This is the second part in a two-part story. The first part can be found HERE.
It is a brotherhood that no one wants to join, made up of those who find a line drawn for them through injury between who they were going to be and who they were forced to become.
There was Maria Lindberg and there was Frida Wallberg and there was Armand Krajnc in Sweden. And there is also Jermain Taylor, a brain bleed in Berlin in 2009 making him turn the corner into the end of his career, ending up haunted by his own mind. There was Lamar ‘Kidfire’ Parks and Tommy Morrison, their careers punctuated by flunked HIV tests. There was Sugar Ray Seales, his eyesight fading and then gone, dancing and ducking his way through the medicals as much as he could until the walls closed in.
And then there was ‘Baby’ Joe Mesi, heavyweight contender. Was selling out over 19,000 seats in Buffalo, New York. Hometown hero. The next great franchise. Can’t miss written all over.
But a sure bet is still a bet.
Everything changed in March 2004 against Vassily Jirov in Las Vegas.
The story: Mesi to be solidified as the next in line. He was undefeated in twenty-eight fights, ranked first among the contenders. Jirov was a former IBF cruiserweight champion, seen on the downside, his name making up space on the right-hand side of the poster. He was to be a pitstop.
Two rounds, six minutes in total, changed everything. A different story at the end.
The Associated Press reported the day after the fight, “For eight rounds, Joe Mesi lived up to his billing as a heavyweight star of the future. In two furious final rounds, Vassiliy Jirov may have exposed him as something far less. When it was over, Mesi remained undefeated — but just barely.”
Mesi was down three times—once in the ninth, twice in the tenth. An as-narrow-as-it-could-be unanimous decision.
There was worse to come. He says now that he knew immediately that something was wrong. He felt different in a way that he had never felt before.
“I went home from Las Vegas and a week, ten days, after the fight, I still hadn’t quite come around,” he says. “There was forgetfulness, my balance was off. I wasn’t detrimentally engaged, but I knew I had to be checked out.”
An MRI scan revealed one bleed. Another eight days later was inconclusive. Two bleeds were found on the next one. Found again later in the month. Gone a few weeks later.
The Nevada authorities, when the news broke, acted quick and said he could no longer fight. The other US states followed suit. Two years slipped by, then a loophole.
“My license expired,” says Mesi. “That was how we won the case. It wasn’t on clinical evidence, but on whether anyone could suspend a fighter whose license had expired. It meant I was free to go and apply anywhere I wanted.”
The first fight back was in Puerto Rico in April 2006, an uninspiring eight rounds. To Canada, a fight in Montreal. The last five were in the US, in places like Russellville, Arkansas; Manistee, Michigan; Chester, West Virginia—about as far from the bright lights as you can go.
“The thought at the time,” he says, “was that I’d fight in these smaller shows and lesser-known states so that I can prove myself physically and show that I’m healthy. I’d climb the ladder and get back into contention.”
But the momentum was gone. Not dissipated, blocked. He became yesterday’s man. The one people looked at politely with a mixture of pity and awe. Didn’t he get the message? Doesn’t he know it’s over?
Controversy followed. No one wanted him to fight. But he wanted to. Mesi knew he was smart, felt he was making the right decisions. His own doctors said, Okay. Even now, he sounds, when he talks about it, as if he cannot believe what he was up against.
“It was very challenging and very depressing,” he says. “And very political.”
It takes time, but life eventually teaches us that there are some fights you are not meant to win. “I thought that if I proved myself,” says Mesi, “that maybe HBO and New York would invite me back. And I got in shape around the fifth or sixth fight back. I was in tip-top shape.”
Things were not the same, though. “Two years went by, with the smaller fights and training and travelling and then there was a point when I heard through the grapevine that no one was going to let me fight in California or Las Vegas.”
The end came on a plane going into the air above Connecticut in 2007 after the last fight, against Shannon Miller in Rhode Island. “I turned to my then-fiancée,” says Mesi, “and I said, ‘I think it’s over. I don’t want to fight this political battle any more. I’m on a treadmill.’ And the truth is that I didn’t want to fight physically, if I didn’t have the potential to reach my goal.”
He is in a better place now. Marriage, children, a job he enjoys. But he understands the feeling. He was thirty-one when he was injured. “I know what it’s like to have someone tell you that you cannot do what you do,” he says. “You’re being told that you can’t earn a living. It was difficult at the time, especially after all the hard work and effort. I was one fight away from a title shot, so the timing was also very bad. But I’m in a different place now. I have a different life and lifestyle today. I’m happy, so I guess it all worked out.”
THE MORAL ARGUMENT
Here is the thing about Erik Skoglund. It is highly unlikely that he will ever set foot in a ring to fight professionally again. The choice is likely to be out of his hands. There are too many places that can—and will—say ‘no’, and his profile and his story are so well known that there is not going to be a reputable place on earth that will take the ‘risk’ of licensing him.
