5 Tragic Figures From The World Of Boxing

It should come as no surprise that the savage beauty of boxing should attract its share of tragic figures. Here are some of their stories.
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1. Johnny Tapia

If ever there was a fighter born under a bad sign it was Johnny Tapia. One of his first childhood memories was witnessing the savage murder of his mother at their family home. From then on in, the flicker of violence and circumstance was never far away. Even though he would take his revenge on the world in the form of boxing, Tapia was always a tortured soul. Nothing could really save him. Not the titles or the worldwide fame which was interspersed with heroin overdoses and suicide attempts which would eventually take their toll on him. His only salvation in fact was when he was trading punches in the ring. Tapia boxed like he was fighting thirteen angry skeletons and winning. Alas it couldn't save him. He died aged 45 from a heart attack shortly after making a HBO documentary about his savage life. It's a difficult watch, if nothing else for the look of resigned sadness in the fighter's eyes as he realises his light is slowly fading out.

2. Edwin Valero

'Something behind the eyes'. That's how legendary boxing promoter Bob Arum once described Edwin Valero. The Venezuelan lightweight, who was prodigiously talented between the ropes was a paranoid ball of fire and fury outside it. For a while he managed to hold it together. A series of brutal first round knock outs fast tracked him into the spotlight of American boxing. A routine medical would prove decisive however. An earlier motorcycle accident back in his homeland had gone unchecked and it was found that Valero had a small cloud on his brain. Refused a licence in most American states, Valero was forced to box abroad for the most part. What no one realised was that a fuse was being lit. Even though the victories still mounted up and a title would eventually come his way, it was his behaviour outside the ring that rang alarm bells, particularly towards his wife who always seemed a scared presence standing dutifully behind her husband as his mood swings began to veer out of control. What came next however was too horrible for anyone to imagine. On April 17th 2010, Valero calmly walked barefoot into a hotel foyer in the Venezuelan city of Valencia and announced that he had murdered his wife in the room they were staying in. She had been stabbed to death. Just two days later Valero hung himself while in police custody for the crime. He was just 28 years old.

3. Tony Ayala Jr

When people discuss the golden age of '80s boxing and in particular the 'four kings' reign of Hagler, Hearns, Duran and Leonard, what most don't realise is that there was another boxer who had both the talent and fear factor to join those fighters in the history books. In many ways in fact Tony Ayala Jr should have ended up a poster boy for the sport. Unfortunately the turbulence in his own life, which was always a volume button pushed up to eleven, took him down a nefarious path he could never quite escape.

A nasty piece of work inside the ring, Ayala would think nothing of hitting opponents while they were down, spitting at them and even on more than one occasion attacking their family members. It was his attitude towards women however that was even more horrific. Aged fifteen and before his boxing career had taken off he was nearly incarcerated after committing a sexual assault on a teenager at a drive in theatre, only escaping after his family paid the girl forty thousand dollars not to testify. If that was his warning sign he didn't take any notice. After turning professional he was on the verge of becoming a superstar after a string of hugely impressive victories, but privately he was veering out of control. His drug use in particular had increased and made him an even more wayward individual than usual. It led eventually to another sexual assault as Ayala broke into a female neighbours house and accosted her. This time there was to be no pay off and no second chance. He was sentenced to 35 years in jail.

Emerging 16 years later on parole there was to be a fleeting second act for Ayala. He fought again and had a little success but his usual problems surfaced like a bad portent and he could never quite shake the demons that had constantly had a grip on him. It all ended for him on the morning of May 12 2015 when he was found dead at his brothers gym. The cause of death was Heroin toxicity. For those who knew Ayala, such a demise didn't come as much of a surprise.

4. Duk Koo Kim

Back when American boxing used to slog its way deliriously over 15 rounds, people both in and outside the sport used to take for granted that its protagonists were conditioned for such punishment. A match up between a fine American champion in Ray 'boom boom' Mancini and a Korean live wire called Duk Koo Kim would change all that, altering the course of the sport forever. Over fourteen close rounds it was played out romantically as the underdog in Kim threatened to turn the odds on their heads but there was a sting in the tail. A horrific fourteenth round where Mancini would land an astonishing barrage of punches on his opponents head, clubbing him to submission. Duk Koo Kim would collapse in the ring and never recover, but that was only the beginning of things. In the aftermath of his death both Kim's mother and the fight referee committed suicide. Ray Mancini was never the same fighter again too and boxing organisations outlawed 15 round fights from then on in.

5. Darren Sutherland

Nothing really prepared British boxing for the terrible tale of Darren Sutherland. Even now there's something really unnerving about his story. The Olympic bronze medalist in Beijing was a hot prospect on the middleweight scene and after signing professional forms with Frank Maloney, three early and decisive wins seemed to cement that reputation. Behind the scenes however, things eventually began to unravel.

The pressure of being the 'next big thing' in boxing didn't sit easily with Sutherland, who seemingly fell out of love with the sport and wanted to leave it all together. Suffering from depression and feeling under pressure from the money that had been invested in him, he began to feel isolated and feeling he had little support in his situation. It led to a terrible conclusion. On the evening of 14th September 2009, Sutherland's lifeless body was found at his Bromley flat by his manager Frank Maloney. He had hung himself. He was just 27 years old.

There was one last disturbing twist in the story when it was revealed that Sutherland's hands were bound together by computer cable at the time of his death, leading to the possibility of a third party being involved. It led to an open verdict and a lot of sensationalist tabloid speculation on his life and passing. It's the story that refuses to go away too, but at least highlights the often difficult transition amateur boxers face when turning professional and the pressures successful Olympic boxers are sometimes put under.