Madrimov vs. Walker: Inviting Tragedy

By Caryn A. Tate on August 18, 2020

Fighters are hard-pressed to admit that they’re hurt. (photo: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)

On Saturday, junior middleweight Eric Walker (20-3, 9 KOs) fought Israil Madrimov (6-0, 5 KOs) in a 12-round bout broadcast on DAZN. The event, headlined by Cecilia Braekhus vs. Jessica McCaskill, took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 

It was a competitive bout, with Walker and Madrimov each winning rounds. While there were some notable fouls—like Madrimov shoving Walker several times in frustration during the rounds he was losing—by anyone’s reasonable estimation, it was likely a close fight on the scorecards.

 

In the 9th round, Walker was backing up when he was caught clean upstairs by a terrific overhand left by Madrimov. Immediately afterward, though, Madrimov charged into Walker and the latter went down hard, smacking the back of his head on the bottom rope (near the corner, where the ropes are their tightest) as he fell partway through the ropes and again as his head made impact with the ring apron. Referee Gary Ritter ruled it no knockdown, saying Walker had gone down from the shove by Madrimov.

 

Walker was very hurt, rolling over onto his hands and knees in an attempt to rise. He fell back down onto his face. Ritter called “time” to the timekeeper, saying he was giving Walker some time to recover. Before Walker rose to his feet, the referee could be heard saying to the ringside doctor, “He (Walker) says he’s dizzy.”

 

Ritter asked Walker if he wanted to continue, and unsurprisingly the fighter answered in the affirmative. Referee Ritter gave Walker five minutes to recover, during which the injured fighter was examined by the ringside doctor at least once.

 

After a few minutes, Walker said he was ready to continue and the fight resumed. For the following two and a half rounds, Walker did the best he could under the circumstances and survived. It’s not that he didn’t try—quite the contrary. But after the injury he’d sustained, he was no longer competitive. He was a different fighter. In the 12th and final round, he took quite a beating and was knocked down. Madrimov had a point deducted for low blows. In the end, Madrimov won a unanimous decision—complete with much too one-sided scorecards (116-110 twice, and 116-111).

 

According to BoxRec.com, Gary Ritter has refereed 558 fights. He’s an experienced boxing official.

 

The physician assigned to the fight was Dr. Corey Schoenewe. Schoenewe is a relatively experienced as a ringside physician, being assigned to 56 bouts since 2008. He’s a family health practitioner based in Tulsa.

 

Regardless of the type of doctor someone is, one would expect that all licensed medical doctors and any ring official know that dizziness is one of the most common and obvious symptoms of a concussion. Certainly when combined with the fact that the patient—in this case, boxer Eric Walker—has just been fighting in a professional boxing match and sustained at least two severe blows to his head.

 

The DAZN commentators, and many others afterward, ran with the narrative that referee Gary Ritter had made the wrong call and robbed Madrimov of a knockout. DAZN even posted a video   on their YouTube channel of the sequence with the title “Referee Gets it WRONG! Ref Rules Out Epic KO.” Of course, for anyone versed in the rules of the ring, it should be clear that his ruling of the incident as a “no knockdown” due to the shove is a valid choice. It could be ruled either way depending on one’s perspective. Moreover, it was difficult to determine in the moment whether Walker was kept down on the canvas from the punch or from the shove (a foul) which caused him to smack the back of his head on the bottom rope. It was a tough call for any referee to make in the moment, particularly since he didn’t have the benefit of instant replay and he had to make the decision in a split second based on what he thought had occurred.

 

The important thing here is that DAZN, its commentators, and many others in the sport who have talked about the fight have focused only on that ruling and whether it was a knockdown, no knockdown, or even a knockout. There has been very little discussion about the most important problem Saturday night: that an experienced referee and a medical doctor had been told by an injured fighter that he was dizzy, and they did nothing about it. They gave him a few minutes’ rest and then allowed a concussed fighter to continue fighting, presumably simply because the boxer said he wanted to.

 

Fighters are hard-pressed to ever admit that they’re hurt. It’s part of the job to have a poker face, to try to hide injuries or pain. That continues even after the fight itself has finished. So for Walker to admit to the referee that he was dizzy shows that he was most likely not thinking clearly and seriously impaired.

 

Refereeing is a difficult job, particularly when something unusual happens like this. There’s a lot of pressure put on the official from all sides, and he is trying to do the right thing in a tough situation.

 

That being said, the decision about whether a concussed fighter should be allowed to continue is not a difficult one. It’s not the brutal early days of boxing any longer. We all know a lot more about brain health and the short- and long-term effects of taking blows to the head than ever before. There’s a lot about brain health that is still a mystery, but the symptoms of a concussion are well known even by those who aren’t in the medical profession. And all boxing observers, particularly ring officials, should know that if a fighter is concussed, he or she should not be allowed to keep fighting and taking blows to the head. If the referee or doctor felt unsure about letting Walker continue, the referee could have implemented the lateral movement exam that’s now in use by many top commissions. This exam helps the ref determine whether the boxer is neurologically impaired or is capable of intelligently defending himself.

 

It’s also important to note that the whole reason we have ringside physicians is to give a medical perspective to the referee about a fighter’s condition and whether he is medically fit to continue fighting. In this sort of situation, the doctor is there to help the referee make the right call. To be a safeguard. The fighter’s corner is also there to help make a tough decision if need be, and it’s unknown whether Walker’s corner was even advised of his condition.

 

It’s doubtful that referee Gary Ritter or Dr. Schoenewe are unaware of what dizziness means as a result of taking punches. So what this must mean is that they don’t understand either: A) the long-term effects of a concussed individual to continue taking blows to the head; or B) that a fighter’s willingness to continue boxing should not be the sole determining factor in the referee’s decision of whether to stop a fight.

 

Fighters are almost never going to admit that they can’t continue fighting. It goes against everything they’ve been trained to do. That’s why boxers have cornermen, and why a professionally sanctioned fight has a referee and a doctor to help pull a fighter out of a bad situation. No boxer should have to take unnecessary damage before a fight is stopped. If a bout is no longer competitive, it should be halted. It’s as simple as that.

 

It’s 2020. A fighter shouldn’t have to be clearly concussed and injured and continue to be beaten up inside the ring with no one making the tough but necessary call to pull him out. Particularly when the fight doesn’t have major stakes like world titles. The sort of situation like the one that happened to Walker might negatively impact a boxer’s career going forward. What if he’s no longer the same fighter? What if he’s no longer the same person?

 

In recent history, we know well the names of Prichard Colon, Maxim Dadashev, Patrick Day, and Magomed Abdusalamov. Dadashev and Day lost their lives from injuries sustained in the ring, and Colon and Abdusalamov will never be the same men they were before they stepped into the ring for the last time. Even when proper precautions are taken, sometimes there can still be a negative outcome. But what about when there are clear warning signs that go unheeded, such as in Walker’s case? It’s inviting a tragic outcome.

 

The most important thing is a fighter’s health. We have to hope that a boxer in this sort of situation will not have any long-term effects to his health so he can go on to live a long happy life with his family.

 

Boxing can and should do better. Before we have to give an avoidable memorial ten-count.