Jeff Ellis, owner of African Ring, once wrote that “the protection of the fighter is the primary responsibility of everyone connected to the sport; everyone. Including the fighter himself.” This statement often rings true throughout the annals of boxing history, where time and again, mismanagement, poor matchmaking, over-zealous fighters and inadequate protection have ended a fighter’s career, either through serious injury or in many cases, even death.
By its very nature, boxing has the potential to be a dangerous sport, which is why the aspects that contribute to its safety should be a concern for everyone. To mark out the often unnoticed mechanisms that contribute to the danger of the sport, I will turn to a cautionary tale; that of the short-lived career of one John (Bull) Young, who in spite of giving all of himself to the sport, saw a series of losses to outclassed opponents, one of which was responsible for the death of Young at the ringside, during a bout in California in 1913.
The fateful day that claimed the life of Young marked the third bout between him and Jess Willard, the man who would unwittingly kill him in the ring. This third bout, should never have happened since Willard was by far, a superior fighter, and had beaten Young twice before, both times with relative ease, both by knockout.
The first-two fights had already painted a problematic picture for the bouts between these two, in that they were only a few months apart from each other.
Having lost his first fight against Willard by knockout, Young was given practically no time at all to recover from the ordeal, before having to face his opponent again; losing once more by knockout in the second bout. The third and final fight against Willard took place just eleven months after the second knock-out; where a fatal blow was landed by Willard, resulting in some confusion over the cause of Young’s death; with some sources claiming that he died of a brain haemorrhage, and others claiming he suffered a broken neck in the ring.
The problematic patterns are plain to see when looking at Young’s fighting record. He only completed four fights in his career, all of them taking place in under two years. Out of those four fights, we had only won his debut bout against Kid Burns, before being taken apart time and again by Jess Willard, a comparative giant of a man with noticeably superior skills to Young; but for some reason, fights of this nature against Willard were scheduled time and again, despite humiliating losses in each preceding bout.
These matchups against Willard that are the result of gross mismanagement are not isolated stories either. While boxing has evolved over the years to protect the fighters, boxing history is stained with otherwise avoidable deaths. The case of Bull Young should have been questioned by organizers, managers, trainers, and also both of the fighters. Unfortunately the sense of zeal held by those involved, and the hype surrounding the fights, made it difficult for the dangers to be as evident as they needed to be.
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