Late last week, the California State Athletic Commission issued a preliminary ruling that will overrule New York's medical suspension of Edwin Valero, at least within the State of California. The undefeated 130-pounder is not yet cleared to box, but the ruling clears away what seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle to resuming Valero's career. "It appears from the overwhelming weight of the medical evidence that Mr. Valero should not be medically disqualified from boxing," wrote Chris Mears, the acting chairperson of the California State Athletic Commission.
Valero, whose case was presented by attorney Keith Rouse, created an undercurrent of interest among hard core boxing fans by winning his first twelve professional bouts all by first round knockout. Largely unknown outside of Venezuela and Southern California, he traveled to New York earlier this year to make his national television debut on an HBO Latino card, but a pre-fight physical revealed that Valero had been concealing a head injury he suffered in a motorcycle accident a few years earlier when he was an amateur star in Venezuela. After the disastrous trip to New York, it appeared Valero's career was over even before he was even tested in a boxing ring. He reapplied for a license in his home state of California but was initially denied based solely on the existence of the New York suspension.
Rouse was hired to handle his appeal and further medical tests were conducted. Valero was examined by two California doctors and Mears wrote "both of these doctors believe that Mr. Valero's medical condition does not disqualify him from boxing, and that he is not at any greater risk of head injury than any other boxer." A third doctor opined that Valero "is at a slightly higher risk for seizure because of his prior surgery, but that risk exists whether or not Mr. Valero suffers any further blows to the head."
Mears' ruling appears to be in direct conflict with the regulatory guidelines of the Association of Boxing Commissioners, which requires reciprocity between commissions of different states: "All medical and administrative suspensions placed on contestants by other athletic commissions will be recognized by the supervising Commission."
The California ruling raises the difficult issue of what consideration should be given priority: a boxer's wish to continue his career or a doctor's opinion that he should not be allowed to box. The late Stephan Johnson provides the strongest argument for caution. Johnson was knocked out in a 1999 bout in Toronto and placed on medical suspension in Canada. But in those pre-ABC days, communications between jurisdictions was poor and despite the suspension Johnson was approved for three more bouts in the United States. Tragically, he died of injuries sustained in the third and final bout following the medical suspension. On the other hand, what if, as some charge, the New York commission is too strict and ends boxers' careers when they are only risking their health as much as any other boxer? As it stood prior to last week, a boxer would have to convince the state that suspended him to reverse itself. In the wake of the politically charged atmosphere created by Beethoven Scotland's 2001 ring death in New York, it seems unlikely that an administrator would risk reversing a medical ruling no matter what evidence a boxer can present that the suspension was not merited.
Shouldn't a boxer have some recourse to argue a suspension and present evidence in his favor before his career is taken away, particularly when suspensions are often hastily issued on the eve of a boxing match? Mears appears to think so. "It can only be hoped that other commissions will see this ruling as a call to provide their fighters with suitable procedural and substantive safeguards before depriving them of their livelihoods. Mr. Valero has been denied a license even though he is in fact, medically qualified to box. To continue to deny him a license to box would be grossly unfair. While such a ruling might well serve to avoid any criticism which may follow, it would be devoid of courage and wrong by any measure. The price of doing the right thing in life is frequently to expose one to criticism and even ridicule. That is a price that this commission, which regulates the most courageous athletes in the world, should be readily willing to pay."
Before Valero can box again, at least two things must occur. Mears' preliminary ruling must be approved by the full California State Athletic Commission. If that happens, Mears ruled that "a copy of the ruling should be served on the New York Commission, and acting executive director Dean Lohuis should be directed to consult with a representative of the New York Commission concerning our action."
The office of California's Attorney General opposed Valero's appeal, saying it did not wish to "roll the dice" with the young boxer's health. But Mears ruled the Attorney General "presented not a shred of medical or scientific evidence" to support its position. "Mr. Valero has established to this arbitrator's satisfaction that his condition has 'improved' sufficiently that he should be permitted to box because he is not at any greater risk of head injury than any of our other fighters."
"Our conclusion that Mr. Valero had suffered a serious head injury was apparently based on his medical suspension issued by New York and the opinions of the New York Commission's Chief Medical Officer," wrote Mears. "Mr. Valero's license was denied in New York, as it was here, primarily because of the fact of his prior injury, rather than on a more careful assessment of whether he is now medically qualified to fight."
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