Bending the rules puts fighters' lives at risk

November 25, 2008 7:28:49 PM PST
Boxing is the trendy new workout; gyms are popping up around the Bay Area. There are obvious risks with this sport, and if trainers ignore the safety rules, lives are on the line.

It is very simple. The rules for amateur boxing state before anyone puts on the gloves and throws a punch at a person -- or takes a punch -- they have to be certified. It is an important process with several steps to ensure safety. However, too often, the rules are being ignored. One San Francisco family knows how costly mistakes can be.

Boxing is a very popular workout at Bay Area gyms, and not just for would-be champions, but for soccer moms and young professionals. In the rush to cash in, some gyms are not following the safety rules set up by the sport's governing body ? USA Boxing.

Jerry Maxwell is the Northern California president.

Noyes: "Before I throw a punch at someone, and before I take a punch, is there a step that has to happen?"

Maxwell: "Oh, absolutely."

Noyes: "What is the step?"

Maxwell: "Mainly is you have to be licensed. You have to have a book."

A person gets this license only after an experienced trainer concludes the fighter is ready for battle. It shows the fighter is insured to compete and that a doctor has approved the person as being healthy enough to take a punch. Amateur fighters as young as eight have to go through the process. And if they are older, in their thirties or forties, the rules are even more stringent. They have to undergo an extra battery of tests.

"It's kind of like what they call a master's division, where you have to get a neurological and everything, but there's very few people that do that," said Maxwell.

All that did not happen with Keith Benjamin.

"Almost every conversation with Keith started with some kind of a conversation that related to his family," said Steve Larsen, friend of Benjamin.

Benjamin was married with two young children, a successful venture capitalist when he took up boxing at the age of 46. He tried to get Larsen, his friend and business partner, to join him.

"He said, 'Well, you should come to the gym with me. Why don't you get back into it?' I said, 'No, I'm, I'm not interested. It's a brutal sport and it is very demanding physically,'" said Larsen.

Benjamin completed a six-week boot camp at San Francisco's Third Street Gym. The graduation ceremony -- a three round bout in September of 2005.

From the beginning, it was clear Benjamin was overmatched. He took several solid shots to the head. After he got knocked down, the coach let the fight continue. More punishment... until they finally stop the fight. His trainer took Benjamin to the hospital where doctors confirmed he had suffered a concussion.

After, Benjamin wrote in his blog, "I would have liked to win the fight. I'd need more experience in the ring to get fully past the fear and build confidence in my fighting skills. However, I don't think it's worth the risk of more concussions at my age."

Flash forward almost three years to this past July. Benjamin is back at Third Street Gym working out when he goes down, and never gets back up.

"This is just so wrong. He is probably one of the most alive people that I'd ever met and for someone at what I would call at the very prime of his life with a family that's right in the middle of, you know, being developed. It was just wrong," said Larsen.

It has been difficult for friends and family to find out exactly what happened. Was there an accident? Was Benjamin fighting? Did he slip and fall?

The chief official for local boxing spoke with the gym owner.

Maxwell: "He said he passed when he was in training, what he told me."

Noyes: "So, was he sparring? Did he get hit? What happened?"

Maxwell: "I don't know. I don't know."

No one has done a serious investigation -- not USA Boxing or the California State Athletic Commission. Staff there only asked some informal questions.

Noyes: "What was the cause of death?"

Guevara: "I believe from what I known or heard about it, it was something brain aneurism."

The owner of the Third Street Gym, Simon Redmond, refused to be interviewed. He is now in Ireland on vacation. But he confirmed by phone that Benjamin was sparring when he went down.

Benjamin's autopsy report obtained by the I-Team confirms Benjamin suffered "blunt force trauma." He died from a punch to the head.

"It's the only sport that we currently practice where, where the primary goal of this sport is to cause a head injury," said Dr. Geoffrey Manley, chief of neurotrauma at San Francisco General.

Dr. Manley operated on Benjamin that day. He cannot talk about the case because of privacy laws, but he says that 90 percent of people who box sustain some type of concussion.

"When I punch and your head goes back, your brain basically moves back and forth because it's floating in this spinal fluid and it essentially smacks the inside of the skull surface," explained Dr. Manley.

This same scene is playing out around the Bay Area. People graduate from these boxing boot camps and get thrown into the ring without the proper safety precautions -- no doctor standing by, no ambulance, no skilled referee to stop the action and prevent injuries.

Noyes: "What sort of enforcement do you do? Is someone really watching?"

Maxwell: "No, basically it's kind of on the honor system... there's not enough resource or time for anybody in the association to go around and police one another, not with an area as big as we have."

Ramona Gatto is a world champion kickboxer who now coaches youth boxing on the Peninsula. She has been pushing for more regulation in the Bay Area boxing scene.

"Two guys get in the ring and hit each other, beat each other up. What happened to Keith Benjamin can happen to anybody, and that is, is that you take too much punishment to the head, you can die," said Gatto.

Some might argue that Benjamin should have known better than to pick up boxing at his age, but the rules are meant to protect people. These students walk into a gym trusting that the coaches know what they are doing and are looking out for their safety. The attorney for Third Street Gym sent a statement that says in part, "...the owners take the safety and well being of their clientele very seriously, and make every possible effort at all times to comply with (the) rules."

Our reports have been getting a lot of reaction, and you can weigh in on a our new I-Team blog or in the comments section of this page.

Read our previous report: Club fight nights feature under-age boxers


Load Comments