Unexplained deaths in boxing

Ed C. Tolentino

Ed C. Tolentino

It is that time of the year again when people start sharing macabre stories and other spine-tingling narratives. Believe it or not, professional boxing, through the years, has amassed its list of ‘horror’ stories, too, some of which continue to perplex many today.

In June 1947, California-based boxer Jimmy Doyle challenged the great Sugar Ray Robinson for the world welterweight championship. Stories have it that on the night before the fight, Robinson dreamt that he killed Doyle with his fists. Robinson wanted to cancel the fight, but the boxing commission in Cleveland brought in a Catholic priest who assured Robinson that his fears were unfounded.

Doyle was really no match for the highly skilled Robinson and he only pursued the match because he needed the money to buy his mother a house. As expected, Robinson dominated the fight, except in the sixth when Doyle staggered him for a fleeting moment. Robinson sent Doyle crashing to the canvas in the eighth round and the latter subsequently died from a blood clot and concussion.

A subsequent investigation revealed that three months before the fight, Doyle also suffered a brain concussion when he was stopped by Artie Levine. Literally, Robinson hammered the final nail on Doyle’s coffin when he landed the finishing left hook. Robinson was paid $25,000 for the fight and he used his subsequent earnings to set up a $50 per month trust fund over 10 years for Doyle’s parents.

Yet another mysterious death in boxing was the demise of former heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston. To this day, nobody can fully explain the true cause of his death in 1970. Circumstantial evidence (i.e., needle marks in the arm) pointed to drug overdose, but close friends of the boxer swore that Liston, for all the bad rap surrounding him, was never into drugs. It was common knowledge back then that Liston was scared of needles; he avoided check-ups because he was scared of doctors sticking a needle on him.

Unknown to many, a month before he died, Liston had a whiplash after figuring in a near fender-bender and was taken to the hospital. He left the hospital with a needle mark in his arm and he kept complaining about it to his friends. A few weeks later, Liston was found dead. It remains to be seen if the mob conspired to have Liston killed. Liston had ties with the mob during his heyday and not a few thought he took a dive in his rematch with Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Pancho Villa, the first Asian and Filipino world champion, also died under mysterious circumstances on July 14, 1925. Villa’s last fight on record was a non-title decision to Jimmy McLarnin on July 4, 1925. A day before the fight, Villa went to a dentist to have a swollen tooth removed. Because he was more concerned to protect the area where the tooth was extracted, Villa lost to McLarnin.

Villa returned to the dentist after the fight and the visit resulted in more teeth extractions. He was advised to take a rest but Villa proceeded to party instead. A few weeks later, he was rushed to a hospital where he died because of a throat infection.

Officially, Villa’s death was listed as complications resulting from Ludwig’s Angina. But long after his demise, Villa’s widow Gliceria claimed that the former world flyweight champion was murdered. Villa allegedly drew the ire of a gambling syndicate who placed huge bets on him in the McLarnin fight. The true story, of course, will never be known as it has been buried in the dustbin of history.

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For comments, the writer can be reached at atty_eduardo@yahoo.com.


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1 Comment

  1. This was a very interesting article. I knew about Liston but thought maybe beating Chuck Wepner was the reason but it makes more sense he would blow the whistle about possibly both Clay fights being fixed. Certainly the second one was.

    It was good of Robinson to pay money to the parents of Doyle.

    I thought it was a tooth problem for Villa.