There may be somewhere here and there, some eastern European backwater where the medical consists of checking to see whether you have a pulse or not, and even then it is subjective as long as the fighter in question is a ‘name’ and someone can see money in them. Even Goodman admits that someone, somewhere would probably give Skoglund a license, though it pains her to say it.
But the respectable commissions will probably say no. And they will do it and say they are protecting Skoglund but, really, it is a question of optics. He had an injury, and was in a coma, and a commission or a regulator will look at all this, and decide that it is a bad thing, too much of a bad thing, to give him a license to fight.
And maybe it is.
But let us be honest and admit that it is all about the optics. Because if those people wanted to stop him from being damaged again or from being damaged in the first place, they would be on the other side of the argument to ban boxing.
Erik Skoglund began boxing when he was twelve, and it is okay in most places—sanctioned and regulated, even—for twelve-year-old boys, sometimes younger, to hit each other in the head. And it is okay, too, for these boys to have fight after fight, sparring session after sparring session, for years and years, from amateur to professional. That great wearing down is where the damage, that steady and avoidable erosion of health and cognition, accumulates. Erik had twenty-seven professional fights, one-hundred-and-fourteen amateur fights, and countless rounds of sparring for over a decade. That damage has its own price tag.
It is easy to not allow someone to fight after an injury like his, even if the doctors and the professionals say that he is at no greater risk. It is easy to draw a line at this point and say No more. And there are those who care, who are trying to do some good in a broken sport, who are trying to do their best in an imperfect situation. But boxing is a sport of damage that extracts a cost. The unknown is exactly how you budget for that.
And maybe they should let him might the decision and fight again. Maybe it is a choice that they should let him make. It is his life above everything else. If there was no increased risk, if he could get back into the ring and do within it once more what he used to? He is an adult and adults make decisions all the time about what to do with their lives and their health. Why not let him fight and see if anyone wants to promote it, or if there is a crowd for it, or if he gets in and realises that it is not for him anymore, so that he can take off the gloves, put them down, and walk away and have it be his choice and on his terms?
If. The road from here to there will undoubtedly be blocked. It is the optics, you see.
Not long ago, the American artist David Choe appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience in a wide-ranging discussion. Choe talked about the deep unhappiness that has trailed him throughout his life.
“I have a disease of more,” he said. “I have a chasm, a black hole, that it doesn’t matter how many women I have sex with, how much porn I’ve jerked off to, how much money I’ve gambled. I’ve gambled and lost and won small fortunes, huge fortunes.”
He went on: “And when I meet, when I watched [The Last Dance], and I meet famous people that have succeeded at the highest levels, I go, ‘How long were you happy for? Maybe a day, maybe 24 hours?’ And then what happens the next day? Back to the grind. It's not enough. Got the gold medal? Back to the grind, back to the grind. And I go, It's never gonna be enough. I'll never have enough women, money, success.”
This is often what happens when you achieve your goals. You are not as happy as you thought you would be. You become depressed. Your life loses the purpose it once had.
You realise that the thought that achieving our goals would make us happy forever is just an illusion. And it is not rare—it is common.
To apply causation can be unfair, but take the story of Malik Bendjelloul. He won an Oscar at thirty-five for Searching for Sugar Man, struggled with depression for months afterwards, and took his own life less than a year after reaching the pinnacle of his career.
As The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Bendjelloul had poured every ounce of energy and artistic flair he had into Sugar Man, and now that it was over, he was struggling to find a new passion, say his friends. In the final weeks, he told those closest to him, a fear had taken hold that somehow, inexplicably, he had ‘lost his creativity.’”
Michael Phelps become one of the most-successful, accomplished swimmers in history. He told CNN in 2018, “Really, after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression.” He also said: “I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”
Ricky Williams made it into the NFL, did eleven seasons there. A success. He would later say, “I was 23, a millionaire, and had everything, yet I was never more unhappy in my life. I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn't explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me.”
One day, if he gets what he wants, Erik Skoglund will step in to a ring, stand there, and will then have to reassess if that is where he wants to be. Will he be happy? Or happier? Will he feel the same?
And what if it is not there? “If I’m allowed to try again and it doesn’t feel as good as it should or I don’t feel like I need to feel, then I’ll probably be happy with my career to date. But if I’m not allowed to try, I’d be sad because I’d have the feeling that someone is taking it away from me.”
Here is a thought: Towards the end of his life, Truman Capote tried and failed to finish his last book, once saying that he would kill it, or it would kill him.
The book was Answered Prayers.
The epigraph he chose? “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
A HAPPY ENDING?
The best way to end a story is to have a happy ending. The only way to guarantee one is stopping at the right time. For all her happy-ever-after, Cinderella grew old and died.
So what should be the happy ending to Erik Skoglund’s story?
Maybe it should not be about sport or boxing or a championship. And maybe it is not about trying to get back to where he once was, or who he was, or who he could have been. Maybe it is not a comeback story at all.
