre The Giant, but it’s too late for that.

Boxing didn’t start with the first Rocky movie.  The Italian Stallion was a rugged contender, but could he really take the sort of beating handed out by Apollo Creed? 

Could anyone? Jake LaMotta could. 

He took the hits from Sugar Ray Robinson when he lost his middle weight belt on a TKO.  Jake’s plan was to let his opponents punch themselves out, then attack. 

It didn’t always work that way.

If that was the plan Bennie “Kid” Paret had for his third fight with Emile Griffith, it didn’t work out. 

Paret said a few things to Griffith at weigh-in that came back to haunt him in the 12th round.  Was Griffith lacking sportsmanship by delivering what is called a series of unanswered blows?  Was referee Ruby Goldstein negligent.  Reports have him standing by in a daze watching the Rocky-style beat down.

Bennie Paret collapsed in the ring and died ten days later. 

Maybe that’s boxing, maybe bad luck, but it is bad sportsmanship for Emile Griffith to sign a photograph of the man he killed in the ring. 

You can buy an 8×10 black and white print showing him trapping a dazed Paret in a corner and punching him through the ropes for $100 at

You won’t find a Boom Boom Mancini autograph on a Duk Koo Kim picture from their death match.  Kim took a reported thirty nine straight punches from Boom Boom in the thirteenth round before falling in the next. 

He went into a coma and died four days later.  Kim’s mother and the referee who didn’t stop the fight each took their lives within the year. 

There are no happy endings here.

What ever the event, dying is never a planned part.  Shock waves roll across all sports when it happens. 

Three college wrestlers died in November, 1997.  Jeff Reese of Michigan, Billy Jack Saylor of Campbell University, and Joseph LaRosa, a senior at Wisconsin-La Crosse all died cutting too much weight too fast.

David Fleming wrote in Sports Illustrated: “college wrestling is gradually disappearing. If schools continue to drop wrestling at the current rate, the sport will be finished at this level within 15 years. I used to think that would be a tragedy. But if wrestling can’t do a better job of protecting its own, then maybe it deserves to perish. Better an entire level of competition than one more college athlete.”

Thirteen years later and college wrestling hasn’t perished. 

Does that mean a decline in the rate schools drop the sport?  We have two years to see if Fleming’s math works out.  In the meantime wrestling has adjusted with safety standards for weight loss, banning the plastic suit, calibrating body fat. 

Is that enough to keep athletes coming out, or is there more to do?

If you know wrestling, then you know all sports.  This point goes missing when discussing sports in general. 

Every sport uses aspects of wrestling, from the line play in football, positioning under the basket in basketball, to the players charging the pitchers mound in baseball.

Wrestling is part of the celebration in other sports.  Competitors in track, golf, and tennis all lock up for Greco throws after winning.  They just don’t follow through. 

The relay teams all hug.  The caddie gets a bear hug.  Tennis doubles partners work each other for a grip.  Boxers always tie up with over-hooks.

Boxing is not a death sport , but it seems hard to avoid with guys beating each other in the head for twelve rounds. 

Wrestling is not cut from the same pattern. Wrestling is death defying. 

No stick, no gloves, no ball. Just you.  Can you deal with it?  Most athletes can’t. 

They need something between them and the competition.  They need someone to blame for defeat.  They need someplace to hide.  There is no hiding place on the mat. 

Can you deal with it? 

If you are a wrestler, you do it every day the rest of your life.


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