Chicago boxer's brush with death raises safety questions
February 25, 2010 8:39 PM
Boxer Rita Figueroa lasted all six rounds of her last fight before the bell rang and she headed to the locker room.
But the 40-year-old fighter was not well. A painful headache developed, then nausea and vomiting. She couldn't sign for her check to get paid. Paramedics put her on a stretcher and prepared to put her in an ambulance.
Then, according to members of her corner team, employees with the UIC Pavilion wouldn't allow the ambulance to leave. The next bout had started, and an ambulance is required by law to be present during boxing matches.
Ultimately Figueroa was taken to the University of Illinois Medical Center and underwent emergency brain surgery for a broken blood vessel.
But Dr. Sepideh Amin-Hanjani, who performed the operation, said Figueroa probably avoided irreversible results by a matter of minutes.
"We got her before she slipped into a coma," she said. "She would've progressed to the severe ultimate scenario of coma and obviously death shortly thereafter."
The boxing community views Figueroa's experience as an aberration. "We're very proud of the way it was handled," said Ron Puccillo, director of the Illinois Athletic Commission.
But the response to her injury, which ended the career of a popular champion in Chicago's small boxing world, highlights lax attention in Illinois to safety in a dangerous sport, the Tribune found.
The state doesn't require from promoters an official plan of action for instances when a fighter is injured. In Texas, promoters are required to prepare such a plan before events. Nor does the state track cases in which boxers are sent to a hospital. And gyms in California are required to submit monthly reports on fighters who become injured during training, but not in Illinois.
Moreover, current laws designed to protect safety aren't always followed. Though ringside doctors are legally required to examine boxers after bouts, more than a dozen Chicago boxers and trainers said in interviews that it rarely happens. Doctors step in only when fighters are knocked out or are visibly bloody, or when boxers and trainers request it, they said.
"It's not really a doctor that checks you after the fight. It's really the paramedics," said longtime Chicago boxer Germaine Sanders. "The doctor just sits along ringside."
Ron Lipton, a former boxer and referee who now trains fighters in New York, said it's inexcusable for fighters to go unchecked by doctors after bouts.
"The responsibility for the safety of the fighters falls in the lap of medical professionals there, does it not?" Lipton said. "The onus is on them if someone is hurt."
Figueroa's team maintains that representatives from the boxing commission -- from officials like Puccillo to the ringside doctor -- didn't act with urgency to get her medical help.
The doctor working Figueroa's fight, Eric Vaughn, initially told the Tribune he examined Figueroa inside the ring after the bout and provided an icepack. However, a video of the match obtained by the Tribune showed no evidence he stepped into the ring after the fight. Vaughn then said the post-fight examination took place in the locker room.
Figueroa, who says she will not box again, remains angry about what happened that night. "My team, I gotta tell you, my team is the reason I'm sitting here talking to you right now," she said.
The debate over safety in boxing, where victory can mean beating an opponent unconscious, is as old as the sport itself. It resurfaced after the November death of popular Chicago boxer Francisco Rodriguez, who was fatally injured while fighting in Philadelphia.
Nationally, boxing operates under a hodgepodge of rules. In Illinois, for example, one doctor is required to be ringside at events, while other boxing-heavy states such as California or Texas require at least two.
The Illinois Athletic Commission supervises professional boxing and mixed martial arts under the umbrella of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The commission, with a handful of full-time employees, oversaw 22 pro boxing and mixed martial-arts events last year.
To be licensed, fighters must provide a complete medical history. Doctors also are supposed to examine the fighter after a bout to "determine possible injury" and to report any injuries in writing as well as the fitness of the fighter to box in the future.
The department declined to discuss Figueroa's case, saying in a statement "it is department policy not to discuss specific events and/or licensees."
The department also would not disclose how many times doctors had ruled boxers ineligible to compete. When asked why it doesn't track hospital trips, the boxing commission said its responsibility applies only to fights, and that any "private health care an athlete or any citizen might seek is beyond the department's purview."
