Death in the Ring; An Olympic Cover-Up in 1972

franky leal

The Perils of Boxing

By Steve Kim
Francisco “Franky” Leal’s 27th birthday would have been this Friday. Unfortunately, he and his family won’t be celebrating the occasion. They’ll instead be mourning his death after Leal was knocked out by Raul Hirales in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, this past weekend, and died soon after.

In what was a decent scrap, Leal started off well enough, but as the night wore on, the heavier-hitting Hirales began to wear down the southpaw. Despite being a left-hander, Leal squandered that stylistic advantage by fighting in close quarters to Hirales, making himself a rather easy target. In the sixth round, he was sent to the canvas in a fight that had solid two-way action up until that point.

In the eighth round, he took a flurry of body punches, and the salvo concluded with what could be described as a rabbit punch to the back of his head. Leal crumpled to the canvas. Gamely, he rose to his feet, but as the fight was waved off, Leal staggered back to the corner and sat back down, his eyes open but with an empty look. Soon, his body was a lifeless slab. He was placed on a stretcher and transported to a hospital, but it was far too late. On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that Leal had died.

The brutal reality is that this sport is inherently dangerous, and unfortunately, at times, fatally so. But you would hope that in the wake of the latest tragedy that those who run the sport look upon the fate of Leal as an object lesson in what can happen when proper regulations — and perhaps in this instance, common sense — aren’t employed.

Leal’s passing is hardly the first time we’ve seen this, because boxing has a long history of such sadness. One of the most infamous ring fatalities took place on March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, when the contentious match-up between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret ended up in the death of Paret, who had openly mocked Griffith’s sexuality in the lead-up to this fight. But there are many who believe that Paret’s previous fight that December in Las Vegas versus the rugged Gene Fullmer was truly the bout that began his physical demise. Paret was halted in 10, and there were those who believed that should have been the end of his career as a prizefighter.

There’s a Fullmer in Leal’s case, too. In March of 2012, Leal faced Evgeny Gradovich in San Antonio. Gradovich, the current IBF featherweight champion, doesn’t so much knock opponents out as he does slowly beat them into submission. One punch at a time, he concusses his opponents with a steady stream of leather. After a typically game effort, Leal finally succumbed in the 10th and final round of their contest. Afterwards, he was carried off on a stretcher and taken to the hospital, an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come.

At the time, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation put him on indefinite suspension, with the stipulation that he have a neurology examination.

You would think that a fighter who leaves the ring in such a state as Leal had would have retired immediately out of concern for his own health. Others thought so; Top Rank had promoted the Gradovich-Leal bout, and their matchmaker Brad Goodman said, “After that, I refused to ever use him again.” Goodman noted that he had also dissuaded another matchmaker from using Leal in Seattle. But by the beginning of the year Leal was boxing, and had already fought four times in 2013 prior to facing Hirales.

As news spread of Leal’s death, Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler, who also works for Top Rank and was present that night in San Antonio, sent off these tweets from his protected @BruceTrampler account:

“Frankie Leal death no surprise after Gradovich sent him to hospital in 2012. Kept seeking fights- trainer should have retired him. Sad.”

“But it didn’t have to happen. Leal went to hospital in Texas and we had tears in eyes because we didn’t think he would make it.”

“Frankie as much to blame as anyone for seeking fights, but no trainer or cornerman should have gotten near that corner.”

“This was no roll of the dice, He almost died last year in Texas but pushed the envelope too far this time. Almost suicidal”

Why was an individual such as Leal allowed to box ever again?

Calls and emails to Tim Lueckenhoff, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, to find out if Leal had gotten medical clearance to continue his career, were not answered. But with the fractured nature of the sport, the ABC has real authority only in America, and Leal’s five fights in 2013 all took place in Mexico. The possibility exists that the Mexican commissions may not have known — or cared — about his indefinite suspension in the state of Texas.

Boxing has always had a rogue quality (in fact, it’s one of its charms) but being a boxer is akin to working in the coal mines. You know the dangers of that gig when you accept the work, from black lung to explosions that leave you trapped underneath dark rubble. It’s part of the occupational hazard that everyone understands. But there is still an expectation that the employers create as safe a workplace environment as possible.

That didn’t happen here. Leal was a danger to himself, and nobody stepped in to pull him out.

