I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know when I say boxing is a dangerous sport. For all the beauty, grace, math, and science loaded into the game when performed at its highest level, at the end of the day, it’s about two combatants trying to take each other’s head off.
That’s the deal they make as fighters and that’s the deal we make as viewers, whether we are conscious of it or not. But I’d like to believe there is a moment in nearly every fighter’s career that they realize they need to stop, or the remainder of their life will be greatly diminished, and likely shortened.
We’ve seen it before so often: boxers who, not all that many years after leaving the ring, become permanently punch-drunk, unintelligible, and even truly impaired. Even the most spectacularly talented, like Meldrick Taylor and Muhammad Ali, are not immune.
Walking away is the hardest part for a fighter. While some boxers excel well into their thirties, and a rare few into their forties, most simply stick around too long. And it’s not hard to understand why. For many it’s all they know—it’s their identity, it gives them a charge that nothing else in life can, and of course, there’s likely nothing else they will ever do to make them the kind of money they have earned in the ring.
When it becomes clear that a fighter should stop and pursue some other profession, they are often the last to recognize the moment. No one wants to believe the thing that makes them who they are must be left behind.
That means someone must tell them. You’d like to think one of the boxing commissions would do it, but as we’ve seen even recently (consider the sad sight of the nearly sixty-year-old Evander Holyfield being let back into the ring, just to be pummeled), there will always be some organization that will look past the boxer who shuffles when he walks, slurs when he talks, and is clearly slow on the uptake.
Too often, trainers and managers are too invested in the boxer as a meal ticket, or they simply don’t have the heart to tell the fighter something other than what they want to hear. The same often holds true for families. Sometimes the people closest to you can’t bring themselves to ask you to stop. When that is the case, I believe it is up to the boxing press corps to say, “this fighter should not go into the ring again.”
I have heard ringside members of the fight game do so, but all too rarely. Or, they will tepidly suggest that the fighter should consider retirement because he or she has taken a loss that makes it clear they have lost a crucial level of relevance after a significant, decisive defeat.
Boxing had such a moment last night. The courageous David Lemieux was completely outclassed by David Benavidez and dispatched in under three rounds when his corner mercifully threw in the towel. They did so despite the fact that Lemieux was attempting with all his might to keep coming forward, to keep throwing punches, but all that happened when he did was the acceptance of a succession of brutal “can’t miss” blows from the hands of Benavidez. The corner was right. They were looking out for their man, and they made the right decision.
The team at ringside (including the great Al Bernstein) did suggest that Lemieux should consider retirement, but mostly because his days as a championship contender are clearly over. One member of the team went as far as to reference Lemieux’s children, going right up to the line of saying he should quit for them while he still has his faculties.
But during the post-fight interview the toll of this bout, combined with all those that came before, was far too obvious. Lemieux was slurring his words, making it hard to understand him. Sure, his bell had been rung a lot that night, and his French-Canadian accent was perhaps in play to a degree here. But if we are being honest, it felt like more than that. It felt like we were witnessing a man on the precipice of a serious decline—one that probably can’t be stopped, but perhaps can at least be mitigated.
David Lemieux has always been an offense-first fighter, and by and large, thanks to his devastating power, his come forward and throw hard style has served him well over his fifteen-year professional career. His record stands at an excellent 43-5, with 36 of those wins coming by KO. He was briefly a world champion at middleweight, and he fought some of the best in the business. He was also a hell of a lot of fun to watch. He was willing to take two to deliver one, because he knew that his one could be better than his opponent’s two. Often, he was right.
Lemieux fought hard every time he got in the ring, and with a true warrior spirit. Even in a fight as one-sided as his bout with Benavidez, those facts were still in evidence. He has been a fine fighter for a long time, at or near the top of the sport. But that’s over now. There will be no more championships for David Lemieux—not in the super middleweight division within which the fight took place last night, or any other division.
After leaving the ring, at the post-fight press conference, Lemieux declared that he had made no decision on his professional boxing future. It may be cold and hard to say, but I don’t believe he should have one.
It is my hope that his corner, who were wise enough to end the fight before Lemieux took on more damage, will tell him this. Maybe his family will do the same. Perhaps the well-worn 33-year-old Lemieux simply needs to sit with the results of last night’s bout and come to the conclusion that should be apparent to anyone who watched the fight.
That David Lemieux should stop.