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Erik Skoglund: What Is He Willing To Do? Part One

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Erik Skoglund: What Is He Willing To Do? Part One
Photo Credit: Bildbyrån

This is the first part in a two-part story.

Nyköping, Sweden: Four years on, Erik Skoglund still dreams. And it is this dream. The one dream. The one he has had since the age of twelve: being a boxing champion. That is why he does what he does, and why he still does it. And that is why he does not listen to the voices outside of his head. Because he knows that he has to follow the dream, even if it has already nearly killed him.

He comes to the same gym nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. He parks at the side of the building, takes his stuff out of the car—gloves, pads, a small bag with a change of clothes. It is December and frighteningly cold in this small town an hour south of Stockholm, where yesterday the temperature was -14. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s never usually like this around now. Yesterday was a one-off.”

If it is early, then he lets himself in through a side door, the door by which those who train seriously enter, and then he takes off his outdoor shoes and threads his way through two huge rooms of weights and racks, and turns into the one room that was set up seriously for him years ago.

There is a ring in there, and a cage for the MMA fighters, and there is a large, padded section of the floor if you want to grapple. That is not for him, though, so his girlfriend goes there with their little dog called Watson, while he gets ready to train.

He changes some of his clothes then, taking off the tracksuit trousers that has the name of his old promoters stitched on to them. He wears shorts underneath and then he takes off the sweatshirt, also with the promoter’s name. The last thing he does is reach into his bag and take out the grey, leather boots that have moved miles across the canvas, and pulls them on.

There is stretching first and he moves stiffly as he warms up his muscles before he gets in the ring. He then takes out a piece of equipment, a headband with what looks like a ping pong ball attached by elastic that he bats and punches away from him, working his arms, building the reflexes again.

“It’s for motoric skills,” he says. “The most I’ve ever done has been 1,200 without stopping.”

He spends a lot of time working on these motoric skills, given that it took so long to rebuild them. It is repetition, done quickly and frenetically, and there is a bigger, slower rhythm, too. That is his phone, which he places by the ring, and the app on it that measures three minutes on, a minute off. It is the rhythm of a boxing match, of boxing itself.

After a few rounds, he gets out of the ring and picks up two small balls, then begins throwing them in a routine against the concrete wall, one in each hand. He throws from his left hand, catches in his left hand. Throws from his right, catches in his right. Left to left. Right to right.

He is fast, too.

Left to left. Right to Right. One hand. Both at the same time. He then throws with his left and catches with his right. Does it with one hand. Again and again. Then the other—throws with his right and catches it with his left. Then both, again, at the same time, but they are crossing over now.

It is mesmerising.

He does not count time when he is throwing the balls. It is just a routine that he does, and he knows when it should end. But when he finishes, he goes back to this bag and takes out wraps and binds up his hands. The wraps are not made of gauze but fabric because there is no one here who can do that for him. He straps up his hands himself, beginning with the tying of the wrap around the wrist three times, then up and around the thumb, back around the wrist, up and down between his fingers and the back of his hand, before sticking it all into place with the Velcro strap.

Then he gets into the ring and there is a history there that he chooses not to dwell on. He spars on some days and that is its own story, but today he is just moving around, continuing to get warm.

He is thicker than he was, bigger in the arms and chest. Not fat, more like a tree gaining a few extra layers of bark. But the armour seems heavy, almost too big for him, and he is noticeably slower when he moves around the ring, the extra weight clipping the ability he used to have to fly.

The face is largely the same, though. A little wider, sure, but it has been four years and although he trains all the time, he does not train like he used to. “Yeah,” he says. “Not like before.”

It has been a few weeks since he last weighed himself, but he thinks he is around ninety kilograms, which is about eleven more than he used to weigh in at and fourteen more than in his last fight. “I can take off another ten,” he says. “I’d need a couple of months. There’s fat within the muscles, but I can do it in that time.”

That is the dream he has now: to fight again. Despite what happened and despite the last four years, Erik Skoglund wants to fight again. Because in Erik Skoglund’s world, there cannot be a Plan B until Plan A has been utterly exhausted. He wants to fight again, even if the world tells him that it will not happen.

