The cusp of stardom, fol­lowed by ‘night­mare’

Boxer Prichard Colon re­mains in coma

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY RICK MAESE

As al­ways, An­dre Diaz was at ring­side with his video cam­era turned on and aimed at the bud­ding boxing star. Through his viewfinder, Diaz could see Prichard Colon step into the ring en­gulfed in a sparkling robe — fuch­sia, blue and gold — with a roar­ing lion head on the back. The open­ing bell rang, and over the course of the next 35 min­utes, Diaz watched as his friend lost in bizarre fash­ion, fi­nally wob­bling out of the ring and back into the dress­ing room.

That’s when Diaz had to stop record­ing.

“I didn’t want any vis­ual ev­i­dence of this hor­ror,” he said. “I just sat there in shock as they were putting him on the gur­ney. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was hap­pen­ing.”

The hor­ror that was un­fold­ing was al­most im­pos­si­ble for Diaz and the rest of the fighter’s camp to process. Colon, 23, had seemed so in­vin­ci­ble, a power puncher who had never lost in the ring be­fore the Oct. 17 bout on the cam­pus of Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity. He was a ris­ing star who seemed des­tined for suc­cess.

“The kid was go­ing to be a su­per­star,” said Ray Flo­res, who served as ring an­nouncer for two of Colon’s fights, in­clud­ing last week­end’s in Fair­fax against Ter­rel Wil­liams.

The bout was to be just an­other fight for Colon, just an­other short film for Diaz, just an­other step on a pugilis­tic jour­ney. The young fighter en­tered with a 16-0 record and al­ready had caught the eye of boxing’s king­mak­ers. The bout marked his first time fight­ing on net­work tele­vi­sion, a chance to show­case him­self to a na­tion­wide au­di­ence watch­ing on NBC.

In the dress­ing room af­ter­ward, a large Puerto Ri­can flag hung on one wall as peo­ple swirled around the fighter. Colon was vom­it­ing and strug­gled to stay on his feet. Fi­nally, he passed out. “A night­mare,” Diaz called it.

In the mid­dle of Ea­gleBank Arena, fans were fo­cused on the evening’s main event — D.C.’s La­mont Peter­son against Felix Diaz — but of­fi­cials be­gan scram­bling back to the dress­ing room. Richard Ashby, the card’s of­fi­cial doc­tor, left ring­side, and David Hol­land, the Vir­ginia boxing com­mis­sioner, quickly gath­ered with the paramedics on-site. By the time they en­tered the dress-

ing room, Colon was passed out on the floor. Ashby ex­am­ined the fighter, and EMTs took his vi­tals, load­ing him onto a gur­ney and then into an am­bu­lance.

Colon was raced to Inova Fair­fax Hospi­tal, where he un­der­went emer­gency surgery be­cause of bleed­ing on the left side of his brain. He was in a coma for one week. His fam­ily kept daily vigil in hopes he might wake up and re­ported late Satur­day night that he was fi­nally breath­ing on his own. He ap­par­ently still has yet to awaken, and his ex­act prog­no­sis re­mains un­clear.

The Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Pro­fes­sional and Oc­cu­pa­tional Reg­u­la­tion, which over­sees li­cens­ing and reg­u­la­tion of boxing, mixed mar­tial arts and wrestling cards, has launched an of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors likely will look into whether Colon car­ried a pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion into the fight, whether he had suf­fered a pre­vi­ous head in­jury, per­haps in spar­ring, and whether some­thing was amiss Oct. 17. They will need to de­ter­mine whether ring­side of­fi­cials were dis­mis­sive of Colon’s com­plaints about rab­bit punches — il­le­gal, dam­ag­ing blows de­liv­ered to the back of the head or neck.

And per­haps most im­por­tant of all, they will try to de­ter­mine whether the tragedy suf­fered by Colon and felt deeply by a boxing com­mu­nity both in the United States and Puerto Rico could have been avoided.

A busy fight sched­ule

Diaz has been fol­low­ing Colon for more than two years. They met in Or­lando fol­low­ing Colon’s sec­ond pro fight, and Diaz stuck around, record­ing videos and edit­ing short doc­u­men­tary films about the fighter’s quick rise through the boxing ranks.

