The Cruelest Sport almost always gives the benefit of the doubt to fighters who claim injury. Boxing is a pitiless and sapping pursuit, both in and out of the ring, and the dangers prizefighters face go far beyond what happens during fight night. Sparring, weight loss, and the whims of soulless promoters also have the potential to whittle a boxer down little by little. Between the ropes, the disturbing but unique ability of boxing to wreck the past, present, and future of a fighter simultaneously is a dreadful reality too often overlooked.
But the case of Andre Dirrell, who withdrew from the Super Six tournament on Thursday because of headaches and dizziness, is so shrouded in uncertainty that even those who remember Gerald McClellan complaining about similar symptoms before his fateful bout with Nigel Benn might feel a stirring of doubt. Unfortunately for Andre Dirrell, boxing is such a treacherous, sleazy, amoral, and seedy pursuit that skepticism is all Dirrell is going to get while convalescing. Boxing has the worst bedside manner of any sport, and Dirrell will be lucky if someone does not sneak up on him in his Hill-Rom and smother him, metaphorically, of course, with a pillow.
The sub-plots, cast of characters, and conspiracy theories surrounding this mess are practically innumerable and scrutinizing them one by one would take an entire roomful of Windtalkers. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated hinted that he knew for a fact that Dirrell withdrew from the Super Six for reasons not related to his health. Dan Rafael at ESPN.com believes that Dirrell is indeed suffering from neurological problems. Steve Kim, one of the few writers who understands the labyrinthine workings of boxing, feels that a nefarious plot is afoot.
When Mikkel Kessler withdrew from the Super Six a few weeks ago citing eye trouble, he had his doubters as well, but not nearly as many as Dirrell has. In a way, that makes sense, since Kessler, unlike Dirrell, did not earn the enmity of the public over time. In addition, the financial and strategic issues Kessler faced were far more favorable than those of Dirrell. Kessler, for example, had a bigger purse waiting for him against Green, since Kessler–unlike 90% of American headliners–generates ancillary revenue via staggering gates in Denmark, European television rights, and endorsements. Add to that the fact that Kessler was in line to face the least threatening member of the Super Six, Allan Green, a man who exchanged blows against Andre Ward a few months ago with less zeal than the Philly Phanatic. Would Kessler give up a monster paycheck for an easy fight (on paper) and a chance to end Group Stage III with four or five points? This is an unlikely scenario, even for boxing.
Dirrell, by contrast, flopped his way to a points loss to Carl Froch, suffered a suspicious back injury that led to his fight with Arthur Abraham being moved from California to Detroit, and, through no fault of his own, really, won his only Super Six bout while on his back. To make matters worse, the Keatonesque atmosphere surrounding his bout with Andre Ward–stretched out for months–has no equivalent in modern boxing. (On the other hand, doubt about his health could explain why Dirrell seemed hesitant to face Ward.) Kessler also produced doctors to verify his difficulties. The Detroit Free Press mentioned that Dr. Jawad Shah was treating Dirrell, but no statement has been released by Dr. Shah. Add to all this the looming face of Al Haymon, who has become a Machiavellian figure in the eyes of many, and you have all the ingredients for a crackling scheme.
With Haymon playing God at HBO, it is conceivable that he might have convinced Dirrell that Ross Greenburg was ready to be fleeced…again. If so, Dirrell would not be the first impressionable fighter to be taken down the left hand path by a Mephistophelean figure–or two. In this case, however, the Faustian pact with Al Haymon—should it exist— will likely pay dividends. With HBO perpetually bent over a barrel by a powerbroker whose real role in boxing remains as mysterious as the identity of The Man in the Iron Mask, the odds that Dirrell finds a spot at Time-Warner are as good as any in boxing.
None of this can be proved. None of this is fact. But in a strange way, perhaps we should be glad if Dirrell is pulling a fast one. In that case, he will be part of the thriving shadow world of boxing—the thieves, conmen, flesh peddlers, pranksters, and hustlers—and not a casualty of it, one of the irreparably damaged. Let him make his getaway, and maybe we should hope, for his sake, that it is a clean one.