Most of what he does in the gym each day is done in the ring where he nearly died. It is a big ring, much larger than you would normally find in a gym and it is not in good shape. The ropes sag and the floor is uneven. It is hard, too, absent of the padding you would expect. “We brought it over from Germany,” he admits, tapping the floor with his foot, “and there are some bits we have to fix.”

It was here four years ago that things went wrong. It was December 2017 and Erik was training for a fight in London. He had lost a few months before in Liverpool after going down to 168lbs for a tournament to anoint the best super-middleweight in the world. That had been a close one and he had been knocked down, the first time ever, in the eleventh. He won many fans in the UK that night. That was the magical thing about it. Even if the hometown fans had not liked him at the start, they did at the end. Respected him, too. A good fight does that for people.

He was going back to the UK to fight Rocky Fielding. It was a good match for him. A good one for Fielding, as well. Competitive for both.

That is probably why he was training the way he was. Sparring partners from all over. Hard sparring. Getting used to pain. Getting to know what it was like to have the stakes raised, millisecond by millisecond. Where one wrong move or one wrong footstep could mean a knockdown or a knockout. Or something not so immediate and dramatic—a point dropped from a lost round that becomes the decider between winning and losing, or the point extracted from a hard round that pulls you out of the no mans’ land of a draw.

THE POINT AT WHICH EVERYTHING CHANGED

He does not remember it now. How his brain bled and leaked, the blood pouring out into the space beneath the hardness of his skill. How the pressure squeezed and pressured his brain. How something, hit too hard or too often, finally gave way.

That is because the human body has ways to redraw traumatic memories and, if they are too bad, to erase them entirely. That is the way it is, so everything he knows about what happened he has learned from those were there that day.

The plan had been to do six rounds, three minutes each. He had gone from two sparring sessions a week to three, and changed his style. He no longer wanted to stick and move, everything in his arsenal predicated on the jab. He figured that was not how he was going to win on the road. “I was going to start taking one to give one,” he says.

His brother was there, helping him get ready. His girlfriend, too.

Things started going wrong around the third round. Something unclear, the springing of a gear inside him that he had never been aware of. He ignored it, carried on. It was just a bit of dizziness.

At the end, he went over to the sagging ropes, to the corner where his brother was standing.

“Good session. Now let’s get some rest.”

Skoglund blinked, trying to clear the fog in his head. “I don’t feel good,” he said.

“That’s okay. We’ll go again on Monday.”

“No, this is different. I feel bad.”

Marcus pulled the gloves away from Erik’s hands. There was a shudder and Skoglund began to tilt, his stomach lurching. His girlfriend pulled out her phone and began to dial an ambulance as he fell, shaking and screaming, to the ground.

It took thirty minutes for help to come. Brother sat with brother, one convinced the other was dead.

They took him to hospital and, from there, to Stockholm. He needed surgery right away; waiting two hours would kill him. There was another surgery a few days later. A second bleed. An induced coma. The doctors tried to wake him a few days later. He stayed beneath the noise of the world. His parents flew back from Spain to sit by his bedside. The doctors left him to let him wake up when he was ready.

Here is the thing about the human brain. It is both incredibly vulnerable, yet susceptible to trauma. The skull is like a crash helmet, but if the brain bangs up against its sides, you can get a bleed. And when that happens, the results can be horrific. In Erik’s case, blood leaked into the space between the brain and the skull. And when that happens, the softest thing (the brain) in that enclosed area (the skull) is what gets squeezed under pressure.

It is the white coat he remembers first from the doctor that came into the room to check him over. His confused brain, signals firing everywhere, began to put everything in the context of boxing.

“Every time I’m in hospital,” he says, “it’s always been after a fight for the medical check or something like that. So I was looking at the guy, thinking that he’s there to check out my knuckles, and my eyes, and my throat, then he’ll sign a piece of paper saying that I’m fit to fight.”

The cells and synapses were firing away. He laughs now about it. “This competent guy,” he says, “with his white coat is asking me to put my arms out in front of me. I’m thinking, What is this? What does he want me to do? So I decide to play his game. So I’m trying and then it’s as if I can see myself from above. There’s this poor bastard who’s can’t move his left hand higher than his shoulder and his right’s completely lost. The whole right side. And I’m thinking, Wow, this guy has some problems.”

