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Rest in Peace, Franky

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By Bill Tibbs


It struck me as sadly ironic that boxing lost one of its brothers in the same week HBO’s “Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward” premiered. Tough Mexican super bantamweight Franky Leal succumbed to injuries suffered in an eighth round knockout to Raul Hirales on October 19th. Leal, dropped in the sixth round and again in the eighth, died three days later from a brain injury sustained in the fight. Leal was dropped by a right hand that didn’t appear any more menacing than many right hands fight fans see in the course of a fight. The follow-up right was academic as it appeared to graze the back of his head as Leal was already sagging to the canvas. While Leal would rise on wobbly legs, he would quickly sag into the corner pad and sadly slip into unconsciousness.
 
I found it almost peculiar watching the epic Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy in the same week in which poor Franky was fatally knocked out. Logic would dictate there is no way Gatti or Ward should have survived any of their three bouts after the hellacious beatings each took in the their series. But that is the wonder, the dangerous mystery of boxing, the theatre of the unknown and the unexpected. It’s what makes it the sport it is.

Franky Leal was a good fighter who had built a respectable, if not remarkable, career in 30 previous fights. And in his final bout, he gave a good account of himself, ironically taking far more body punishment from Hirales than head shots. On paper, Leal looked more than capable going into the fight, winning three of four previous bouts with a world title shot under his belt and an upset win over then-undefeated Top Rank Promotions prospect Robert Marroquin in the bank. Franky knew his way around a boxing ring. The main controversy surrounding Leal’s tragic outcome is the fact he left the ring on a stretcher after a 10th round stoppage to Evgeny Gradovich in 2012. Many question why he ever chose to enter a boxing ring afterward but like many fighters, that is simply what he did, how he fed his family. In his eyes, what he saw as a chance to map out a better life for himself was his only option. It was Leal’s choice to get back in the ring and in his memory, he should be afforded the respect that comes with the freedom to live as he chose – as we all choose. If fighters were never allowed to reenter a ring after what appears to be more than enough previous punishment, we would never have seen Gatti-Ward II and III, the middle and final installments of a chapter in the tome of sports history. Those fights were a trio of bouts that will be looked back on for decades to come with admiration for the athletes involved who chose to reenter the squared circle (after going through a hailstorm of punishment in their first encounter) to dare to be great.
 
To achieve that greatness, one has to be willing to go places most people - and many athletes - choose not to and Franky took his shot. Much has been said about the legendary Gatti-Ward trilogy, a set of bouts worthy of “legendary” status in its description. There are the questions of knowing when to bow out, knowing who should continue and who should not, to have enough self-awareness to know it is over. To  walk away from something that has been your life and in many cases what defines you, in and out of the ring. If we had the answers to these questions, we would remove the mystery, the drama, the unknown and many of the intangibles that make this sport great, so unique at its very core.

Micky Ward decided after his final bout with Gatti that it was his time to step away. Franky Leal and Arturo Gatti are gone but will always be remembered fondly for the heart and courage they brought into the ring each and every time out. Like many sports, boxing is very physical and in physical pursuits, competitors get hurt. As I watched the tale of Gatti-Ward, I could only think of one thing: any fighter making that choice to climb those three steps into the ring deserves respect.
 
Period.
 
And the option to fight, ultimately, is their choice. That’s the beauty of freedom but sometimes, freedom comes at a price. The only thing worse would be the loss of that freedom.
 
I was saddened by the loss of a young man, age 26, a husband and father, after the Hirales bout. The bout reminded me of the words of a friend who discussed the sad outcome of great Welsh fighter Johnny Owen’s bout with Mexican legend Lupe Pintor (after Owen succumbed to injuries from his bout with the Mexican bantamweight champion). He said, “Every second that Johnny Owen was in the ring, he felt like somebody. He felt he was special and he was doing what he wanted to do more than anything. While it’s tragic to lose him so young, he left this Earth doing something he loved…many people have died doing much less.”
 
Rest in Peace, Franky.
 
Questions and comments can be sent to Bill Tibbs at hwtibbs@shaw.ca.
 
 

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