Truth Didn’t Understand The Consequences

July 30, 1989
 
In the early 1980’s, when I was old for a fighter and young for a referee, I met a man who made a profound change in the way I viewed boxing. Dr. Bennet Derby is a professor of Clinical Neurology and Pathology at New York University. I had the opportunity to study with him in his capacity as medical adviser to the New York State Athletic Commission when he was giving seminars on the subject of neurological assessments inside a boxing ring. These seminars were run after the death of Willie Classen, one of the regulars at Gleason’s gym with whom I had sparred and who had died of injuries suffered during a fight with Wilford Scypion in 1979. Out of these seminars came what could be called the “New Dawn” of professional boxing.
Prior to this New Dawn were the “Dark Ages,” during which I toiled as a pugilist. In those Dark Ages we did things differently. Take, for example, the case of the lucky horizontal boxer. Assuming he had the misfortune to be flattened, but the propitious timing to have it happen near the end of a round, he could be saved by the bell. That was like having a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail” card in your trunks. You could get dragged back to your stool and be tended by the friendly folks in your corner.
Knights in the Dark Ages had broad swords and bludgeons; cornermen had their own arsenal. One weapon was Monsel’s paste, a ferric (iron based) compound that would stop bleeding at the neck should your head get knocked off. Notwithstanding, the stuff had two major drawbacks. Number one, if it got on your cornea you could go blind. Number two, it stopped bleeding by burning capillaries, thus forming crystals that, if not cut out with a scalpel before being sutured over, left rocks in your head.
Another tool of the trade was ammonia capsules (smelling salts). After Dr.Derby delivered a tirade against the use of “bombs” (as they were known in the trade), I piped up, “Yeah, but when you come back from a tough round taking a few whiffs can really clear your head.” The professor shot back, “You fool. Ammonia capsules are a painful stimulant. How would you like it if I shoved a fork up your nose?” I had to admit that I wouldn’t like it.
Today, we’ve cleaned up the act in the corners. We’ve changed the rule that allowed flattened fighters to be scraped off the floor at the end of a round (no more being saved by the bell) and prohibited fighters not ready for further action from being tossed into the ring at the beginning of a round (which is what happened to Classen). And, the more unsavory weapons of war have been banished. Monsel’s has been replaced by compounds used in operating rooms, such as Avatine, and smelling salts are off limits because they override the body’s natural mechanism to “just say no.”
But what about ring safety during the round? To the unschooled, the question must sound like an oxymoron in a sport where the basic intent is to render the opponent unconscious. This takes some edification.
From the front of a laboratory filled with 15 boxing officials (mostly doctors) in Bellevue Hospital, Professor Derby explained that a concussion, like a faint, is a short circuit in the brain’s electrical impulses and, in most cases, is merely a neurological episode that leaves no longterm harm. “If I turned the lights off and 10 seconds later turned them on, what would have happened?” he asked us. After a pregnant pause, he shouted, “Nothing!” The professor continued in a deliberate voice, “All I’ve done is temporarily turned off the power and turned it on again.”
But, if while the lights were out, Derby explained, we all started running about the room, chances are good that someone would get hurt. The same is true in boxing. If a fighter sufficiently punches and concusses his opponent so that the opponent cannot get up before the count of 10, the opponent is counted out, the episode is over, we look at him and very rarely find any damage. But when a fighter receives a concussion and you let the other guy get in there and beat on him, you could very well have a damaged fighter on your hands.
We know a fighter with a concussion should not be allowed to continue, but how do we know when a fighter has been concussed enough to stop a fight? There are no short circuit indicators on his head, right? But there are, Dr. Derby revealed.

The decision did not require a lot of knowledge of the soft signs of damage.


 
“Just because these guys are on their feet and throwing punches doesn’t mean that they are all right,” he said. “It’s so patterned in, they can do it in their sleep. You’ve got to look for the soft signs.”
Soft signs are not when a fighter’s eyes roll up into the back of his head. That’s such a clear sign that even a miscreant would stop a fight with that kind of indication. What is a soft sign? It could be the difference in the way a fighter reacts after getting hit; perhaps, he covered up earlier, but doesn’t now.  It could be in his gait or the way he throws punches. It could be anything that is different from the guy who came into the ring.
The situation in which I made the decision to prevent Carl (the Truth) Williams from being further battered by Mike Tyson in their fight on July 21 did not require a lot of knowledge of the soft signs of a damaged fighter. Williams leaped into a Tysonset trap. He moved in with a jab while carrying his right hand low, leaving his chin exposed. Simultaneously, Tyson attacked with a left hook, thrown from the floor, and their combined 440pound force crashed onto Williams’s chin.
 
He went down without a “parachute reaction; ” i.e., extending his arms to cushion the fall (soft sign). He got up clumsily at three, only to fall back down (soft sign). At six he was unsteadily on his feet leaning on the ropes. Cognizant of all the evidence of concussion, I asked him the simple question, “How are you?” Such a question is open ended. I was not so concerned with what he had to say but how he said it.
A fighter who wants to continue should be looking to convince or at least acknowledge the referee. A good example is the response given by Jose Torres, who, after being beaten up and dropped by Eddie Cotton, said “I’m Jose Torres. I’m in Madison Square Garden and this guy is beating the hell out of me.” I asked the question twice of Williams, between what would have been counts 9 and 10, and when he could not, or would not respond, he gave me a very clear sign of concussion. I stopped the fight because, at the count of 10, the juice was still off.
On behalf of Randy Neumann, Carl Williams and the thousands of other boxers’ lives that you have improved, thank you, Dr. Ben Derby.
He went down without a “parachute reaction,” i.e., extending his arms to cushion the fall (soft sign). He got up clumsily at three, only to fall back down (soft sign). At six, he was unsteady on his feet leaning on the ropes. Cognizant of all the evidence of concussion, I asked him the simple question, “How are you?” Such a question is open ended. I was not so concerned with what he had to say, but how he said it.
A fighter who wants to continue should be looking to convince or at least acknowledge the referee. A good example is the response given by Jose Torres, who, after being beaten up and dropped by Eddie Cotton, said “I’m Jose Torres. I’m in Madison Square Garden and this guy is beating the hell out of me.” I asked the question twice of Williams, between what would have been counts 9 and 10, and when he could not, or, would not, respond, he gave me a very clear sign of concussion. I stopped the fight because, at the count of 10, the juice was still off.
On behalf of Randy Neumann, Carl Williams and the thousands of other boxers’ lives that you have improved, thank you, Dr. Ben Derby.

Randy Neumann is a former heavyweight contender and is a referee.