The mental fog took time to lift. He says he would look around. “What’s going on?” he would ask those in the room. They would tell him and he would nod, then thirty seconds later ask the same question again, his brain either still protecting him from the trauma or rebuilding its pathways.

He moved eventually from a bed to a wheelchair. Then rehab. Having to rebuild everything he had lost. Eighty-seven kilograms, down to seventy-two in a couple of weeks. He said to his father that he could now fight at a lower weight. His father lowered his head.

From the bed to the wheelchair, then back to walking. One side of his body lagging behind the other. Parts of his brain now dead. He did rehab, but cannot remember all of it. Memories slowly reemerged. “It came back step by step,” he says.

Not all of him came back, nor will it. He knows that he is different now. “I have two careers. There’s the one that ended with my injury, and then I had to start a new chapter in my life. That’s my life in general. I had one that ended in 2017. Now, I kind of have a new one.”

The depression haunted him, too. “There have been times when I’ve been really down because of this,” he says. “And there have been times when I’ve not been down or depressed, but I haven’t been happy since the injury.”

THE ROAD BACK

The fact that Erik Skoglund did not die that day is evidence to him that his boxing career is not over. So this is why he gets in his car each morning and drives over to the gym to train. He wants to be a fighter again, even if the world will tell him that he cannot.

He sits in a hotel restaurant in Nyköping and talks about his plans. “I’m going to get back in shape,” he says. “Fighting was the main part of my life for many years, and everything else came in second. And it still does, even after four years without a fight.”

He wants to get back down to 175lbs. That is the first step on the road back. “When I am 100 per cent sure that I’m back in shape, I’ll try to find a place somewhere where I can get my license. And I know that can be hard with my history, with the injury.”

It will be different this time and he says that he will box smarter because he knows the risks of what can happen. “I’m going to play my cards differently. More careful with protection and with the sparring. I’m not going to do tough sparring as often. You need to spar, and you need to spar tough as well, but you can focus on avoiding the punches. And you don’t have to do it four times a week; twice is enough. You just have to mix it up with lots of padwork and easier sparring.”

He began sparring again in May 2021. He asked his girlfriend to hit him and she refused. A professional fighter that he helps to train obliged him. Erik said it was the best birthday present he could have gotten.

Ask him about his body and he will be honest and tell you that it does not work like it used to. There is some drag on one side, and he has to think and concentrate on maintaining the balance between the two. But that is okay, he says, because he knows that you can achieve anything you want if you work hard enough and have belief in yourself.

Other people may not have the belief, though, and he knows that this will be the next fight. Cautious licensing bodies, promoters, TV people. You can never say with certainty that something is impossible, but his wish is so unlikely that you turn those two words—‘unlikely’ and ‘impossible’—into colours and there is little difference in the shading.

There are those around him who do not want him to fight, such as his family. Skoglund says that they do not approve of his plans, that they think he should leave it all in the box he’s in. “It’s a sensitive subject,” he says, and that part of the story ends there. They are all living in Spain now, his parents having moved out there and his brother following with his family soon after. They all still get on and love each other, because that is what families are supposed to do. But they have made their thoughts clear.

He does not know where he will apply to box. Sweden is most probably out because the powers that be are too squeamish about boxing. They banned it for thirty-six years under it snuck back in through a loophole and, even afterwards, they had to keep pushing. Erik was the first Swedish boxer under the new regime to fight twelve rounds in the country.

“I’ve told myself that it will be a long road back to the ring,” he says, “so I’ve decided to focus on getting back in shape. Once I’m there, I’ll have to fight this other battle. It’s impossible to fight two battles at the same time. But I know that rules can be changed.”

He goes on: “I think it’s doable. The doctor said I’m not at increased risk so why shouldn’t I fight again? I know the risks better than someone who hasn’t had this type of injury. It really makes no sense to not allow it.”

And if the risk was higher? “I’d still do it,” he says. “Even if it was fifty per cent higher.”

You see, the one thing that Erik Skoglund wants to do is fight. It is not about the money, or bragging rights, or some other bullshit, but about not being able to complete something. You do not work so hard or hunger for something for so long just so that you can quit on it one day. That is not what champions do. And Erik Skoglund has always known that that is what he is going to be.

