Two men entered the ring for their first professional fight. Then something went wrong.
By DAN BARRY
MARCH 27, 2016
The Final Bell
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The fearless young boxer feared what he would see, feared how he would be received. He lingered at the threshold of the surgical intensive care unit, unable to take those few short steps to the bedside of his comatose opponent.
The boxer, Anthony Taylor, known for his take-a-punch-to-give-a-punch ferocity, froze under the unforgiving lights of crisis care at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, where a chorus of beeping monitors and exhaling respirators sang of lives at the precipice. He did not want to be here.
That is, he wanted to be here, and his coach told him that he should be here, but he was frightened. In his gloveless hands he carried the shield of a bouquet, bright yellow flowers that were like dandelions, only nicer.
A nurse asked if he needed help. Soon, a relative of the patient he had come to see invited him into a crowded room. There, in a small bed, with a white bandage wrapped around his head and a blue air tube running from his mouth, was the man Taylor had recently danced and fought with:
Hamzah Aljahmi, 19, his eyes still closed.
Taylor handed the flowers to someone and sat in a chair near the foot of the bed, stunned. To think that less than 72 hours earlier, he and this person had each been paid a few hundred dollars to fight their first professional fight, a four-rounder in the hall of a Ukrainian church. To think how they had stared into each other’s eyes while engaged in a most violent form of intimacy.
It could be 24-year-old Anthony Taylor in that bed, not Hamzah Aljahmi. Now Anthony would be spending the holidays with his family, while Hamzah. …
The visitor began to cry.
Ali Aljahmi, a first cousin, was moved, even impressed, by the sight of this distraught stranger paying his respects. For you to step into this room of anger and grief, Aljahmi thought to himself. For you to come to be with us. Takes a lot of strength.
The cousin led Taylor into the hall to offer comforting perspective. Whatever was happening in that hospital room was Allah’s will, he said, and do not doubt that you helped Hamzah to realize his dream of becoming a professional boxer.
One more thing, Aljahmi said. “You have become family with me forever for this kind of gesture.”
Taylor returned to the room and, for the next hour, talked with the father, an uncle and a few cousins of the man laid out before them, the black of his eyebrows enhanced by an enveloping whiteness of bandages and blankets.
“They told me they wanted me to keep going,” Taylor recalled. “That he would want me to keep going, and that I have to honor him and keep him alive by continuing to box.”
The father, also named Ali Aljahmi, would only vaguely remember Taylor’s visit, so mind-blurring were his waves of grief. He had been at the fight. He had seen his beloved son, a determined fighter, crumple to the blue mat. Not in direct response to any punch, it seemed, but almost as an afterthought.
The elder Aljahmi had been here in this chilling, antiseptic environment ever since, save for when nurses would gently tell him it was time to leave for the night. He’d return to a hotel whose name he would not remember and try to avoid the many anxious telephone calls from family members and friends back in their hometown of Dearborn.
How is Hamzah? How is Hamzah? How is Hamzah?
The father did not want to answer. If he did respond, it was to tell a version of the truth: “Hamzah is sleeping.”
Finally, the father telephoned a nephew in Dearborn with the same name as his: Ali Aljahmi, Hamzah’s cousin. I need you to bring Hamzah’s mother here to Youngstown, Ali. She needs to see him.
The nephew understood what his uncle was not saying. He did as he was told. He packed Hamzah’s mother, Jamilah Aljahmi, and other relatives into a borrowed Chevy Cruze and began to drive, listening to them cry because Hamzah had been injured, but knowing that worse news awaited them in Youngstown.
The mother saw her child wrapped in white, as if already prepared for the coffin. She held his feet, felt warmth, and in her profound grief exclaimed that he was alive!
All this was too much for her health, it was decided. A relative drove Hamzah’s mother and the other women back to Dearborn. To wait for what was to be.
But the father clung to hope as his son had clung to the ropes. He arose one morning in that strange hotel feeling as though all would be well. These efficient people in lab coats and nursing outfits would find some high-tech equivalent of smelling salts, and his son’s eyes would open.
Finally, though, the father let go. Shedding his stoicism, he collapsed onto his son’s chest and begged between sobs that Hamzah rise and come with him to IHOP for another restorative meal. Please, Hamzah, he implored. Do not leave your best friend like this.
