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8 Upper

Blood Sport

By Tom Scocca | Posted 7/4/2001

Idly, last week, I watched Beethavean Scottland get beaten into a coma. It was June 26. I was looking for the score of the Red Sox game, switching to ESPN2 to check the ticker after the Blue Jays finished off the Orioles. There at the top of the screen was Tuesday Night Fights, Jones vs. Scottland.

Scottland. I'd seen Bee Scottland once or twice, at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, a good southpaw, bold and active. He wore a wild black-and-gold loincloth/trunks combination, with a B on the front flap, and he fought like he dressed. He had hand speed and stamina and enough power to make his victories interesting without making them easy. The hall buzzed when he was in the ring, with the memory of past action and the promise of more to come.

"The attraction with Bee is always in the performance he delivers," promoter Scott Wagner said the next day, afterward. He kept his verbs in the present, with Scottland unconscious and under the knife in New York's Bellevue Hospital with a subdural hematoma and secondary brain swelling. Scottland's first fight came on Wagner's first Ballroom Boxing card at Michael's, in February 1995. It was a four-round decision over Stan Braxton, the first of 20 career wins.

When I began watching Scottland's latest bout, I didn't know that there would never be a 21st. It was the ninth round on June 26, live from the deck of the decommissioned U.S.S. Intrepid, docked in the Hudson River, and Scottland was moving and hitting, outboxing the bigger and taller George Jones. I picked up fragments from the announcers: Jones, the undefeated up-and-comer, dominant all night but now getting tired; Scottland, hanging in and trying to rally. "He is a very courageous, bighearted fighter," Wagner would say the next day.

What I didn't know. I didn't know Scottland was fighting up out of his class, battling a light-heavyweight after his scheduled super-middleweight bout on June 21 at Michael's had fallen through. I didn't know that Jones' short record was deceptive, that he was a 32-year-old ex-con, not some raw kid.

And I didn't know how bad the early going had been, how the ringside doctor told the ref, "I don't think he should take any more shots" after the seventh round. An overlay on the screen showed the punch count, lopsided in Jones' favor, but I looked right through it. Jones' hands were drooping; Scottland was tagging him. The announcers were caught up: Here comes the final round, they said. The most exciting three minutes in sports. One of them, inspired, said something about William Wallace, punning on Scottland's name.

William Wallace died by inches, his guts pulled from his living body. Whatever carried Scottland through the ninth left him in the 10th. Jones got his wind back and started hitting again. Scottland bobbed and clinched, still fighting, but there was something wrong and numb in his eyes. Yet he kept going, ducking, weaving, taking more shots. With 37 seconds left, the TV guy started to say it would be a moral victory if he finished on his feet. A moral victory.

Halfway through the sentence, Jones hit Scottland with a crunching right hand to the skull. A knockout punch. And still, some last thing resisted. Beethavean Scottland steadied himself, blindly and uselessly, and held his head up. Held his head up for nothing more than to take a final blow, the left hand, darkness inescapable. He fell.

It was a stupid and brutal thing, and quite expectable. If you see enough boxing, something terrible is going to happen in front of you. Thirty-nine years ago, well before I was born, my father watched Emile Griffith kill Benny "Kid" Paret on television. It did not make him stop watching the fights. Paret got pinned in the corner, stuck upright and helpless in the gap between the top and middle ropes, and Griffith hit him 18 times in a row. Boxing went to four ropes after that, so no one else could get trapped.

There's always a lesson. Scottland should not have been fighting a light-heavyweight. The doctor should have had the conviction to step in and stop things outright after the seventh. The ref should have remembered the doctor's advice and stopped it in the 10th before Scottland got in trouble again. Boxing is endlessly reformable, and endlessly in need of reform.

The clearest response, morally, is to reject the sport. Boxing is wrong. It is wrong to hurt other people in the name of entertainment and spectacle. The Afro-American's Sam Lacy, the wisest sportswriter alive, believes this. My mother believes this. My own ambivalence has blood on it, not theoretically but in fact. It has Bee Scottland's blood on it.

I could try to wash the blood in mystification. Joyce Carol Oates has written that she doesn't regard boxing as a sport. She is fascinated by it as a ritual, something that "inhabits a sacred space predating civilization." Which I suppose it is, but it is a sport too, and it is a sport more like other sports than we take it to be.

No sooner was Scottland down than the announcers were trying to defend boxing. Thirteen kids died last year playing high school football, they said, over and over, as if it were an invocation against evil. Boxing is a contact sport, and people get hurt in contact sports.

This is a glib line to take while a man's brain is bleeding, but it is true in an important way. You cannot draw a line to exclude boxing without excluding football. Boxers are deliberately trying to hurt each other? So are football players. The difference between Tony Siragusa and a boxer is that Siragusa has a 150-pound weight advantage over the man he wants to injure, and his target isn't trying to defend himself. Football is grotesque and savage.

And the savagery takes a toll. Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Al Toon --all forced from the game by repeated, malicious head injuries. Nor should we stop with the brain. Look at Johnny Unitas, with his chronic limp and his ruined right arm. Johnny Unitas' body was broken for your pleasure.

You cannot separate it from his heroism. We watch sports to see excellence, and we see excellence in extremity. Every quarterback who takes a hit and gets up, wincing, to play on-- all are testing the limits of health, and possibly life. That's what athletes do, in all sports. The marathon re-enacts a feat that killed the first person who did it; marathoners die to this day. Past the bounds of human endurance is where the good stuff happens: Pete Sampras puking on his shoes, Willis Reed limping onto the Garden floor, Greg Louganis wiping away the blood and diving for a gold medal. They kept fighting, we say, admiringly. And that, horribly, is exactly what Bee Scottland did.

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