Boxers don't necessarily die of gunshots to the face, as former champion Hector Camacho did last week. The evidence is more anecdotal than actuarial, but certainly some do live to a ripe and surprisingly old age. Welterweight great Carmen Basilio, who died earlier this autumn, was 85. But then, his nickname was the Upstate Onion Farmer, suggesting an anomaly of the occupation. Camacho, whether by rhyme or reason, was called Macho. His death, coming in a parked car filled with bags of cocaine, the former champ just 50, may not have been ordained, but it was not altogether surprising either.
Again, we don't want to generalize, not as long as Mike Tyson is alive and staging one-man shows on Broadway. But more and more this seems—seems, anyway—a sport that, in place of a retirement plan, sends its workers to early and violent deaths. In the last several years such attractions as Alexis Arguello, Vernon Forrest and Arturo Gatti have all died or been killed in circumstances as sordid as Camacho's. If you take this little list seriously—and how can you not, if you ever marveled at these men's talents—then you must ask some hard questions of boxing and its place in our culture.
Yet in almost all of these cases, and lots previous besides, it was boxing that provided a safe haven, a happy way station for these doomed men, not quite preventing but at least forestalling the inevitable. Whether boxing produces physical ruin is another conversation; all we'll say there is that the NFL's quest to stamp out concussions seems quaint, compared with a sport in which concussion is not merely an available outcome but the preferred, cleaner one. Getting past that, though, it might be fair to defend boxing from any possible reputation as a social or even a real abattoir, preparing its players for nothing more than dysfunction or death.
Boxing is more democratic than any other sport, encouraging ambition without the organizational constraints and hypocrisies others impose. You do not need the pretense of a college education to become a world champion, for one example. And we need only to sample Camacho's obituary to recall his fashion statements in the ring (he was as well-known for his thong trunks as his pin-point punching), to be reminded that this sport celebrates individual achievement and, above all, permits personality.
It does require, in trade, a high tolerance for chaos, a low threshold of personal safety and the everyday acceptance of danger. Otherwise risky behavior is rewarded here, cultivated. In other words boxing, however welcoming it might be, does not appeal to the average kid.
Camacho turned out to be a colorful enough fellow, that sly grin and cute forelock transforming his youthful malice into a mask of mischief. Born in Bayamón (that's where he died, in the passenger seat of a car parked outside a bar), Camacho came to New York at the age of three and later became a practiced thief and streetwise thug. In his case boxing (and an interested teacher) lifted him from a life of a nondescript felon to a flamboyant, and rather wealthy, champion, from super featherweight to light welterweight. It was only after his 30-year career ended, his popularity fading as he began to favor retreat over assault (once cheered for his footwork, he was eventually derided for being "balletic"), that he began careening back to those Harlem roots where his erratic behavior once demanded he be expelled from six schools by the age of 15.
Camacho had been no angel during that career—there were a number of mishaps, social and legal—but boxing largely kept him out of trouble. Away from the game, though, he was now burgling electronic stores while holding Ecstasy. For that matter, this wasn't the first time he was shot. A year earlier he was shot during (according to him) a carjacking.
It's worth noting that Vernon Forrest, an Atlanta fighter who held the welterweight title for a while, was also shot in a carjacking (compounded by his armed pursuit). There is an element of situational awareness in so many of these cases, as if that's a known or even required deficit of boxers. We are reminded by the writer John Lardner that "Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking him breakfast." That happened in 1910, yet feels oddly modern.
In none of these instances—Arguello's suicide, Gatti's suspicious death (which was originally investigated as a homicide before being ruled a suicide), or even Johnny Tapia's death last May—can boxing be held responsible. Tapia, who died at 45 of heart disease after years of substance abuse, was so damaged in childhood, so wracked by addiction (MI VIDA LOCA was tattooed on his stomach), that boxing can be properly called a rescue. In some cases, perhaps Tyson's for example, these rescues can lead to permanent transformation. A hoodlum like George Foreman now officiates weddings, for another. It's possible. People do change, do grow, given just enough time.
But the very traits that attract these young men to the sport—the allowance, maybe even the appetite, for violence in the pursuit of their own needs, for attention or glory or just money—do not make this easy. The ritualized recklessness of the boxer makes for wonderful spectacle from time to time, even occasional nobility. Just not, necessarily, old age.