The boxing ring, seen by spectators as a squared circle of sadism, strangely serves as a refuge from violence for many practitioners of the sweet science.
O’Neil Bell, the former lineal cruiserweight champion of the world, serves as a case in point. Bloodied, battered, and bruised, knocked down and knocked out during a 32-fight professional boxing career, the Jamaican immigrant fought a last, losing battle after a sneak attack on the streets of Atlanta earlier this week. Like other young men living in dangerous urban environments, O’Neil Bell died from a violence that ignores the dictates of Jack Broughton, the Marquess of Queensbury, or any other legislator of fisticuffs fair play.
The list of world champion boxers murdered in recent years include Hector Camacho, Vernon Forrest, Trevor Berbick, Corrie Sanders, and, more than likely, Arturo Gatti. If you watched ESPN’s old Friday Night Fights series, then surely Julian Letterlough and Emanuel Augustus ring familiar. The former lost his life after someone shot him in the back after he exited a bar; the latter clung to life after a robber fired a round in the back of his head as he returned home from the gym.
Bell’s killer’s took the coward’s approach, too.
Cops say the latest villains approached an Atlanta bus in a stolen Chrysler PT Cruiser. After passengers departed at a southwest Atlanta stop, the thieves in the SUV robbed a 28-year-old man dressed as a woman of his purse and shot him in the hip. True to his “Give ’em Hell” nickname, Bell apparently told the brigands off. Then the murderers, without even an attempt to fight like real men, shot the former undisputed boxing champion in the chest. He died at the scene.
Regarding that Trumanesque sobriquet, Bell ditched it in the latter half of his career for “Supernova”—an exploding star that burns unfathomably bright for a short time before it dies. “I did a little bit of research on Hell,” Bell explained after abandoning the “Give ’em Hell” moniker nearly a decade ago. “I didn’t want to associate myself with Hell. You attract bad company, bad things, with a name like that.”
Stepping off public transportation in a bad neighborhood in Atlanta after midnight attracts bad company, too.
For the uninitiated, Bell unified the cruiserweight titles, a feat previously accomplished by one man (Evander Holyfield), in a signature knockout of Jean Marc Mormeck at Madison Square Garden in 2006. The come-from-behind KO came as the first stoppage of the powerful Frenchman during his career. Too long and lean to cut down to 175, and too small to credibly compete at heavyweight, Bell fought as the rare cruiserweight not looking bulk up for a bigger payday or slim-down to compete in the “Original Eight” weight class periodically made the class of boxing by the likes of Ezzard Charles, Archie Moore, and Roy Jones Jr. Bell retired in 2011, finishing with a 27-4-1 record, an amazing 25 knockouts in those 27 wins, and a series of fights that helped the cruiserweight division transcend its no-man’s land stigma as a little-looked-at limbo between light heavyweight and heavyweight.
“History makes a person,” Bell once told Eddie Goldman. Boys become boxers out of desperation. They wish to escape poverty or confront a bully or become strong in a world that makes them feel week. The Marquess of Queensbury may have given the sport its rules. But no marquess gives the sport his blood. The means for the powerless to become powerful often cruelly send the shooting star down to earth after a heady flight. Fighters retain associations, return to familiar neighborhoods, and regard themselves as indestructible. But like the Chinese taking on the British in the Boxer Rebellion, they tragically discover that bullets beat blows.
Bell, a Delaware state wrestling champion in high school at 189 pounds, said he preferred individual competition to team sports because it plays as a test of wills that locates a man’s breaking point. There’s nowhere to hide. “I love the one-on-one,” Bell explained. “Will versus will.”
Not everybody loves the one-on-one. Whereas boxing, wrestling, and other solo sports show us a man, the predator packs hiding in the shadows to hunt human prey show us the animal.
Rest in peace.