The shaken cousin, Ali Aljahmi, sought out the neurosurgeon and asked to be told straight, so that the family could prepare. “He said in 30 years he hadn’t seen a brain so damaged,” he remembered. “He told me flat-out: Start making arrangements.”
By this point, Anthony Taylor the boxer had said his hospital goodbyes and driven his dented Dodge Caravan the 20 miles back to the weathered white house he rented with his fiancée. Exhausted by it all, he fell asleep, only to awake an hour later to a text message aglow on his phone.
Hamzah Aljahmi was dead.
A Tribute to a Man Who ‘Was Everything’
After the autopsy, a Youngstown funeral home arranged to return Hamzah Aljahmi to Michigan, retracing his interstate journey past the deadened brown of a Rust Belt December, to a funeral home in Detroit, close to the Dearborn line.
A handful of relatives and friends, all men, prepared the young body for burial. They prayed as they tended to their somber task, while verses of the Quran emanated from a loudspeaker.
The dead young man was laid upon a table. Fingernails and toenails were clipped. The body was meticulously cleansed and gently rubbed with a scented oil that made the skin glisten — “The smell was very beautiful,” the cousin Ali Aljahmi said. Then it was wrapped in three sheets of white cloth.
The boxer was placed in a cloth-covered coffin made of fiberboard and cardboard, in keeping with an adherence to simplicity. A pleasant perfume was sprinkled over the burial cloth.
Late the next morning, a dark blue Dodge Caravan hearse carried the body the seven miles to the American Moslem Society mosque, a tan-brick building topped with a turquoise dome. Hundreds were already gathering in the parking lot.
Family members shelved their shoes and carried the modest coffin up the stairs, past the small brown donation boxes and into a sectioned-off area reserved for women, at the far back of the cavernous hall. The sounds of weeping escaped the divide.
Aljahmi’s father, with scarf, and cousin, in purple shirt, who are both named Ali Aljahmi, during prayers at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.
The coffin, draped in a green-and-yellow cloth, was then moved to one side of the long rectangular hall, where mourners paid their respects to many, many relatives: the extended Aljahmi tribe. The father, Ali Aljahmi, sat in the first chair, and in the second, at the family’s insistence, was Mohamed Hamood — Coach Mo — Hamzah’s grief-shredded trainer.
The mourning paused for the afternoon prayer. Long rows of men and boys, including many not before seen at the mosque, stood shoulder to shoulder on the green-and-gold carpet with patterns pointing toward Mecca. They spilled into the downstairs space and out into the parking lot.
After the afternoon prayer, relatives carried the coffin to the front of the room. The imam led a short funeral service that included prayers for forgiveness, for Hamzah Aljahmi, for all of humankind, and for mercy upon the family.
Allahu akbar. God is great.
It was time for burial. The shoeless pallbearers descended the stairs to meet the December cold and the jostle of thousands. They walked with purpose across the lot, some slipping into shoes as they went, carving a path through a human crush that was affecting traffic along Vernor Highway. Many vied to touch the coffin, while others competed for an honored turn as a pallbearer.
But why so many mourners for a 19-year-old man?
People explain that Hamzah Aljahmi “died in action”; that he represented the Yemeni embrace of boxing; that he made friends with Arabs and non-Arabs, black, white, male, female; that he embodied an infectious liveliness.
“He was everything, to be honest with you,” Ibrahim Aljahim, a cousin and community leader, said. Another cousin, Fayez Algahmi, a former honorary consul of Yemen, agreed. “The way he died, and the thing he died for, touched everyone,” Algahmi said.
The funeral procession turned right onto Riverside Drive, along which the rusty chain-link fence of Woodmere Cemetery disappears into the distance. Now and then the undulations in the cemetery’s brown grass revealed the gray-white tops of tombstones.
Chanting prayers as they walked, the mourners turned left at a gate to enter the cemetery, many of them forming a protective bubble around the raised coffin. The occasional cold breeze ruffled its drape of green-and-yellow cloth.
Near the grave site, relatives opened the coffin one more time, so that the father and a few others could say their final goodbyes. “I gave him a bunch of kisses on the forehead,” his first cousin Ali Aljahmi recalled.