“I was on cloud nine ev­ery time I was in his pres­ence be­cause of how he made me feel,” Diaz said.

Diaz was rolling last month when Colon trav­eled to Toronto for a sched­uled six-round bout against Vi­vian Har­ris. The day be­fore the fight, they vis­ited the Chelsea Ho­tel down­town for a pre-pro­duc­tion meet­ing with the Pre­mier Boxing Cham­pi­ons crew.

“What is it for you that you love about boxing?” broad­caster Dana Ja­cob­son asked.

The fighter smiled wide. “I think it’s the adren­a­line rush,” he said. “The adren­a­line rush of be­ing in the ring, know­ing the guy wants to knock you out, but you’ve got to be smarter.”

Colon had been hooked on the sport from a young age. He was born out­side Or­lando and lived most of his life in either Florida or Puerto Rico. Af­ter win­ning five na­tional cham­pi­onships as an am­a­teur, he tried and failed to make the Puerto Ri­can Olympic team in 2012 and fi­nally turned pro in Fe­bru­ary 2013 at the age of 20.

He quickly made a name for him­self as a fighter who packed a heavy punch. Nine of his first 10 fights ended in knock­outs. Like many young box­ers, Colon main­tained a busy fight sched­ule. He fought seven times last year, and Oct. 17 marked not only his sixth fight of 2015 but his third bout in 78 days.

It also marked the third time vet­eran promoter Lou DiBella had in­cluded Colon on one of his cards. He saw a fu­ture star: the whole pack­age, 147 pounds of tal­ent, charisma and am­bi­tion.

“What’s so strik­ing about the kid is he looks like a movie star,” DiBella said. “He’s got those [Os­car] de la Hoya good looks, ex­tremely bright kid; ed­u­ca­tion is a big deal to him, very smart, very well-spo­ken, bilin­gual.”

Wel­ter­weight is a payday divi­sion. It’s where Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robin­son, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Du­ran, Floyd May­weather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao be­came leg­ends. Now Colon was un­de­feated, fight­ing on tele­vi­sion with the re­spected trainer Pe­dro Diaz be­side him, and per­haps most im­por­tant, he was backed by man­ager Al Hay­mon, boxing’s mys­te­ri­ous pup­peteer who had launched May­weather to un­prece­dented riches and had be­come the sport’s most pow­er­ful fig­ure.

As a fighter, DiBella says Colon was brim­ming with po­ten­tial, a nat­u­ral ath­lete whose boxing skills were start­ing to co­a­lesce. He had ap­peared on smaller tele­vised shows, but the ap­pear­ance on broad­cast TV was his big­gest to date.

Colon ar­rived in Vir­ginia on Oct. 13 and fi­nally saw his op­po­nent face-to-face two days later, when he and Wil­liams ap­peared to­gether at a news con­fer­ence to pro­mote the show. Colon had mem­o­rized some lines, re­viewed them with pub­li­cists to make sure he pro­moted the card prop­erly. He knew the fight was an im­por­tant step­ping stone, and Wil­liams just hap­pened to be an­other fighter stand­ing in his way.

“I know he’s hun­gry,” Colon said of Wil­liams that day. “I’ve faced big fight­ers in my ca­reer in the am­a­teurs. No wor­ries. He’s just an­other fighter, and I know go­ing to be the one with my hand raised on Satur­day.”

The fight­ers saw each other the next day, too, at the of­fi­cial weighin. They en­gaged in a lengthy stare-down that didn’t end un­til pub­li­cists urged them to raise their fists and pose for the as­sem­bled cam­era­men. What Colon saw was a fighter who didn’t look much dif­fer­ent from him­self: They both stood about 6 feet. Colon’s reach was just an inch longer than Wil­liams’s, and they both en­tered the ring with per­fect records.

Per­haps most no­tice­able, Wil­liams, a Los An­ge­les na­tive, was eight years older, and he had walked away from the sport for nearly two years be­fore step­ping back into the ring five months ago.

“On pa­per, you’d think Prichard should win the fight,” Flo­res said “He’s fought bet­ter op­po­si­tion, and he’d looked more dom­i­nant. But the con­sen­sus was Ter­rel Wil­liams was no joke. We knew it wasn’t go­ing to be easy.”

