WHEN Al Seeger described a Mexican wolfcry he made it sound less like a boxer warming up in a changing room and more like their final breath. Said with sadness and trepidation, as well as an awareness of what was to come, the sound he once heard and now attempted to explain would, I realised, only ever foreshadow pain and tragedy.
Admittedly, had Benjamin Flores, the Mexican behind the wolfcry, not died following a bout with Seeger in 2009, there’s every chance the Savannah native would have overlooked the finer details of what he heard and saw before the first bell, much less think to bring it up in conversation. But Flores did die and Seeger, therefore, does remember. Worse than that, it’s a noise he’ll never forget.
“I’d be going bang, bang, bang on the pads and he’d go bing, bing, bing, a higher pitched sound,” said Seeger, who warmed up in the same changing room as Flores that fateful night at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas. “We called it the Mexican wolfcry.”
It was, for Seeger, the sound of an opponent looking to do to him the kind of damage he was looking to do to them. Whether bing-ing or bang-ing, it all meant the same. Danger signs were everywhere. Even the day before the fight, after the weigh-in, Seeger signed his pre-fight death waiver, as was customary, and experienced a feeling entirely new to him.
“I just had a feeling something might happen,” he recalled. “To say I wasn’t scared of dying would be a lie. We’re all scared of death a little bit. When you sign that waiver at the weigh-in and you see that line that says ‘in case of death, this is what we’re going to pay you…’ your heart starts to race, sure. But I was accepting of my fate. I knew there was a chance I could be badly injured or worse each time I stepped into the ring and I was fine with that. It was a risk I was willing to take. Death was the last thing I’d want to happen, to either me or my opponent, but it wasn’t going to make me think twice about boxing.”
Benjamin Flores, a Houston-based Mexican who worked part-time at Taco Bell, presumably held similar views. He, like Al, risked it all for a better life.
“I knew he was a good guy,” Seeger said, “because I remember going to the restroom and seeing him and his brother laughing together. I thought, man, these are good people. I’ve got to beat him, but these are good people and I hope for the best for them.”
Seeger considers their NABF super-bantamweight title fight, Flores’ last, a “normal fight”. Had better, he will say, as if assessing the latest notch on his bedpost. He thought as much when peppering Flores with jabs in the smallest ring he’d ever seen, disfiguring the area surrounding his left eye, and even when stopping him in round nine, a stoppage he also calls “normal”.
“I’ve had fights that were real bloodbaths, really gruelling, and this wasn’t one of them,” he explained. “This wasn’t one of those fun barn burners. Normally I come out of a fight looking like shit, but this was just a regular fight. He landed some blows, I landed some blows. He was tough. When I landed the jab or right hand, there’d be no change in his face. He’d just walk through it. A lot of guys roll with the punch, or step back, but he was just taking it. He’d put his two fists together by his face and grunt whenever a punch landed on him. I’d never fought anybody like that before.
“I noticed him slow down a little bit and then I landed a right hand – I think it was a right hand – but there were no big or memorable punches in the finish. I don’t recall badly hurting him in that way. I was just hitting him – bing, bing, bing. I guess it was just his time.”
Once the fight was over, Flores, unwilling to sit on his stool, asked the referee, Laurence Cole, if he could instead lie down.
“I knew something was wrong when they couldn’t wake him up with the smelling salts,” Al continued. “I’ll never forget how upset his brother was, man. He was so upset. He knew, like I knew, something was badly wrong. The whole thing was a blur after that.”
Mexico’s former world super-featherweight and lightweight champion Jesús Chávez is another whose mind becomes a fog of abstract images and jarring sounds when asked to revisit a 2005 bout with Leavander Johnson and decipher how it led to the untimely passing of his opponent. He, too, deemed it a fight no different to any other.
“It wasn’t necessarily one-sided,” he said. “Leavander made the fight competitive for a bit, but I just felt my conditioning and boxing was a little better than his. Leavander was a very competitive fighter and he stayed in the fight. There was no quit in him. Unfortunately, things went the way they did.”