In keeping with Islamic ritual, the body was turned on its right side to face Mecca, and some dirt was placed beside it. The coffin was closed, and lowered into its concrete rectangular case. Then mourner after mourner threw dirt three times into the hole, signifying the beginning and end of things.
God is great, they whispered. To God we belong, and to him we shall return.
Ali Aljahmi at the grave site of his son, whom he considered his best friend, in Dearborn last month.
The communal grieving did not end at the grave. For weeks afterward, streams of people came to the Aljahmi family’s simple home to offer condolences and distraction. Among them were many young people seeking some token or relic of their friend the boxer, Hamzah the Lion. A T-shirt. A jacket. A shoe. A ribbon. A trophy.
Of course, of course, the brokenhearted father would say.
“I don’t close the door,” he explained.
A Fighter Finds Comfort in Someone Who Understands
On the tough south side of Youngstown, in the squat cinder-block refuge called Jack Loew’s South Side Boxing Club, the boxing life continues for Anthony Taylor. He and other would-be champions punch bags and skip rope, spar with partners and obey the sign that says “no weapon of any kind” — other than fists.
Taylor had taken some time off after the Hamzah Aljahmi fight to get his body and mind straight. His right hand had been damaged, among other parts.
True, the first time Taylor returned to the ring to spar, he froze for a moment. (“I was waiting on him, and he hit me, and hit me again,” he says. “And I was like, O.K.”) But now the Tiger is back, shorn of his dreadlocks and preparing for his second professional fight, which is scheduled to be at the same venue, Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He’ll be taking his chances, once again, in a bingo hall.
“I can’t walk in there thinking about what happened,” Taylor says, as if trying to convince himself. “You can’t change what’s happened in the past. I wish I could.”
As Taylor works out, his coach, Jack Loew, sits in his back office, the walls covered with boxing memorabilia, a broken speed bag on his desk. He was the promoter behind that fatal boxing event, and he has wept over Aljahmi’s death.
“You don’t think about stuff like that,” Loew says, voice cracking. “A frigging club show with 115-pounders for four rounds.”
A few loose ends from that night remain to be tied. For one thing, the Mahoning County coroner has yet to release the results of his autopsy (although the weakness in Aljahmi’s right leg that night could be suggestive of a left hemispheric brain bleed). This is why Bernie Profato, the Ohio Athletic Commission’s director, has not formally closed the case, although he says his own inquiry found no lapses of protocol by the commission he oversees.
Profato is also haunted by the memory of this polite young man, such a model of respect at the weigh-in. But the inherent dangers are made plain in the contracts signed by boxers, including these two first-time pros, Taylor and Aljahmi.
“You’re entering a sport where you could be seriously hurt or injured,” Profato says. “They know that. That’s just the nature of the sport.”
A childhood friend of Loew’s comes through the boxing club’s door: Ray Mancini, the onetime lightweight world champion, known in Youngstown and far beyond as Boom Boom. Unfairly, he is also known for one fight: Duk-koo Kim, Las Vegas, 1982.
Mancini connected with two hard rights to Kim’s head at the start of the 14th round, sending the tenacious South Korean challenger to the canvas and prompting the referee to declare a technical knockout. Incurring a brain bleed known as a subdural hematoma, Kim lapsed into a coma and died four days later. He was 27.
Mancini was 21.
It took years, but Mancini worked his way through the depression and self-doubt that followed. Even though he eventually forgave himself and made peace with the tragedy, he says, others have shown less grace over the years.
“Hey, Boom Boom,” he mimics. “Hey, man, let me ask you something. What’s it like to kill somebody in the ring? I mean, what’s it like to see someone go down and never get up?”
Ray Mancini, left, known as Boom Boom, a former lightweight world champion, with Taylor in Youngstown.
Mancini is 54 now, gray-haired and fit, with various business and entertainment interests. He has come to his friend’s club this evening to counsel the young boxer with whom he shares a sorrowful bond. He wants to talk about forgiveness, and loudmouths, and giving up the game if there is even the slightest hesitation in the ring.
Loew heads for the door in search of his boxer Taylor, saying, “I don’t even know where this kid is at.”
Soon Anthony Taylor, fresh from the stutter of speed bags and the whack of skipped rope, is in the back-office quiet, sitting shyly across from the Boom Boom Mancini like a confessor before a priest.
“Really sad for you, man,” Mancini begins. “I never met you before, but. …
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