Establishment's message to damaged boxers: You're on your own


Around Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym, there was always an odd job to do.

There were floors to sweep and vacuum, blood-and-spit-soaked buckets to dump and the occasional infestation of Japanese beetles to scoop up.

The old man did most of the maintenance on the smoky sweatbox near the corner of Charleston Boulevard and Main Street, but as he got older he sometimes would cough up a few bucks and hire a broken-down fighter to help out. He would hold out a broom and bark an order to get sweeping.

Back in the 1980s, barely a week passed that Tocco, a cut man and trainer who had spent most of his more than eight decades in the fight game, didn’t mention the need for some kind of public assistance for ex-boxers. Not so much the stars that made millions and, almost without exception, let all that cash slip through their fingers. Although plenty of them busted out, they usually retained enough sports-page celebrity to land jobs in security or as casino floormen and blackjack dealers. They could make their own way.

Tocco was far more concerned with the undercard pugs, guys who could only dream of greatness. They were often the ones who ended up trading their brain health and limited good sense for $100 a round and some newspaper clippings. Although Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s disease in recent years has drawn the attention of the masses, the streets are littered with former prizefighters displaying the undeniable signs of nerve damage and dementia. And there aren’t many tears shed for them.

From time to time Johnny would raise the issue of creating some sort of retirement home or at least a small pension for the fighters who had helped draw big crowds to Las Vegas, where those boxing fans dumped millions at the gaming tables.

Couldn’t we come up with something for them?

The old man had a good point, but he was just dreaming. The answer was always the same silence from the Nevada Athletic Commission to the cold heart of the Strip.

I was reminded of the late Tocco after learning that state Assemblyman Harvey Munford once more had attempted legislation that would get the NAC to “assist with medical expenses for injuries sustained by retired boxers.” His AB399 would have increased a fee from ticket sales to boxing events and used the money to pay for medical insurance coverage.

It failed, of course. Similar legislation presented two years ago also hit the canvas. The head of the NAC, Keith Kizer, testified against the bill last time, saying it would be impossible to determine whether boxers’ injuries were suffered while fighting in Nevada.

Munford’s bill was flawed, sure, but his heart was in the right place. Nevada’s tourism industry has made a gargantuan score from professional boxing and has taken almost no responsibility for what happens to those fighters after the lights are turned out and the crowd has gone home. The NAC hasn’t even seen fit to substantially increase the amount of medical insurance promoters must carry to cover fighters injured in the ring.

Munford, D-Las Vegas, last year predicted savvy lawyers one day would file lawsuits on behalf of boxers who have suffered brain injury. And he might be right. In a previous legislative hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee, Munford said professional fighters are “almost like meat. You use them and get whatever you can out of them.”

The message Nevada sends to professional fighters by now is familiar: Once you split the ropes, you’re on your own.

So don’t bet on a national pension plan for boxers or even much in the way of humane medical insurance to help offset the devastating injuries they suffer for your entertainment.

The Nevada fight game never changes, and there are only so many brooms to go around.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.