Edmonton fighter's death highlights risks, patchwork rules of the ring
Taking both boxing and MMA bouts together, fallen fighter had been stopped 3 times in 10 months
Up to a point, there was nothing extraordinary about last Friday's boxing match between heavyweights Tim Hague and Adam Braidwood at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton.
It was the kind of bout that regularly populates weekend fight cards in the boxing world. Braidwood entered with a more impressive 7-1 record compared to Hague's 1-2 mark. But Hague had also contested dozens of bouts as a mixed-martial fighter.
While boxing and MMA operate under entirely different rules, there was no reason to think the seasoned Hague would automatically fold at the first sign of aggression from his foe.
While it was clear Braidwood would be favoured, he is not a natural star in boxing. The former top pick in the CFL draft only took up pro boxing in earnest in 2015, after his career with the Edmonton Eskimos was finished.
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"I actually didn't think on paper it was an egregious fight to have been made; it just turned out to be once it started," said Corey Erdman, a boxing journalist and consultant for Showtime Boxing and Premier Boxing Champions.
There was no glaring skill difference for the first minute. But Braidwood would then knock Hague to the canvas, and the outcome was never in doubt again. By the end of the first round, Hague had been officially knocked down three times.
Within 30 seconds of the start of the second round, Hague stumbled around from some rather ordinary-looking Braidwood shots. It would have been an ideal opportunity to call a halt to the fight.
"The stakes weren't high enough for that bout to be continuing like that," said Erdman.
But it continued, and Braidwood scored two more knockdowns, including a right-left combination that saw the back of Hague's head bounce violently off the canvas.
With some help, he was able to sit on his stool. But the toll had been too great. He would be rushed to hospital, his family announcing his death from brain injuries on Sunday afternoon.
'Protect fighters from themselves'
After starting his MMA career winning 10 of 11, Hague settled into journeyman status, losing as much as winning the rest of the way. He had lost 13 times in 34 mixed-martial bouts, eight times by stoppage.
At the not-so-young age of 33, Hague decided last year to try his hand at pro boxing, having only fought once previously in the squared circle.
With a career as a teacher and the modest pay that an eight-round bout entails, Hague was likely driven by a passion to compete and test his mettle; he would have been under no illusions that the brass ring of boxing awaited.
Hague's was not a great record, but nothing on the order of a recent event in New Brunswick, in which a boxer who had lost about 90 per cent of his previous 20 bouts was licensed, and suffered a serious brain injury as a result.
Still, his overall profile suggested due diligence was required.
Erik Magraken, a B.C. lawyer and MMA enthusiast, catalogues the byzantine rules that provide the framework for professional fighting on his site, CombatSportsLaw.com.
In an age of heightened awareness of brain trauma in sport, there is no league in boxing and it can be a Wild West patchwork of inconsistent regulations across jurisdictions at the best of times.
Prizefighting is technically illegal under the Canadian Criminal Code unless a province regulates its terms by establishing an athletic board, commission or similar body. But unlike the provincial framework featured elsewhere, the responsibility for combat sports in Alberta is devolved to the municipal level.
'Comprehensive' review launched
A basic inquiry into Hague's ledger as a fighter should have sparked concern. He had lost four of his last five MMA encounters. And just 56 days after getting kicked in the head and being KO'd in the first round of a July 2016 bout in Russia, Hague was allowed to box in Edmonton, losing in a four-round decision.
By contrast, Manny Pacquiao, one of the greatest boxers of this generation, was forced to sit out for 90 days after his knockout loss in late 2012 to rival Juan Manuel Marquez.
Hague went on to lose by knockout in the first round of a December 2016 boxing match in Edmonton, and then dipped back into non-boxing combat in April, losing in less than a minute in Lethbridge, Alta., during a promotional MMA event called Rumble in the Cage.
That is three first-round defeats in the span of 10 months.
According to Edmonton Combative Sports Commission guidelines, if a boxer has suffered two knockouts or technical knockouts from blows to the head within a six-month period, he is to serve a medical suspension of at least 180 days. If a boxer has suffered three KO/TKOs from blows to the head within a one-year period, the suspension would be for at least a year.
It is unclear whether the commission treated the knockouts in non-boxing competition as applicable to their boxing safety rules, but at first blush it doesn't seem so.
Boxers lacing up the gloves for a pro bout in Edmonton are also required to submit MRI or CT scan information, although there is no date requirement. In contrast, many jurisdictions want a scan that is anywhere from less than one to three years old.
While the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission did not provide details of Hague's pre-fight neurological assessment, it said a "comprehensive review" of the incident is being conducted.
"There are many people and organizations involved in putting on these complex events including promoters, referees, ringside judges, physicians, chief inspector, paymaster and the presiding inspectors assigned to the fight," the commission said in a statement.
"We have mobilized quickly and are working together to review the circumstances surrounding this incident and will determine the next steps following the evaluation of the information."
Boxing's warrior code
Perhaps to its detriment, boxing has fostered a culture that includes a kind of warrior's code.
Fighters as accomplished as champions Roberto Duran and Acelino Freitas have encountered criticism for surrendering instead of "going out on their shield," in boxing parlance.
Fans watching a 2015 bout involving unbeaten prospect Prichard Colon questioned the Puerto Rican's toughness on Twitter as he complained to the referee about punches to the back of his head. Colon would collapse in the dressing room afterward. (He survived but is now confined to a bed or wheelchair with limited brain function.)
"Boxing has this oddly dangerous and perverse fascination with never giving up," said Erdman. "That kind of mentality needs to be stripped out of the sport."
Hague's death occurred just days after it was announced that UFC champ Conor McGregor will meet Floyd Mayweather in a boxing contest in Las Vegas on Aug. 26.
McGregor sports a laudable 21-3 record as an MMA fighter, but he is a complete novice as a pro boxer. And while Mayweather has been away from the ring for two years, the American has never lost as a professional and is considered one of the all-time greats.
Canada's own boxing great Lennox Lewis is among those who've derided the bout as "ridiculous." Breitbart.com said the matchup "threatens to KO two combat sports."
That is unlikely. The matchup of these two outrageous, self-promoting personalities is certain to be lucrative, generating boffo business for the city's casinos, hotels and sports books.
And matchups with non-boxers have taken place without incident: Muhammad Ali battled the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, and then three years later took on Lyle Alzado, the NFL player. Randy Couture, meanwhile, exposed boxer James Toney in an MMA bout without causing undue pain.
It may sound counterintuitive, but Mayweather is so brilliant at what he does compared to a fighter like Braidwood, he might be able to bloodlessly dispatch McGregor without harm. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, with millions of eyes watching and critics ready to pounce, should also be expected to be vigilant.
The international spectacle will have little in common with a clubfight in Canada. But once a man gets hit, anything can happen.
"If things are getting out of hand, the corner, the referee and maybe Conor himself need to be OK with pulling the plug on this," said Erdman.
"This should be a learning opportunity for everyone."