Tough to soften the blows in HBO tale of dirty fight

So, you hate boxing. You think it is mostly one lowlife beating on another, each trained and managed by more of the same.

Well, look no further for reinforcement than tonight's HBO premiere of a documentary called "Assault in the Ring."

It has it all. Liars, cheaters, scumbags and crooks. Some brutality too.

Make sure the kids stay up late.

It is a story of a 1983 match between undefeated Irish Billy Collins and journeyman punching bag Luis Resto. The welterweight fight was on the undercard of the Davey Moore-Roberto Duran show in Madison Square Garden.

Collins was 14-0, another in a long line of great white hopes, and his promoter, Bob Arum, says in the film that, had he "made it through, he would have been a gold mine."

It turned out Collins didn't make it through. He nearly was beaten to death by Resto. That beating, and his inability to return to the ring, apparently prompted his car crash and death nine months later.

It also turned out that Resto cheated, that some of his handlers, most likely trainer Panama Lewis, had taken lots of the padding out of Resto's gloves. That meant that Collins spent the 10-round match being pounded on with what amounted to bare knuckles. When it ended, Collins was left with two giant lumps where his eyes used to be.

In those days, boxing gloves were padded with horsehair. That moved around much more inside the glove than the current foam padding and also could be more easily removed covertly.

Trainer Freddie Roach of Los Angeles, interviewed about this story, called that night in 1983 "one of the worst things that happened to boxing in the last 50 years."

Roach, now the most famous and respected boxing trainer in the country, was still a fighter then, although not in Resto and Collins' weight class. He knew them both, had several conversations with Collins, and spent more time than he would have liked with Lewis.

"When I trained Mike Tyson," Roach said, "he had Panama around a lot. I asked him why one time. He said Panama made him laugh."

This documentary is no laughing matter. HBO tries to spin it as a tale of redemption. It really isn't. A coerced redemption, maybe.

They drag poor Resto, who has taken so many shots to the head over the years that his mumbled statements have to be backed up with subtitles, all over the country to confront people and, later, to apologize.

They try to make it poignant and end up making it pathetic.

After a while, as one scene after another shows Resto shuffling into gyms and onto porches to mumble something about how badly he felt, you start to realize that he probably kept going along because he was riding on airplanes and getting free meals.

Resto eventually fesses up to knowing something had been going on -- surprise, surprise; he and Lewis each spent 2 1/2 years in jail because of what they did that night -- and after a series of tearful apologies, HBO ends it by telling us that Resto now walks with his head held higher.

That's happy hogwash, the usual television thirst for rounded corners and cheerful endings.

At the end, postscript notes tell the viewers that Lewis is still training fighters in Florida, even though he will never again be licensed to train in the ring for a sanctioned fight. It also says that Resto lived for a while with a son who opened a restaurant, but is back in New York again, working with fighters.

The real ending is that, in all probability, both will hang around gyms until the day they die.

This film may also serve as a reminder that, while the foam padding has probably eliminated a repeat of the Resto-Collins incident, boxing never seems far from the sleaze.

In the course of the investigation, it came to light that Resto's wraps had also been filled with plaster of Paris. In January of this year, at Staples Center, the same substance was found in the wraps of Antonio Margarito, before his welterweight title fight with Shane Mosley. Margarito's hands were rewrapped and Mosley won convincingly.

In a fight before he met Mosley, Margarito pounded a tough, then-undefeated Miguel Cotto in New York City and at the time, people were amazed that somebody as good as Cotto would be given such a beating in suffering his first loss.

Nobody has proven anything about that Cotto fight, because the doubts about Margarito didn't occur until the Mosley bout. However, it is unlikely that boxing fans will see much of Margarito or his trainer, Javier Capetillo, in the future.

But the stench will arise somewhere else in boxing soon enough.

To cheat in sports is becoming a cherished tradition. If you do it in baseball, for example, they make a bobblehead doll in your honor. Boxing has just always been cutting-edge.

Give HBO credit. It did some journalism, even in the face of a business downside -- rare in any media these days. Its sports division has a considerable investment in boxing, and it still told this story, honest in its pathos, ugly in its reality, and not exactly a great sales pitch for future pay-per view buys.

But give Roach the last word.

"This is my approach in this business," he said. "If you trust anybody, you are a fool."


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