An ap­par­ent rab­bit punch On the day of the fight, Diaz was with Colon in the dress­ing room as Colon laced his gloves and went through his pre-fight rou­tine. He fol­lowed the fighter out to the ring. With his dark hair cropped short and his beard trimmed thin and neat, Colon bounced in place wear­ing gold trunks with blue trim. He shed the robe and saun­tered to the mid­dle of the ring, where the referee briefly ran through the rules and then said, “Let’s shake hands. Let’s throw some thun­der.”

Diaz was film­ing from ring­side when the open­ing bell rang. Early on, Colon was slick, sharp and eas­ily in con­trol, pick­ing off Wil­liams with jabs from out­side and scor­ing early and of­ten. Late in the first round, he first com­plained about get­ting hit in the back of the head. The fight­ers were in a short clinch in the mid­dle of the ring, and as Colon was try­ing to get out, Wil­liams landed a straight right. Colon, with a puz­zled ex­pres­sion, pulled back and pointed his right glove to the base of his skull.

He still cruised through the open­ing rounds, but in the fifth, Wil­liams started muscling his way back. Colon re­sponded with a low blow that dropped Wil­liams like a can­non­ball. The referee, Joseph Cooper, ruled the shot in­ten­tional and called for a time­out. Wil­liams rose to his feet be­fore fall­ing back down onto the mat, clearly in pain.

Wil­liams fi­nally got to his feet for good, stared at Colon and moved his right glove across his throat in a slash­ing mo­tion. Cooper sent Wil­liams to a neu­tral cor­ner and told Wil­liams, “Don’t you re­tal­i­ate,” be­fore re­sum­ing the fight.

Wil­liams was in­censed, and when the fight fi­nally re­sumed, he took out his frus­tra­tions on Colon over the next two rounds. In the sev­enth, Wil­liams had Colon reel­ing, and he landed an ap­par­ent rab­bit punch to the back of Colon’s head as the Puerto Ri­can fighter was turn­ing away. Colon dropped and clutched his head. Rab­bit punches are frowned upon and po­liced closely in the ring be­cause they can be par­tic­u­larly harm­ful.

Neu­rol­o­gist Mar­garet Good­man, who worked more than 500 fights as a re­spected ring­side doc­tor in Ne­vada, says they can dam­age the spinal cord, cause cir­cu­la­tion dis­rup­tion be­tween the neck to brain and the­o­ret­i­cally de­tach the brain from the spinal cord. She cau­tions, though, that most tragic ring ac­ci­dents aren’t the re­sult of one or two punches, il­le­gal or oth­er­wise, and rab­bit punches would most of­ten be con­sid­ered con­trib­u­tory fac tors.

“From my ex­pe­ri­ences with se­ri­ous brain in­juries, it’s usu­ally a re­sult of some­thing they car­ried into the fight,” she said, “either a pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion, maybe some­thing from spar­ring, maybe they were pre­dis­posed to this type of in­jury.”

Cooper scolded Wil­liams and gave Colon five min­utes to re­cover from the foul. Wil­liams shook his head as he walked to a neu­tral cor­ner, and fans up­set with the de­lay show­ered the ring with boos. In the ring, Wil­liams tapped his gloves to­gether and ap­peared to be telling Colon, “Let’s go.” Colon strug­gled to get to his feet, still hold­ing his left glove to the back of his head as he moved to the op­po­site cor­ner. Ring­side physi­cian Ashby ex­am­ined Colon and deemed him okay to con­tinue.

He seemed okay Ac­cord­ing to judges’ score­cards, Colon was lead­ing the fight through eight rounds, just six min­utes away from a ma­jor­ity de­ci­sion. But then came the dis­as­trous ninth.

Wil­liams pinned Colon against the ropes and un­loaded. Colon fell, and Cooper started count­ing. Colon rose to his feet, but Wil­liams landed an up­per­cut to the body that sent Colon sprawl­ing for­ward. Wil­liams then caught Colon with a right to the back of the head, and the young fighter came crash­ing onto the can­vas.

When the bell fi­nally rang, the two box­ers re­treated to their cor­ners. With one round re­main­ing, Colon’s cor­ner, in­clud­ing Diaz, the head trainer, and Colon’s fa­ther, Richard, cu­ri­ously be­gan to re­move the fighter’s gloves. Most sit­ting ring­side were con­fused. “I did not at first un­der­stand what was go­ing on,” said Hol­land, the Vir­ginia boxing com­mis­sioner.