Maybe it is a love story.
Angelia Sjöstedt was in the gym, by Erik’s side, when he was injured four years ago. And she has been by his side since 2010. And she was there when he was recovering and when he was rehabilitating and the way they tell it, they will be by each other’s side forever.
“She’s my everything,” Skoglund says in that hotel restaurant in Nyköping. “She’s been with me for the last eleven years, pretty much every day. We’ve been through heaven and hell together. We’ve done it all. I think that if there’s one person on this planet that truly knows me, it’s her.”
She says the same about him: “I couldn’t ask for more, as a partner and as a father to our son.”
They have a simple recipe and reason for it all: “It’s about mutual respect,” she says when he goes off to get changed after his workout. “That’s it. We’ve had, at most, five arguments in all the time we’ve been together.”
She has been with him through the highs, the lows, the injuries, the pain, and the hard work. She has been there when his hands have been battered and bruised, his nose splintered. His jaw was broken once and she was there when, for months, he could eat nothing solid. And, now, she is with him every day, and she is protective of him, and does not want to see him hurt, and wants only the best for him.
And in every way, it is reciprocated by him. It is what people say. One of the nice guys. A good man.
They met over the internet in the way that people do nowadays. He was in Germany, at the beginning of his career, living and training in Berlin. She was in Nyköping. They became friends on Facebook and she noticed he was counting down to something.
“I asked him why he was counting the days,” she says, “and he said it was until he came home. And I said when he got home, he could call me. And I gave him my number.”
Skoglund came back to Nyköping for the summer. When it was time to go back to Berlin a few months later, Sjöstedt went with him. “Okay,” she told him. “I’ll come with you. We’ll go together.”
They moved down in the late summer of 2010, in the lull before Skoglund had the third and fourth fights of his career. Before she went, Sjöstedt approached her father and asked him if she was crazy. “No,” he said. “Just go.”
There were two turns in the road and, twelve years later, Sjöstedt never doubts the one she took. “I’ve never regretted moving there, and then going backwards and forwards. We just had each other. We didn’t have any friends in Germany, so we ended up being with each other all the time. It was nice to do that. I’ve never done that.”
Seven years later, in Nyköping, she was in the gym when the injury happened. She says now that, in the week before, she was beset with worry. “I had this feeling that something was wrong,” she says. “And I was really upset and stressed, but I didn’t let on to Erik. But I said to a friend that something was wrong, that it was not right.”
She remembers the moment everything lurched. “We were taking the gloves off and I got a really bad feeling. We say that we can feel each others’ energy. And I knew something was wrong. I saw his eyes, and they were red and I could see all the veins. He then said he had pain, and then he began to scream. He passed out and his eyes rolled back, and he was shaking. It’s the worst, worst nightmare that could ever happen.”
Strangely, rehab and the long road back to wellness was easier. “The tough part was gone,” she says. “I didn’t think about it. He woke up and I could see he was in there. He couldn’t move, or speak, just look with his eyes. But then I saw he was in there and I thanked God that he had come back. Just take it one day at a time, I thought, and it will all be good.”
Sjöstedt is ambivalent about the fighting again. She was with him the first time he sparred and he invited her to throw the first punch. She refused. Ask her if she would be happy with it ending here and she says, “Of course. Of course.”
But she will never ask him. How could she take that away from him? “I want him to do whatever it is that makes him feel happy.”
And Skoglund knows it. In that hotel restaurant in Nyköping, ask him about what he would do if she asked him to stop and he says that she would never do that. “If she ever asked me not to, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t.” But, he says, sadly and certainly, “I wouldn’t be happy at the same time. Ever again. So I know she wouldn’t ask that of me.”
There is one rule, though. “I’ve said that he has to listen to move over one thing,” she says. “If he ever gets confused, or tired, or groggy, he has to stop immediately. He can’t go on. If he doesn’t do that, I can’t trust him. He can’t get injured again.”
So maybe this is a good place to stop, at the jumping-off point where a happy ending is not only still possible, but probable.
Maybe Erik Skoglund should lay those ghosts to rest and walk away from a life that he cannot have. Maybe he should realise that waking back up after those ten days in order to get back on his feet and to move across the ring in a semblance of what he was before, was his twenty-eighth fight. To know that going into that deep and dark place, and then coming back, coming home, was how that first part of his life was supposed to end.
Imagine five years from now that he is still in Nyköping, and he is happy. And he trains, but not like he used to, but because it is a pastime and no longer his job. And he has done something else with his life like joined the police or opened his own gym or become a commentator on television. And in his spare time, he talks about his journey and he counsels others who have gotten injured or had their lives turned around and are now faced with the first blank page of the rest of their story. And he is married to Angelica, and they have their son, and their dog, and their home in Nyköping. And he looks back on all the things he did achieve and knows that they were enough, and that he did enough with all the talents and gifts that he had.
Can’t all that be enough?