Remembering Bradley Stone & The Harsh Realities Of Boxing
By Garry White
Why Bradley Stone? Why not Luther McCarty, Frankie Campbell, Benny Paret, Davey Moore, Johnny Owen, Steve Watt, or a multitude of others?
Their names are many and could run into the hundreds or the thousands, approximating the mien of your local war memorial; some famous for their lives or at a minimum their final actions; others all but forgotten, their photographs and identities elusive beyond the vague exactness of their names.
A virtual Menin Gate to honour the fight game. Names hammered with sharp chisels into unforgiving stone. Sincere promises to remember forevermore or more realistically to the furthest point of human memory.
Everything fades from view in time: unremembered or unimaginable. Only the remarkable survive into a world of revision. And boxing throws around its battle hymns and metaphors. Inside and out of the ring we refer to wars, battles, bloodbaths, warriors.
When I had first written these words back in 2018, the referee had just stepped in front of Brandon Rios to save him from further punishment at the unforgiving hands of Danny Garcia. After the fight, Rios proclaimed his disappointment and protested that he was “ready to die in the ring.” Perhaps he meant it; or maybe it was just another hard-edged fight game metaphor.
His slurred speech already provided an indicator of the future that awaits him. Yet, he was clear that he wanted to fight on and did so on two more occasions- where we again gloried in “Bam Bam” as the once iron chinned warriors skills deserted him, the fire slowly faded, and his head became ever more hittable.
Rios’ health proving a perpetual distant second to the entertainment and vicarious viewing pleasure of watching the gradual disintegration of a man that knows only how to fight, regardless of personal cost.
When Benny Paret was beaten into a coma in the corner of a Madison Square garden ring in March 1962 television was still in its relative infancy The network ratings went through the roof as the great US fight commentator Don Dunphy recalled incredulously that “they are tuning in to see a man get beaten to death.”
That, essentially, is the game driven down to its starkest most naked form. It’s all about the danger, the pain, and the unreconstructed courage. We can decorate it with the technical and the sweet science plaudits but for the majority of viewers, this is what it boils down to. If you remove the danger, both immediate and protracted, then you extricate a key elemental piece from the entertainment. It becomes like Formula One without the crashes.
And already I have done what everyone does to Bradley Stone. I have forgotten the individual and merely used him instead to illustrate a point. Utilising him as a metaphor for life and death in the ring, and the harsh realities of the boxing business. No longer an individual but instead a moulded template to illustrate an age-old story. His death, like so many of those war memorial names, became the most enduring and memorable thing about him. Its dark background all but enveloping the lit foreground of the life that once was.
A British super-bantamweight title fight on a late Spring evening in 1994, was not the Battle of the Somme or the Normandy Landings. Although on an individual basis and with the uninterrupted view of hindsight the personal loss is just the same. The arithmetic always eventually finds its way back to ‘one’.
You can scour the internet and find little to support the fact that Stone had ever existed. No browser bursting Wikipedia profiles and even little in the way of old fight reports. Only pages that focus on his death in the wider context of boxing’s continued validity, or as a reference point against renewed tragedy. And that is probably the cruellest cut of all, to take the warriors identity and to recast him as a docile victim.
A 90s ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ for those on the sidelines to whet their appetite on and use as a weapon to attack the thing that was most central to his identity.
The pictures of his statue outside the famous Peacock Gym in Canning Gym; poised, small, and ready to take on all-comers, forever if necessary; outnumber those of the living fighter. The boxer is an accelerated allegory of the precariousness of life; played out in brutal three-minute bursts.
But, why Stone and not the others? Luther McCarty was the ‘Great White Hope’ when that absurdity was still relevant. Cuba’s Paret was a former world champion who died in a rematch for his title, and Owen a British, European, and Commonwealth titlist fell challenging for world honours. Yet it is Bradley Stone that stands at the forefront of my mind.
His last fight was just before my 17th birthday and my youthful adoration for the sport at its uninterrupted zenith. The time and place lock it there in a way that it never can for the others; not even Scotland’s poor Steve Watt, whose name I remember splattered solemnly across the evening news. That Stone’s career and achievements serve as mere footnotes to the tragedy further exacerbate the sadness.
The following year Nigel Benn knocked Gerald McClellan into unconsciousness and permanent disability live on prime-time television, in what was one of the great street brawls.
I wrote a piece titled: ‘In light of the Gerald McClellan tragedy, should boxing be banned?’ as part of an interview for a university journalism course. I didn’t get in and it remained the last thing I wrote on boxing or any other sport for more than 20 years. I suppose the circle always completes itself in the end.
For every Owen, Campbell, or Stone, there is a Lupe Pintor, Max Baer or Richie Wenton. The man in the opposite corner that lives under the memories and the curse. Shackled forever to their vanquished foes in an immovable history that forever seeps into the present. Pintor travelling from Mexico to Wales to unveil the statue of ‘The Merthyr Matchstick’ in his hometown, or Baer permanently restricted in his ability to go all-out lest the Campbell tragedy be repeated, a truth lost in his despicable portrayal in the Hollywood Blockbuster ‘Cinderella Man.’
For Richie Wenton it was a struggle to come back. He pulled out mid-way through the fifth round of his next fight as the weight of the past became too much to withstand, but was in time mercifully able to continue and progress on to a world title shot.
For Stone, it ended two days after the 10th round stoppage to Wenton. His final record captured at 17-2-1. Aged 23 he had been a professional for four years and had been unbeaten in his first 17 outings. His shot at the British super-bantamweight title coming on the back of a fifth-round stoppage defeat the previous month.
The statistical bible BoxRec records it all in systematic good order. He stood 5”6 and was born in Mile End, a stone’s throw from his final fight venue at York Hall. They don’t provide a picture and instead leave us with only our memories of a cropped haired young man with dreams to pursue, once flesh and bone but now cast in bronze forever back home outside the Peacock Gym in Canning Town.
More than three years have gone by since I wrote most of the above. Unbelievably it is now 27 years since Stone fought his last fight. Back then I was a boy and he was a man six years older. Now the roles have reversed, and he is trapped there perpetually in my youth, an eternal lost boy. He would have now been 50 and seeing the world from my mid-40s perspective I can only now fully appreciate just how many of life’s milestones he lost in that avalanche of punches.
Stone’s fate was cruel and unfair, but such is the manner of life and death, Damon Runyon summing it up best with his observation that “all life is six-to-five against” – the ten count for all of us is just a matter of where and when.
Sadly, since this original piece was penned another half dozen names have joined Stone’s on boxing’s unwanted rollcall. Most recently, just a couple of months ago, Jeanette Zacarias Zapata became the latest. To describe her as a victim would be to dishonour her, but it somehow feels appropriate when recalling that she was only 18 years old. In her penultimate fight, she had been heavily knocked out by a vastly more experienced opponent.
It led to her father having serious concerns over her continuing to box. Concerns that he had put to his daughter prior to him witnessing her convulsing in the ring and ultimately falling into unconsciousness in the moments immediately following her stoppage loss to Marie Pier Houle in Montreal. However, in an echo of Brandon Rios she had earlier rebutted his reservations; stating defiantly: “I chose this career and if I die this way, boxing in this bout, then I’ll die,” she said prophetically.
Her defiance was rewarded with the unworthy prize of a teenage death in a Canadian hospital five days later. With two wins and three losses on her record, it is unlikely that the perceived glitz and glamour of modestly remunerated world titles would ever have found their way to Zapata. Boxing only offered her the hard slog of empty undercards, but she still chose it. To live and die by its rules, on its scant terms.
Photo Credit: Getty Images