The commission defines virtually all documents related to fights as medical records, which are private, so it's difficult to know how often boxers are seriously injured or to gauge how commission officials fulfill their responsibilities when it comes to safety.
A Chicago native, Figueroa first took to martial arts in 1996, then tried boxing two years later. She went on to win amateur titles in Chicago four times, and a pro belt in 2006, boxing under the nickname "La Guera."
On the night of Figueroa's Nov. 6 fight at the UIC Pavilion, she was hit in the second round and fell to the canvas. She got up, but about 40 seconds later, she and her opponent slammed heads accidentally. Both fighters clutched their heads, the referee quickly asked if they were OK, and the fight went on.
When the round ended 30 seconds later, Figueroa said she felt something was off but didn't tell her coach. "I just felt like I wasn't being able to take the punches," she said. "I wasn't as steady on my feet.''
Lipton, who watched a DVD of the bout at the Tribune's request, said the fight should've been stopped and a doctor should've examined Figueroa because she was moving slowly while taking too many clean punches to the head. "I do not see that kind of professional scrutiny displayed in this bout on the part of the referee, the medical staff or the commission," said Lipton, who has refereed televised title bouts. "I pray she is OK."
Figueroa finished the fight, losing by one point. In the locker room, paramedics measured her vital signs, and her blood pressure was a little high, her team said. She also told the paramedics she had a severe headache.
Her husband, Mike, and other members of her team were concerned. "It just wasn't right, that she should be in that much pain," said Angela Gibson, a member of her team.
When an inspector for the boxing commission sought Figueroa's signature on her paycheck for the fight, she was too ill to do it.
Figueroa began to vomit, a symptom of a concussion when it occurs with headache. The paramedics were called back, and they placed her on a stretcher. Greg Znajda, a physical therapist on her team, said he could see Figueroa had a dilated or "blown" pupil, which can indicate brain injury.
Znajda said he called a friend who is a neurosurgeon, who in turn reached a team of doctors at the University of Illinois Medical Center.
At some point after that, her team said, ringside physician Vaughn appeared briefly, examined her on the stretcher and confirmed she had a blown pupil. He then returned to the ring.
"I was shocked," said Znajda. "I went and said to the paramedics, 'Where's he going?'"
Vaughn said he did nothing wrong and "the system worked." He said that when she showed symptoms of head trauma, he told the paramedics to take her to the hospital. Vaughn disputes the claim from Figueroa's team that he examined her only when she was on the stretcher; he said he also examined her earlier in the locker room.
Puccillo, in a brief interview, said, "We think we saved her life." Asked additional questions, he deferred to a commission spokeswoman and said, "I am not a rat."
Figueroa's team sought to move her to the ambulance, but they said Pavilion employees wanted to wait for a second ambulance to arrive. The law requires an ambulance to be available during a match and puts that responsibility in the hands of the match's promoter. It also allows boxing commission officials to stop or delay fights for the safety of fighters.
Kevin O'Finn, the UIC Pavilion director, who was not at the fight, said he was unaware of any ambulance problems. Promoter Dominic Pesoli said he was ringside when he heard there was an issue with the ambulance but didn't know why there may have been a delay in taking Figueroa to the hospital.
Some boxers say it's problematic that Illinois requires just one ambulance at a match, because that means fights must be stopped or delayed to get a backup in place after the first ambulance has been used. In a written response to questions, Illinois Athletic Commission spokeswoman Sue Hofer said the rule is acceptable because a backup ambulance "typically" is available.
Members of Figueroa's team said they frantically pressed for the ambulance to take her away. "I got loud and said, 'We're going right now,'" Znajda said.
At the hospital a CAT scan showed a subdural hematoma -- bleeding in the brain. Surgeons opened her skull and performed the surgery.
Figueroa said she requested a meeting with the commission in early January to discuss her concerns about what happened the night of her injury. She's still waiting.
"You are the boxing commission and you profess your main goal is fighters' safety," she said. "Why have you not sat down with me to discuss this?"
--Jared S. Hopkins