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Alejandra Ayala is awake: What now?

Alejandra Ayala

Shortly before the evening’s main event, a women’s super-welterweight world title fight between Scotland’s reigning WBA and IBO champion, Hannah Rankin, and Tijuana’s travelling challenger, Alejandra Ayala, I walked the outer perimeter of the ringside seating section. There, sitting peacefully, were two Mexican fight fans – one male, one female.

As I wandered over to welcome them to Glasgow, talk to them, try to make them feel a part of the bubbling atmosphere, they threw up their flags and smiled, grateful for the hospitality. We had a chat. I say chat, I mean as much as three people speaking opposite languages really can; we posed for a picture, they smiled even wider again, and I returned to my seat. It was one of those fleeting moments you barely give a second thought to. Good luck to them and their fighter, safe travel, all the best.

Sadly, for Alejandra Ayala, it wasn’t that simple. As she sagged against the ropes in the closing moments of the bout’s final round, kept aloft only by the unrelenting punches of Rankin, relying on a flaky cocktail of gravity and heart to spare her from the canvas, the Mexican was in serious trouble. She’d end up receiving oxygen propped up in her corner; I watched from 10 yards or less. Precautionary, right. When I’d found out the next day that Ayala had been transferred to Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital and had undergone emergency surgery, I flicked back to that picture of me standing with her fans. All smiles.

Boxing hasn’t helped itself in my lifetime and in the years before I’d bloodied my shield defending it. But these things happen, regrettably. Rare, uncommon, but traumatic and inked permanently in the memory of those who witness them. I can remember speaking to former WBC heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder, on the phone years ago before he obliterated Bermane Stiverne in their rematch. Wilder had been ranting and raving about “wanting a body on his record,” and I’d asked how he really felt? Did he understand that statements of such reckless bravado would split his fanbase, and shatter his position as a role model?

The Bronze Bomber, at that time heavyweight champion of the world, told me that it wasn’t bravado; he told me he wanted to kill someone in the ring, and he likened it to gladiatorial combat. “You people pay for that, it’s entertainment” he said, almost justifying any instance of paralysis, brain injury, or death, while shifting blame from his broad, dangerous shoulders to those of his followers. Ah, it must be our fault for watching.

After writing that interview and leaving out certain quotes, I thought regularly about how Wilder would actually feel – deep down, if it had happened to him or to one of his opponents. Here was a man propelled into professional boxing as a means of providing for his disabled daughter; I wasn’t quite buying it.

This week, an article was brought to my attention, and while it shocked and confused me, it didn’t surprise me. And I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. CANCHA (@reformacancha), a Mexican news outlet with 200,000 Twitter followers, shared an article from Mexican website La Opinion (www.laopinion.com). That article claimed that after Alejandra Ayala was stopped in just a couple of rounds by Savannah Marshall – a fight staged in London, United Kingdom – the British Boxing Board of Control contacted the Federation of Professional Boxing Commissions of the Mexican Republic.

It’s reported that Dennis Gilmartin, an ultra-experienced veteran of the sport and supervisor, wrote to the Mexican boxing authority 10 days after Ayala’s punishing defeat to Marshall, stating the findings of an MRI brain scan had shown a tumour in the fighter’s brain. Back in 2018, it wasn’t significant enough to prevent Ayala from fighting the Olympian – a decision that beggars belief in itself – but doubt has been cast over any attempt at following this discovery up in Mexico, upon her return following the Marshall defeat, or in continuing to licence Ayala for her bout with Rankin.

The tumour, which the article states was 3mm in size, could have grown at varied rates, according to neurosurgeon Edgar Nathal, and could have progressed to 1.5 or 2cm in size over the four years that have passed, Nathal estimates. In fact, he says that in order to grow to a size that is of important medical relevance, four-to-five years would have had to pass. Concerning altogether. Gilmartin provided his findings to the Mexican Federation out of “professional courtesy” and listed “inconsequential intracranial findings. Probably 3 millimetre meningioma in the left anterior convexity.” It means as much to me at first glance as I assume it does to you – not much. But it raises a couple of seriously important, dangerous questions.

I reached out to the British Boxing Board of Control’s Scottish area with these two questions as written below (as yet no response):

  1. Would the Board generally accept the foreign medical records, from Mexico, in this instance? And are they scrutinised or gone through with a level of detail to ascertain authenticity?
  2. Would a fighter like Ayala – previously knocked out on a British show and with findings of some concern on a scan years ago – not cause concern when she revisited the UK to compete on May 13th? Would that prior finding set off any alarm bells, or would it be overlooked due to her “fit-to-box” status from Mexico?

I completely understand that it’s not practical to fly every fighter into the UK and to then provide stringent, strict scanning and medical procedures. It is costly and it is time-consuming. If we’d asked fighters to cover the cost themselves, many of them would be lucky to buy a Burger King at the airport on the way home. But what is the answer?

Are we seriously saying that in this instance, Dennis Gilmartin felt strongly enough to flag his concerns to the Mexican Boxing Federation as a matter of caution and courtesy, but when Ayala returns to fight in Glasgow, there’s no concern whatsoever? That doesn’t sit well with me. Surely, surely there must be something of an indicator placed against Ayala’s name when being considered as an opponent by the BBBoC. I’m not trying to insist she shouldn’t work; I’m hoping that I’m wrong in assuming a previous concern – no matter how minor – could have slipped through the cracks when approving the contest. Don’t the Board retain a history of fighters they’re concerned about, in case of future health risk?

And what of the licenses handed out by international commissions to travelling fighters? Again, what can be done to mitigate the risk of a dodgy medical? How can we be really, truly sure that a doctor in Tijuana has done his due diligence or understands the inherent risks of prize fighting? Alejandra Ayala flew into Glasgow and fought Hannah Rankin on a streamed British show, broadcast on FightZone. When – and I wish I could say ‘if’ – something happened to her, it reflected horribly on the entire event. Not on the Mexican Boxing Federation, or on Ayala’s doctor, or on those who supported her in taking this fight after years of inactivity.

If it damages our reputation as a leader of professional boxing, something surely needs to be done to protect years of medical progression and fighter protection on these shores?

Thankfully, Ayala is awake and making a steady recovery after some tense moments over the last fortnight. It could have been so much worse. I’m not a neurosurgeon, I don’t sit on the Board, and I don’t profess to know enough about these things, but I can recall members of the media recoiling as Ayala stared motionless in the direction of the opposite corner, strapped up to her oxygen mask. She knew something was happening to her; she knew something was wrong but didn’t know what. That was hard to watch.

If there’s something that can be done to negate the possibility of that happening, whether it was in fact related to her initial tumour findings in 2018 or if it was just a stroke of bad luck, we should be exploring solutions or stage gates that ensure levels of protection for fighters. Because those flags draped over my shoulders and waved above the heads of those two smiling fans in Glasgow, could just as easily have been flown at half-mast.