By Thomas Hauser
Muhammad Ali once told me the fight that meant the most to him was beating George Foreman in Zaire to reclaim the heavyweight crown. The best fight for fans, he said, was Ali-Frazier III in Manila. But in Ali’s view, the best he ever was as a fighter was against Cleveland Williams.
How good was Ali that night?
Williams entered the ring on November 14, 1966, with a 65-5-1 record. He wasn’t the fighter he’d once been. But in the preceding twelve years, his only losses had been at the hands of Sonny Liston and Ernie Terrell.
Ali landed more than one hundred punches against Williams and scored four knockdowns en-route to a third-round stoppage. During the entire fight, he was hit a total of three times. Those are staggering numbers.
Ali was GOAT (The Greatest of All Time).
Sugar Ray Robinson was P4P (pound for pound).
Ray Leonard was the best fighter of the past forty years/
Just because someone has an “O” in his loss column doesn’t mean that he’s in their league.
* * *
The World Boxing Council recently released its all-time “Top Ten” list of WBC heavyweight champions.
Muhammad Ali is #1. That’s well and good.
Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and Evander Holyfield hold down the #2 through #7 spots in that order. Some knowledgeable observers would quarrel with that progression. But it’s within the realm of reason.
Except . . .
Oops! What about Sonny Liston?
That’s where things get crazy.
The WBC ranks Liston (who was its first heavyweight champion) in ninth place. Behind Frank Bruno.
* * *
On June 4, 2011, 43-year-old Christy Martin, who was nearing the end of her trailblazing ring career, suffered a broken hand in a scheduled six-round fight against Dakota Stone at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The bout was stopped and Stone was declared the winner.
What happened next was frightening.
“When they put me to sleep to fix my hand,” Martin (who now uses her maiden name, Christy Salters) recently told writer Tom Gerbasi, “I had a stroke. When I finally come to, I can’t walk; I can’t talk; I can’t feed myself; I can’t see clearly. I just tried not to deal with any of it. Finally, I get back on my feet. I get my balance somewhat back. I can walk. I can feed myself.”
So Martin’s boxing career was over. Right?
“I said I’m gonna fight again,” Christy continued. “I’m just not gonna tell anybody I had the stroke.”
And that’s what happened. On August 14, 2012, Martin fought Mia St. John at the Table Mountain Casino in California for the “vacant WBC world female super-welterweight title.” Ten years earlier, Martin had beaten St. John with ease. In the aftermath of her stroke, she lost to Mia and then, finally, retired from boxing.
This is another example of why boxing needs more comprehensive medical oversight, regulatory authorities that know what they’re doing, and sanctioning bodies that care more about the health and safety of fighters than gobbling up sanctioning fees.
* * *
Wiped Out, written with Mark Turley, (Pitch Publishing) is Jerome Wilson’s first-person account of a boxing horror story.
On September 24, 2014, Wilson (8-2, 2 KOs) entered the ring in Sheffield to fight a rematch against 3-and-0 Serge Ambomo, who’d defeated him on points three months earlier.
Wilson wasn’t a ticket-seller. As a rule, he performed more ably in the gym than on fight night. As Turley notes in an introduction to the book, Jerome’s story is made extraordinary only through great misfortune. The bulk of his ring career was unremarkable.
In his rematch against Ambomo, Wilson was knocked out at 2:15 of the sixth and final round.
“The life he had known for so long, the fighter’s life, was finished in an instant by a right hand,” Turley writes. “His momentum moved him on to the punch. Immediately unconscious, Jerome toppled like a chain-sawed tree. As he made his descent, neck loose, he was caught again with a left. The back of his head bounced off the boards. There was an almost imperceptible twitch in his legs. Then stillness, complete stillness. After frantic attempts to revive him, Jerome had to be stretchered away. He did not open his eyes to start his new life for ten days.”
Wilson had suffered an acute subdural hematoma. Five months later, Turley met with him to discuss the possibility of writing a book.
“I’d never met anyone with such a terrible injury before,” Turley recalls. “It was like a movie special effect. His head literally had a slice cleaved out of it. As we introduced ourselves, I found it difficult not to stare at the area where surgeons had removed a bone flap, a quarter of his skull from above and behind his right ear, leaving a mango sized indentation. The skin there sagged down like a parachute caught between two trees. An angry scar circled the crater. While he made affable small-talk making light of his situation, you could actually see his brain undulate below the skin. It was unsettling and fascinating at the same time.”
The most dramatic parts of Wiped Out deal with Wilson’s injury and recovery to date.
“Emerging from a coma is a bit like being born,” Wilson recounts. “People have the wrong idea. They think it’s like being asleep, then waking up. I wouldn’t describe it that way at all. I opened my eyes, but it was as if I hadn’t. Darkness became whiteness, but there was nothing there. I closed them again, and it all faded away. At the beginning, that’s how it was. In and out, out and in. There was little difference between unconsciousness and alertness, between death and near-death. I understood nothing. After a while, my vision gained more definition but everything was split. I’d look at a person, and it was like they had four heads. Another period of time passed, and a nurse told me that I had to have an X-ray. I still didn’t know what was wrong.”
Wilson was in the hospital for seven weeks. Extended rehabilitation therapy followed. He had to learn to eat, walk, read, and perform simple personal hygiene functions all over again.
“The passage of days, weeks, and years doesn’t seem that important to me anymore,” Jerome says. Wiped Out is sketchy on the details of exactly what he can and can’t do today.
There’s some good writing in Wiped Out, but the book also has flaws. The format that Wilson and Turley decided upon is intended to show Wilson’s mental confusion in the aftermath of his injury. Unfortunately, it’s poorly executed in places with the result that the narrative is often muddled. Characters and events that the reader is led to believe are important turn out to be illusory. The addition of a bit more order to Wilson’s chaotic thoughts would have been welcome.
That said; at the beginning of the book, Turley writes: “It is not and never will be my aim to attack boxing. I have been connected to it in one way or another all of my life and always will be. But I also strongly believe that we should discuss its dangers with openness.”
Wiped Out is true to that end.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book - A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – will published by the University of Arkansas Press in November.