When you learn 66-year-old Dr. Edwin “Flip” Homansky is a vegetarian, you immediately assume he did it for his health.
You expect him to talk about how vegetarian diets tend to be naturally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, that vegetarians have been shown to have nearly a 25 percent lower risk of dying of heart disease.
And surely you figure this man known as “Flip” — his sister nicknamed him that shortly after birth for how he moved around and it stuck — will tell you red meat is associated with an increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.
But Homansky, who retired in June as chief quality officer of the Valley Health System and is best known for his work as chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, hits you with an explanation for becoming a vegetarian like an uppercut thrown by Muhammad Ali in his prime — you don’t see it coming.
“I realized I didn’t want to kill anything. So I eat nothing with a face. No meat, no chicken or seafood.”
The native of Savannah, Georgia, says he came to that decision while fishing for black tuna in Mexico about 35 years ago.
‘A life force’
“My biggest hobby back then was fishing,” he recalls. “I had started to sense that what I took to be enjoyable wasn’t so enjoyable for the fish. Then one day I brought in this black tuna and he looked me in the eye. That was it. He was telling me this isn’t the right thing for you. I don’t want to sound crazy, but that was a life changer. He was a life force telling me there was a better way for me to find something to eat.”
As Homanksy goes down memory lane in the wake of his retirement, he notes that his encounter with the tuna was the first time a life force told him, in effect, that he didn’t appreciate being eaten.
While few people have heard that story, millions of people are acquainted with the second time Homansky, then a ringside doctor, was told by a life force — boxer Evander Holyfield — he didn’t appreciate being eaten.
It was June 1997 when Holyfield faced Mike Tyson in the ring at the MGM Grand.
They were clinching, or fighting in close, in the third round when Tyson suddenly sank his teeth into the top of Holyfield’s right ear and then spit a piece of it out onto the canvas.
Stunned by what happened — Holyfield jumped up and down and yelled in pain as the bout was stopped by the referee — Homansky was asked to look at the damage done to Holyfield, who loudly made it known he was no one’s appetizer.
“I was like everybody else at ringside, shocked,” Homansky remembers, shaking his head at the memory. “His ear was a red, mangled mess, but the question for me was not an ethical one but a medical one. After examining the ear, I saw that he could continue. The cartliage part of the ear was bitten off but he could still fight.”
The fight didn’t last long, however, because Tyson soon sunk his teeth into Holyfield’s left ear. Though the ear stayed intact, the referee disqualified Tyson, who claimed he bit his opponent because he had been head-butting him.
“That was the strangest fight I was ever part of,” Homansky says.
Homansky began his medical career in Las Vegas as an emergency room physician at Valley Hospital in 1977. He eventually led the emergency rooms in all six hospitals in the Valley Health System.
It was in a Desert Springs Hospital emergency room when he had the opportunity to help name a baby.
“A young girl came in with abdominal pains on Easter morning,” he says, smiling at the memory. “She didn’t know she was pregnant. I helped deliver the baby. She was pretty and we came up with the name Bunny.”
Karla Perez, regional vice president of the Valley Health System, says that with all the attention Homansky has received for his work with the Nevada State Athletic Commission — he was also chairman of its medical advisory board and a board member appointed by Gov. Kenny Guinn — his other medical work can be overlooked.
She notes protocols he put in place for Valley Health held the mortality rate from infections down. And as chief of staff at Valley Hospital, he ensured doctors worked as a team, developing a peer review system fostering excellence.
As quality control officer, he made sure high standards for, say, cardiovascular care were met.
Perez, as well as Sandra Hotchkiss and Evelyn Chu, two other hospital officials, always remember him bringing fruits and and vegetables to the staff.
“He got to be known as Farmer Flip,” Perez says, laughing. “He grew all his own stuff.”
In the boxing world, he became known for trying to make the sport as safe as possible. Still, a 1995 superfeatherweight title fight where he was at ringside — between Gabriel Ruelas and Jimmy Garcia — later resulted in Garcia’s death.
Garcia had been hit hard in the 10th round, but when Homansky examined him in the ring, he appeared OK. After absorbing more punishment in the 11th round, he collapsed. Two weeks later he died.
“That stays with you forever,” Homansky says. “I just didn’t think he was in serious trouble.”
An amateur boxer in Georgia, he went to his first professional fight in Las Vegas in 1978. He was mesmerized by the human combat. Soon he talked himself into helping the head ringside physician, Dr. Don Romeo.
It was Romeo who helped Homansky become ringside physician for much of the ’80s and ’90s. He examined some of the best boxers in the business, including Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Oscar de la Hoya and George Foreman.
Dr. Margaret Goodman, who’s also worked as a ringside physician, notes Homansky pushed for brain scans for fighters.
“He made boxers demonstrate fitness,” she says,” He didn’t want them doing permanent damage to themselves.”
The power of boxers — particularly Mike Tyson in the ’80s — still amazes Homansky.
“He hit Trevor Berbick (then heavyweight champ) with a left hook and he went down. He tried to get up twice and went down twice. Is boxing brutal? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes. But it will always be around. Boxing is part of the nature of man. Two men competing with their fists. All we can do is make it as safe as possible.”
Paul Harasim’s column runs Monday in Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.