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Boxing hit by pair of tragedies

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 | 12:21 PM

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Johnny Tapia, left, was a five-time champion in three weight classes as a professional boxer.  (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) Johnny Tapia, left, was a five-time champion in three weight classes as a professional boxer. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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Some great bouts and performances over the last couple of weeks gave way in the headlines to two more awful occurrences for the sport of boxing on Sunday.

Being a boxing follower means being ready to be hit with, at any time year in and year out, the kind of awful news hockey fans dealt with in the hopefully anomalous summer of 2011.

Within the last five years, there's been the drunken motorcycle crash that killed Diego Corrales, the violent deaths of Arturo Gatti, Alexis Arguello and Vernon Forrest within 24 days in 2009 under very different circumstances and the stunning murder-suicide involving potential Manny Pacquiao opponent Edwin Valero eight months after that.

Some great fights and performances over the last couple of weeks gave way in the headlines to two more awful occurrences for the sport on Sunday.

One was an entirely predictable yet still saddening event involving a retired fighter, the other a shockingly random accident that has cut down the career of an active fighter not far removed from his prime.

Former TV mainstay Johnny Tapia was found dead in his Albuquerque home at age 45.

The cause is not yet known, but Tapia admitted to intentional and accidental drug overdoses throughout his life. Or it simply could be that the "corazon" that beat inside the chest adorned with the Mi Vida Loca tattoo simply gave out.

Tapia overcame odds most of us couldn't dream of and, combined with the story of his marriage to Teresa (also his manager), it was the stuff script writers would find over the top.

Tapia was led to believe his real father died violently while he was still in the womb. Only a couple of years ago, DNA tests revealed who his birth father actually was.

He was a passenger in a fatal bus accident at the age of seven. A year later, the seminal event of his life occurred. The specific details vary, according to the telling through the years, but the end result was that his mother was stabbed repeatedly and left for dead.

Decades later, police ID'd the main suspect, but Tapia never got to confront him. He'd been dead for years.

Raised by relatives after his mother's death, boxing was a salvation. Drugs nearly derailed his career with a multi-year suspension in some prime early years, but he kept the demons at bay enough to carve out a successful career. Despite his inner turmoil, he was known as one of the friendliest characters in boxing.

I can't lie and say Tapia was a favourite of mine in the ring. I found his style maddening at times and I rooted, to no avail, for his hometown rival Danny Romero in their big bout in the late 1990s.

But Tapia was the goods, giving lie to the notion that fighters of Mexican heritage are all guts and brawn. He was elusive, fast and among a select few who could get away with clowning and taunting because he backed it up with effective flurries.

He was unbeaten in his first 48 bouts before the inevitable slide most fighters endure late in their careers.

On the other hand, I enthusiastically followed Paul Williams's career after seeing what talent he possessed first hand at a Buffalo fight card some years back.

Williams, it turned out, was the most fully formed fighter good and bad that I've ever seen. His attributes and deficiencies essentially remained unchanged.

So while he didn't evolve that much as a fighter in an impressive enough pro career, he never lacked heart. Even if the decision was debatable (I had it a draw), his win over Sergio Martinez just 2 1/2 years ago was a real accomplishment.

Williams endured some tough moments in the ring since, but was in line for a big payday in September against undefeated young Saul Alvarez.

Now he'll be lucky to walk again after a motorcycle accident that has likely left him paralyzed from the waist down just shy of 31. He is to undergo spinal surgery later this week.

While not as gregarious as Tapia, he, too, has been thought of highly as a person in the fight game.

Knowing that bad news if often just around the corner in the sport of boxing doesn't make it any easier to take.

FIGHT REVIEW

As stated, there's been some good action of late. The highlights:

We saw a punch from Mikkel Kessler that may not be surpassed in Knockout of the Year deliberations.

There was also a sloppy but fun mid-level TV scrap between Ji-Hoon Kim and Alisher Rahimov. Personally, I felt Kim was rewarded a little liberally for some ineffective aggression, but have no quarrel with the Korean getting the decision.

But, of course, the big one from a Canadian perspective was Lucian Bute's title defence against Carl Froch in England.

It would have been nice for Bute to join Ryder Hesjedal on the weekend list of impressive accomplishments on foreign soil, but it was clear from about the third round on that it was not to be. Bute probably didn't win a round in front of Froch's rabid fans before getting stopped early in the fifth.

It would be easy to say Bute was overrated at this point -- and he did come out way too tentative against the Briton -- but Froch's style has been tricky for every man save Andre Ward.

Bute always has enjoyed an edge in hand speed, but not this time. Combine that with Froch's unorthodox volleys and his willingness to go to the edge of the rules, it was just something Bute had never seen before. Trainer Stephan Larouche has come in for criticism in the wake of the loss, but I felt Bute did try to change tactics in the fourth with some success until he stayed in range too long late in the round.

Some are also questioning Bute's chin, but I feel this akin to the criticism Fernando Vargas and Diego Corrales received. When you take several concussive blows because of glaring defensive issues, you're gonna get rocked. It wasn't like Bute fell from the first hard shot.

There was a Montreal Gazette column in the aftermath that posited that Bute wasn't well served by his promoters Interbox by fighting on friendly turf for the past eight years (Quebec or Romania) against competition that was good but not great.

Problem is, a lot of that was unavoidable. He was left out of the Super Six tournament, which would have seen him hit the road, and potential opponents Mikkel Kessler and Kelly Pavlik pulled out of very competitive matchups with Bute.

So don't consign Bute to the scrap heap just yet, though it was the kind of beating that many fighters never fully get back from.

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