Re­al­iz­ing their mis­take, Colon’s team quickly tried to get the gloves back on for the fi­nal round, but it didn’t mat­ter. Once the seal on the gloves is bro­ken, a fighter is au­to­mat­i­cally dis­qual­i­fied, which gave Wil­liams the win and spoiled Colon’s un­beaten record.

While the tele­vi­sion broad­cast com­men­ta­tors in­sin­u­ated that Colon’s cor­ner was stalling for more time, the fight­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives had a dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tion. Hol­land ad­dressed the cor­ner. There’s no in­jury, Hol­land said he was told; they just thought the fight was over.

Colon and his cor­ner­men ex­ited the ring. Those at ring­side de­scribed him as dazed but show­ing no signs of a ma­jor in­jury.

“I’ve been around the game for a lit­tle while,” said Flo­res, the an­nouncer. “You could not tell that any­thing — you just could never have pre­dicted it’d be as bad as it turned out.”

Colon ap­peared to be walk­ing out of the ring un­der his own power, his arms draped around fam­ily mem­bers as he dis­ap­peared into the shad­ows of Ea­gleBank Arena.

“I had no rea­son to think he was sick or ill,” Hol­land said. “He seemed okay.”

Sup­port for young fighter

The am­bu­lance raced Colon to the hospi­tal, where sur­geons awaited. Mean­while, word be­gan to spread in the arena and be­yond that some­thing was amiss. News trav­eled fast that night. In Puerto Rico, there was mostly con­fu­sion.

“Peo­ple here were very up­set,” said Car­los Gon­za­lez, a reporter for the Puerto Ri­can tabloid Primera Hora. “This is not some­thing any­one could have ex­pected.”

Puerto Rico has al­ways trea­sured its boxing cham­pi­ons, from Car­los Or­tiz and Wil­fred Ben­itez to Hec­tor Ca­ma­cho and Felix Trinidad. Colon was still far too young and un­ac­com­plished to be on that list, but he was on the doorstep and Puerto Ri­can boxing fans ex­cit­edly fol­lowed his bud­ding ca­reer.

“You have to re­mem­ber: This kid was very down to earth,” Gon­za­lez said. “In his home town, he acted just like any­one else, vis­it­ing res­tau­rants, go­ing to base­ball games. Just a nor­mal, nice kid.”

Diaz no­ticed that early in their friend­ship. When he flew to Puerto Rico to visit Colon, Diaz didn’t have money for a ho­tel, so Colon gave his own room to his friend and shared a fam­ily mem­ber’s twin-size bed.

“Prichard has an en­ergy that was lov­ing, warm, happy, and gen­uine,” Diaz said./

Colon emerged from surgery but was co­matose. In the days that fol­lowed, his fam­ily re­ported on Face­book that Colon ap­peared to show some re­flex­ive move­ment in his hands, feet, arms and legs. Late Satur­day night, they posted an up­date in Span­ish:

“Prichard is breath­ing with­out ma­chines!! The glory of God!! Only thing miss­ing is to wake up.”

The boxing com­mu­nity has banded to­gether in sup­port of the young fighter. Ev­ery­one as­so­ci­ated with the sport knows the risks, un­der­stands there’s a thin line sep­a­rat­ing a boxing cham­pion from a hospi­tal pa­tient.

Back in 2013, Colon had just fin­ished a work­out at an Or­lando gym when Diaz turned on the cam­era for one of their first in­ter­views.

“This is what I was born to do,” Colon ex­plained. “This is what I’ve waited for all my life. This is what I’ve ded­i­cated 100 per­cent of my time to. This is what I’ve sac­ri­ficed every­thing for.”

“I didn’t want any vis­ual ev­i­dence of this hor­ror. I just sat there in shock as they were putting him on the gur­ney. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was hap­pen­ing.” An­dre Diaz, friend of Prichard Colon’s who was film­ing the fight

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Prichard Colon, left, and Ter­rel Wil­liams ex­change punches in their bout in Fair­fax on Oct. 17. Colon was hooked on boxing from a young age.

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