There is reason to be careful with the tenses here. You can write, “He had a career…” but that implies that it is finished so you write, “He has had…”

It depends on where you stand, which is an opinion.

So here are some facts: Twenty-seven fights, with all but one of them a win. Twelve knockouts. European champion at light-heavyweight, with three defences. A few minor titles at the world level. Fought a few past and future world champions along the way.

Opinion: that is a fine career if you stop there.

But Erik Skoglund does not want to stop there. “If it ends like this, it’s ending the wrong way,” he explains. “And it will be unfair because when I’m finished, I’ll know it, and it will be my decision. If I try again and it doesn’t feel like it should, then I may not want to do it any more. Then I’d be happy with my career and everything to date. But if I’m not allowed to try, I’d be sad because I’d feel that someone is taking it away from me. It’d be their decision and not mine.”

The trouble is that it will not be his decision. That is the thing when you get a brain injury and you fight for a living. The people in charge get squeamish.

There is a Swedish boxer called Maria Lindberg and in 1999, she suffered bleeding in the brain following an amateur bout. The result of that was that she not only never got a license to fight in Sweden, but that the Swedish Professional Boxing Commission purposely worked to try and stem any for her around the world, writing in their official capacity to the relevant authorities in Germany and the US. Despite their attempts, Lindberg won a world title and fights, still, at forty-four, although she loses more now than she wins.

Björn Rosengren is the president of the commission in Sweden. He wrote the letters that trailed Lindberg around the world. Face to face with her, he said, “To my mind, this is a very serious situation. I feel it is irresponsible of you to box.”

Still in charge today, Rosengren says, “If you have bleeding in your brain, you are not allowed to box at all in Sweden.”

The commission, he says, follows the rules set down by the International Boxing Association that do not permit amateurs to box after bleeding in the brain

The actual rules are somewhat ambiguous, saying that boxers cannot fight if they have, “Significant congenital or acquired intracranial mass lesions or bleeding.” Read that passage one way and it is that someone cannot fight if they have ‘significant congenital’ or ‘acquired intracranial mass lesions or bleeding’. But read it another way and it is that both congenital and acquired mass lesions or bleeding have to be significant.

Rosengren does not say much about Skoglund. He is a lawyer, and lawyers are careful with their words. But he says that Skoglund falls into something of a grey area. “He hasn’t asked us yet about coming back,” he says. “I didn’t withdraw his license when he got hurt in training, but he has to renew it each year. He hasn’t asked for it to be renewed yet.”

And if he did seek to fight outside Sweden? “We would inform the relevant organisation about the situation as we did in the US when Maria Lindberg was asking for a license in Florida.”

Talk to others and the answers do not vary much. Robert Smith, general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, says that they licensed Lindberg to box twice there in 2021 because they judge each case on its merits. And Skoglund? “Firstly, we’d have to find out what operations took place. But I think it’s unlikely that he’ll get a license on medical grounds. We’d have to find out what injuries he had, but it’s unlikely that we would.”

Early in his career, Skoglund had four fights in Germany. Beate Poeske, head of office at the German Boxing Association, says that they would consult with Sweden before any license was issued. “If a boxer from abroad wanted to fight in Germany or an EBU-affiliated country, they’d have to apply for permission in their home federation. That federation would decide on licensing.”

Sixteen of his twenty-seven fights were in Denmark. Jesper Jensen, president of the Danish Professional Boxing Federation, says that they would also consult with the Swedes. “I think we’d reject him because he doesn’t live in Denmark, and we don’t license people who don’t live or train here. That’s one of the European Boxing Union rules.”

Dr. Goodman was part of the International Hall of Fame Class of 2021.

The story does not shift much in the US. Dr. Margaret Goodman is a neurologist and former chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletics Commission. She was also the Medical Advisory Chair for the same body, and the co-chair of the Association of Boxing Commission’s medical committee. She says that under her tenure at Nevada that they would never let someone fight following a brain injury. The regulations have changed now, she says. “After I left, they changed to evaluate cases on an individual basis. But the athletes that I believe they permitted to resume their career were those that had no symptoms from very-minor haemorrhages.”

Even so, “I can’t think anybody would license him if they knew the details about what had happened.”

The second part of this story will be published on March 15th.