You get one Jesús Chávez when discussing his breakout performances against Floyd Mayweather and Erik Morales, or when asking him about the night he won his first world title against Sirimongkhon Iamthuam, and an entirely different Jesús Chávez when the subject of Leavander Johnson comes to the surface. His words, rather than spoken, now fall from his mouth; sentences form by coincidence, not design; his mind drifts elsewhere. “When you’re in the ring, you can’t really tell,” he said. “You’re just engaged in the fight.”
To them, the boxers, those who seek victory but find themselves blackened by a ring tragedy, it is only ever a fight. It is a fight that should carry no consequence greater than victory or defeat; a winner and a loser. But often it does. In a sport of extremes, this will always be so. A great fight, one in which both men take an ungodly amount of punishment, will sometimes be too great, just as a great beating, a fight in which one fighter proves vastly superior to another, will sometimes be too great. Then, of course, there will be the anomalies. The ones nobody saw coming. The ones tough to explain.
“It was just your typical fight,” is how Philadelphia super-bantamweight Teon Kennedy remembered an ultimately tragic USBA title contest with Puerto Rican Francisco Rodriguez in 2009. “I wasn’t dominating him and he wasn’t dominating me. I think it was the tenth or eleventh round (it was the tenth) when I put it on him and the referee came in and stopped the fight. I was so happy it was over, I went away to celebrate, but then my coach said Rodriguez had passed out on the stool.
“I didn’t really have a bad feeling at that time. I thought he was probably hurt from the fight, exhausted maybe, and just needed an IV. But then my manager told me he had slipped into a coma and had blood on the brain.”
Like they all do, Kennedy trained to outbox his opponent, hurt his opponent and eventually knock out his opponent. On fight night, he achieved all three. Yet, regrettably, fresh context meant Kennedy, like Seeger and Chavez, was left with no choice but to compartmentalise the win and forever label it “bittersweet”.
“When I visited him in hospital, his wife was crying non-stop,” said Teon. “I don’t think she said anything to me, but I know his dad shook my hand and hugged me. He looked at me and kind of accepted me. We didn’t say anything at all. What was there to say? I stayed for probably half an hour. I felt really uncomfortable. But it was something I wanted to do.”
Al Seeger, similarly heartbroken and unsure, declined an invitation to attend 24-year-old Benjamin Flores’ funeral in Mexico. He chose instead to make contact with Miguel Flores, Benjamin’s younger brother, the man whose horrified expression after the fight left such an indelible impression on Seeger, and soon they became friends on Facebook.
“I told Miguel I was sorry over and over and he just said, ‘Look, man, these things happen. This is the sport,’” recalled Al. “I know it could have been me and not Benjamin who passed away and I wouldn’t want my family to hold anything against Benjamin or his family if the same happened to me. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I made a promise that I’ll always add his family in my prayers. And I’ve been doing that ever since.”
As well as prayers, Al, a father of three boys, extracts comfort whenever he sees Miguel online posting pictures or merely updating his status. A glimpse of normality, it lets him know he’s getting on with his life.
“I saw Miguel on Facebook recently wearing a T-shirt with Benjamin’s picture on it and that brought it all back,” said Seeger. “I stopped for a moment and found myself staring at the picture longer than I probably should have done. I wasn’t feeling guilt or sadness or anything like that. It just brought back the memory. It was a reality check.
“The guilt used to kick in when I’d be playing with one of my kids and think, man, Flores had a son. He doesn’t get to play with his son, but I do. Why is that? How is that fair? But I’ve made peace with that now.”
Jesús Chávez was able to do the same after he attended Leavander Johnson’s funeral in New Jersey and found warmth in the open arms of the stricken boxer’s family and friends. Like a crash mat breaking a fall, Chávez admits it was only this forgiveness that enabled him to continue punching people for a living.
