By Steve Kim
Francisco "Franky" Leal's 27th birthday would have been this Friday. Unfortunately, he and his family won't be celebrating the occasion. They'll instead be mourning his death after Leal was knocked out by Raul Hirales in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, this past weekend, and died soon after.
In what was a decent scrap, Leal started off well enough, but as the night wore on, the heavier-hitting Hirales began to wear down the southpaw. Despite being a left-hander, Leal squandered that stylistic advantage by fighting in close quarters to Hirales, making himself a rather easy target. In the sixth round, he was sent to the canvas in a fight that had solid two-way action up until that point.
In the eighth round, he took a flurry of body punches, and the salvo concluded with what could be described as a rabbit punch to the back of his head. Leal crumpled to the canvas. Gamely, he rose to his feet, but as the fight was waved off, Leal staggered back to the corner and sat back down, his eyes open but with an empty look. Soon, his body was a lifeless slab. He was placed on a stretcher and transported to a hospital, but it was far too late. On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that Leal had died.
The brutal reality is that this sport is inherently dangerous, and unfortunately, at times, fatally so. But you would hope that in the wake of the latest tragedy that those who run the sport look upon the fate of Leal as an object lesson in what can happen when proper regulations -- and perhaps in this instance, common sense -- aren't employed.
Leal's passing is hardly the first time we've seen this, because boxing has a long history of such sadness. One of the most infamous ring fatalities took place on March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, when the contentious match-up between Emile Griffith and Benny "Kid" Paret ended up in the death of Paret, who had openly mocked Griffith's sexuality in the lead-up to this fight. But there are many who believe that Paret's previous fight that December in Las Vegas versus the rugged Gene Fullmer was truly the bout that began his physical demise. Paret was halted in 10, and there were those who believed that should have been the end of his career as a prizefighter.
There's a Fullmer in Leal's case, too. In March of 2012, Leal faced Evgeny Gradovich in San Antonio. Gradovich, the current IBF featherweight champion, doesn't so much knock opponents out as he does slowly beat them into submission. One punch at a time, he concusses his opponents with a steady stream of leather. After a typically game effort, Leal finally succumbed in the 10th and final round of their contest. Afterwards, he was carried off on a stretcher and taken to the hospital, an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come.
At the time, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation put him on indefinite suspension, with the stipulation that he have a neurology examination.
You would think that a fighter who leaves the ring in such a state as Leal had would have retired immediately out of concern for his own health. Others thought so; Top Rank had promoted the Gradovich-Leal bout, and their matchmaker Brad Goodman said, "After that, I refused to ever use him again." Goodman noted that he had also dissuaded another matchmaker from using Leal in Seattle. But by the beginning of the year Leal was boxing, and had already fought four times in 2013 prior to facing Hirales.
As news spread of Leal's death, Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler, who also works for Top Rank and was present that night in San Antonio, sent off these tweets from his protected @BruceTrampler account:
"Frankie Leal death no surprise after Gradovich sent him to hospital in 2012. Kept seeking fights- trainer should have retired him. Sad."
"But it didn't have to happen. Leal went to hospital in Texas and we had tears in eyes because we didn't think he would make it."
"Frankie as much to blame as anyone for seeking fights, but no trainer or cornerman should have gotten near that corner."
"This was no roll of the dice, He almost died last year in Texas but pushed the envelope too far this time. Almost suicidal"
Why was an individual such as Leal allowed to box ever again?
Calls and emails to Tim Lueckenhoff, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, to find out if Leal had gotten medical clearance to continue his career, were not answered. But with the fractured nature of the sport, the ABC has real authority only in America, and Leal's five fights in 2013 all took place in Mexico. The possibility exists that the Mexican commissions may not have known -- or cared -- about his indefinite suspension in the state of Texas.
Boxing has always had a rogue quality (in fact, it's one of its charms) but being a boxer is akin to working in the coal mines. You know the dangers of that gig when you accept the work, from black lung to explosions that leave you trapped underneath dark rubble. It's part of the occupational hazard that everyone understands. But there is still an expectation that the employers create as safe a workplace environment as possible.
That didn't happen here. Leal was a danger to himself, and nobody stepped in to pull him out.
Not his trainer, Miguel Martinez, his second, Julio Esguerra, or his manager, Miguel Barraza. Or the promoters of the event, Zanfer Promotions, and certainly not the local commission whose very job is to ensure the health and safety of the participants. The game of boxing failed across the board. It may not have had enough administrative uniformity and it certainly didn't employ enough logic. Leal should not have been boxing after the Gradovich fight that sent him to the hospital.
There is an instructive irony to Leal-Hirales taking place on the same night as the exciting and brutal back-and-forth slugfest between Ruslan Provodnikov and Mike Alvarado that was televised with great fanfare on HBO (and paired with the premiere of Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward, which highlighted the notable and often brutal trilogy of those two pugilists). Alvarado hit the deck twice in the eighth and then was battered in the 10th, before making the call to throw in his own towel.
It was the right choice. In fact, it was the only one to make.
Yet among boxing fans, to whom quitting is something that is simply intolerable under any circumstances, there was a heated debate over Alvarado's decision. In retrospect, there should be universal praise for his prudent choice to capitulate when all hope was lost.
Some may cringe at this sentence, but boxing is legalized and sanctioned assault dressed up as entertainment. So with that said, the industry has an obligation to regulate more stridently and with stricter guidelines placed on every aspect of the sport that pertains to the safety of its participants.
You would hope that boxing, much like the NFL, now fully understands the effects of head trauma and its short- and long-term effects. Tim Bradley, who admitted to not remembering much of his brutal battle with Provodnikov back in March, went through extra precautionary measures before taking on Juan Manuel Marquez several weeks ago.
And like every other sport, the sweet science is not immune from synthetic and illicit means of strength-and-conditioning. Only now is boxing beginning to understand that PEDs are every bit as prevalent in their game as Major League Baseball or the NFL. Only in this sport, you're not trying to hit a baseball 50 feet further or run a tenth-of-a-second faster. The goal is, in essence, to strike your opponent as hard and as many times as possible.
This sport is dangerous. It's always going to be. But it doesn't necessarily have to be deadly. With this latest ring death, the sport must look inward and question itself. Boxing will move on without Franky Leal. The hope is that it will move forward in his memory so that it can prevent the next casualty.
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets (a lot.)