Duk Koo Kim died in Las Vegas on Nov. 17 of brain injuries he suffered in a fight with Boom Boom Mancini four days before. Kim's death attracted a lot of attention because he was fighting on network television for some alphabet world championship. But to this day, the most celebrated boxing death remains Benny Paret's, and it happened way back in 1962. Paret, the welterweight champion, was battered by Emile Griffith as the world's most famous referee watched, apparently mesmerized by the brutality. Plus, it was all on a Gillette fight night. Look sharp. Feel sharp. Be sharp.
Normally boxers don't get much ink for dying, unless they do it while fighting for a title and on a network. For example, if you walk into the Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque, N. Mex., you'll see only one photograph in the lobby. It's over by copies of such patriotic memorabilia as the Declaration of Independence, the Japanese surrender document and Jackson's letter after he won the Battle of New Orleans. That lone photograph hangs high. It's of Victor (Vito) Romero, and under the picture it says: 1960-1980. This is because Romero, age 20, died on Aug. 21, 1980, from injuries he'd suffered in the Civic Auditorium ring three days before. But while Romero is dead, he isn't counted as a genuine boxing death, because he was fatally injured while sparring. So he's not listed among the 353 boxers who have been killed in fights since 1945. Even local boxing historians say that the last boxing death in New Mexico before 1982 occurred in 1956, when John Anthony Lopez was killed in the Golden Gloves in Roswell.
If only boxers would wear headgear, safe, protective headgear, the argument goes. But Charles Love succumbed in Louisville on Oct. 16, 1982 after a fight with Darryl Stitch, a sophomore at the University of Louisville. Love, an Army private from Milwaukee, was, like Stitch, wearing headgear when he was killed. He didn't even get knocked off his feet. It was quite enough that his brain got pummeled while he stood up. He was 19 years old, wearing protective headgear. Love was one of six fighters who died after official bouts in '82. Maxwell Myaica was a South African black killed by another South African black at Bhekuzulu Hall, Umlazi, Natal Province on Nov. 11, a couple of days before Kim went down. Naoki Kobayashi had died a few weeks before, after Yoshsimu Oyama knocked him out in Tokyo. Andy Balaba of the Philippines was the WBA's second-ranked flyweight when he died in Seoul on May 11, four days after fighting Shin Hee Sup. Balaba was 28 years old and gunning for a title shot. Doctors removed 100 cc of blood from around his brain, but it was too late, and so his body was taken from South Korea back to the island of Mindanao, where his three small children watched his remains go into the ground. Six months thereafter, Duk Koo Kim's body was returned to South Korea. Days later, he was married posthumously to his girl friend, and two months after that, his mother, still despondent over his death, drank a bottle of pesticide so that she might kill herself, which she did.
All of these fighters came from poor families. One of the most emotional arguments made on behalf of boxing—usually by people who don't box—is that if the sport didn't exist, poor boys couldn't grow up to be Sugar Ray Leonard or Larry Holmes, with big houses and investment portfolios. It's their choice. Nobody makes these boys bash their brains in for our amusement. If we buy tickets and cheer them on, they might well become millionaires.
The problem is, very few poor young fighters ever do grow up to be Leonard or Holmes. Instead, every year, a number of them grow up to be corpses, to be Andy Balaba or Maxwell Myaica or Charles Love or Duk Koo Kim or Naoki Kobayashi. Or perhaps as bad—who knows?—they grow up to be Shin Hee Sup or Chris Naidoo or Darryl Stitch or Boom Boom Mancini or Yoshsimu Oyama.
On Lincoln's Birthday 1982, under the photograph of Vito Romero, Benjamin Davis and Louis Wade walked into the Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque to fight each other in the semifinals of the New Mexico Golden Gloves, 132-pound novice class. You could not hope to meet two nicer boys. One would help kill the other in the ring that night.
Benjie and Louis had never met one another, but Louis had seen Benjie fight the night before, in the first round of the tournament. That had been the first fight that Benjie had ever fought. Louis, who had been granted a bye in the first round of the competition, had participated in only two previous bouts.
On the tournament's opening night, a Thursday, the crowd had been sparse, so Louis had been able to move down to ringside to watch the bout that would determine his opponent for the following evening. Louis had a special interest in the boy fighting Benjie, Anthony Tapia, who came from Los Lunas, which is just a few miles up Interstate 40 from where Louis lived, in Belen. Louis had heard that Tapia was looking forward to mixing it up with him. But if Louis was primarily interested in Anthony Tapia, he was impressed by the way Benjie fought. Although the two were almost identical in size, in the same weight class, Louis thought that Benjie seemed taller than himself, and heavier. Indeed, Benjie did cut an imposing figure: His shoulders were wide, his waist a mere ribbon, his limbs all sinewy muscles, lithe and long. What Louis didn't know, though, was that Benjie was six years older than he was. Louis was only 16, but Benjie was a man of 22. That was two years over the age limit for the novice class, but the Golden Gloves wasn't too picky about little details like that. Other things the tournament couldn't be bothered with were the pre-and post-fight physicals it was required to provide.
But then, neither Benjie nor Louis had ever spent a night in a hospital. And both were good-looking, even handsome. Louis' brown hair was somewhat long, but always neatly combed, drawn down over his forehead toward his clear green eyes. He had a glimmering kind of smile. "Just plain well liked by everyone," says Casey Cordova, who was his boxing coach. "No one could help but like Louis." It was the same with Benjie. Phil Belone, his brother-in-law, who works for the Department of Indian Affairs, says: "Benjie? Warm and mischievous. A little Dennis the Menace in him, you know. But always happy. An admirable guy with just so many friends."
Benjie's hair was a bit curly, a silky black, and his dark eyes shone, even when viewed through his big oval eyeglasses. His smile was accented by his copper Navajo skin. He talked a lot, and his family kidded him about that, because as Navajos are the first to acknowledge, they're supposed to be reticent.