“I was not myself; I felt I’d lost a piece of me,” he said. “It crossed my mind to quit after that fight, but one of the things that motivated and helped me through that period was Leavander Johnson’s family. They are a boxing family and very experienced. They knew it was just one of those things that happens in boxing and they told me to not feel bad and to go out there and fight for Leavander. They said the best thing I could do was to defend my title in Leavander Johnson’s name. So I tried that, but was unsuccessful.”
Just as Seeger carried on only to be stopped in his next fight, Chávez also suffered the same fate, losing his IBF lightweight title to Julio Diaz, a challenger he was favoured to beat, nearly 18 months after the Johnson ordeal. By now injury prone and drained of any spite he once possessed, Chávez knew the game was up.
“I put myself together again simply because I was a fighter and wanted to keep fighting,” he said. “But what happened to Leavander changed my outlook on boxing and also my mindset, especially in my fight with Jorge Linares. I could have stayed in that fight and possibly taken a beating, but I thought, why should I possibly cause harm to myself? You live and learn, you know. I didn’t have that killer instinct anymore.”
Bravado pours from Teon Kennedy when he says he never once thought about quitting boxing – “not even for a second” – following the death of Francisco Rodriguez. It seems, according to his code, that quitting, an action too human and the word most boxers dismiss, would have somehow been an admission of guilt.
“I kind of blocked it out because I knew stuff like that happens in boxing,” he said. “It’s horrible, you never want it to happen, but it does. Growing up as a kid you knew there was a possibility you’d pass away doing what we do. You just hope it isn’t going to be you who is involved in a fight like that.
“I was sad, of course, but I couldn’t be too sad. I had to block it out. If I kept thinking about Rodriguez, I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue. That sort of thing has happened to a lot of fighters and most were never the same. They felt guilty, they were haunted and their career pretty much ended there and then. I couldn’t let that happen to me.
“As much as I tried to block it out, though, I did lose something. Before Rodriguez, if I saw you hurt, I’d go ahead and try to finish the fight. But after that fight I was more hesitant to go after the guy if I saw him hurt.
“My coach saw it before I did. He’d be telling me I wasn’t quite the same, but I’d be stubborn and tell him he was wrong. After a couple of years, I realised I did lose a little steam.”
Kennedy fought eight more times as a pro, winning five of them, before a detached retina, picked up in a 2013 win, curtailed his climb up the rankings. Now 31, he has been hankering for a comeback ever since. Forty-four-year-old Chávez, meanwhile, called it a day in 2010, after a loss to Jorge Linares, and now works as a case manager at a Dallas restaurant, employing troubled kids from detention facilities. When asked if he misses boxing, he couldn’t be quicker to shake his head and say “no”.
As for Al Seeger, his career ended in 2009, following a ninth-round stoppage loss to Victor Fonseca, a vicious set-to from which Seeger took home a fractured skull, broken sinus cavity, broken frontal bone and subdural haematoma behind his ear. Occupational hazards, some might say, they were, Seeger believes, caused not by Fonseca’s hands but his head.
“When Flores died, my brother said it might be a sign,” said the American, who, at 29, was forced to quit fighting for the good of his health. “But I didn’t think like that. I couldn’t afford to. The Fonseca fight was the wake-up call, though. Somebody didn’t want me in the sport anymore.”
Seeger, 37, is currently employed by Savannah Recycling and shares his working days with another former boxer who, in October 2010, also happened to find himself stood too close to the fire.
“I know another guy here at the yard who might want to speak to you,” Seeger said.
“Who?” I asked.
The name sank without a trace.
“He’s been out of the sport a while, but once fought Tim Austin for the world title.”
I knew the ‘Cincinnati Kid’ at least.
“Steve’s one of those guys who was better than people thought but never quite fulfilled his potential,” Seeger explained. “But he works here with me now and went through the same thing I did. Personally, I don’t think he has ever really gotten over it. Maybe it would be good if you two could talk. I know he’d like it.”
So we did.
*** featured image: www.jesusmatadorchavez.com ***