Not his trainer, Miguel Martinez, his second, Julio Esguerra, or his manager, Miguel Barraza. Or the promoters of the event, Zanfer Promotions, and certainly not the local commission whose very job is to ensure the health and safety of the participants. The game of boxing failed across the board. It may not have had enough administrative uniformity and it certainly didn’t employ enough logic. Leal should not have been boxing after the Gradovich fight that sent him to the hospital.

It was the right choice. In fact, it was the only one to make.

Yet among boxing fans, to whom quitting is something that is simply intolerable under any circumstances, there was a heated debate over Alvarado’s decision. In retrospect, there should be universal praise for his prudent choice to capitulate when all hope was lost.

Some may cringe at this sentence, but boxing is legalized and sanctioned assault dressed up as entertainment. So with that said, the industry has an obligation to regulate more stridently and with stricter guidelines placed on every aspect of the sport that pertains to the safety of its participants.

You would hope that boxing, much like the NFL, now fully understands the effects of head trauma and its short- and long-term effects. Tim Bradley, who admitted to not remembering much of his brutal battle with Provodnikov back in March, went through extra precautionary measures before taking on Juan Manuel Marquez several weeks ago.

And like every other sport, the sweet science is not immune from synthetic and illicit means of strength-and-conditioning. Only now is boxing beginning to understand that PEDs are every bit as prevalent in their game as Major League Baseball or the NFL. Only in this sport, you’re not trying to hit a baseball 50 feet further or run a tenth-of-a-second faster. The goal is, in essence, to strike your opponent as hard and as many times as possible.

This sport is dangerous. It’s always going to be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be deadly. With this latest ring death, the sport must look inward and question itself. Boxing will move on without Franky Leal. The hope is that it will move forward in his memory so that it can prevent the next casualty.

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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at and he tweets (a lot.)


1972 olympics

1972 Olympics

An Olympic Cover-Up?


For a brief moment, the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team thought they’d beaten the USSR. Was what happened next a mistake, or a conspiracy?

By Brian Tuohy
The game was over. Having trailed 26-21 at halftime, the United States men’s basketball team had come from behind and defeated the USSR 50-49 in the gold medal game at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics.

Except, that’s not how it really ended.

Instead, the Soviets were essentially given three chances to score a game-winning basket. On the third and final attempt, Alexander Belov caught a court-length pass from teammate Ivan Edeshko and made an uncontested layup. USSR 51, USA 50.

When the Soviets took to the podium to receive their gold medals, the U.S. team was nowhere to be found. They refused to accept their silver medals after protesting the last-second fiasco, and to a man continue to reject them 41 years later.

Why did the Soviets get those extra chances? The answer appeared straightforward, albeit not lacking in controversy. After America’s Doug Collins made the first of two free throws to tie the game at 49-49 with three seconds remaining in the game, Soviet head coach Vladimir Kondrashin called for a timeout, which, according to international rules at the time, was permissible after Collins’ second attempt. Right as Collins attempted this shot — which he made to give the U.S. its first lead in the game — a horn sounded, as it’s believed that the scorers’ table awarded the timeout. But the on-court officials did not grant it. Instead, after Collins sunk his second shot, the Soviet team scrambled to inbound the ball and score. Prior to any shot being attempted, Soviet assistant coach Sergei Bashkin stormed onto the court, demanding his team’s time-out.

After some discussion, officials awarded the Soviets their timeout. They set up for an inbounds pass with America’s 6’11” center Tom McMillen guarding the play. McMillen’s lanky presence forced Edeshko’s inbound pass to be a short, baseline pass to Modestas Paulauskas, who wildly chucked the ball the length of the court, attempting to connect with Belov. The horn sounded. Game over. However, due to the antiquated scorer’s clock, the time had not been properly reset when the referees whistled play to begin. The clock actually showed 50 seconds when play was resumed. So this failed second attempt was also waved off, even as Team USA celebrated its win.

The officials again held a mid-court conference, and the Soviets were given yet another opportunity which, as history has determined, became the winning play.

When I received an innocuous email a few years ago asking if I knew anything about this Olympic contest, I didn’t think much of it, even though a curious mind could’ve learned all there was to know through a basic Internet search. So when I replied with my brief take on the subject, much like what’s written above, I asked why the questioner wanted to know.

The response made my jaw drop.

My source claimed to have recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a statement that didn’t exactly lend itself to definitive verification. But the subsequent yarn spun altered my take on this historic game, adding to its significance as a proxy to the Cold War, and led me down a disturbing and ultimately frustrating path. The more one looks at the events preceding and following this game, the more it appears that Team USA didn’t just lose; it was outright conspired against.

The main culprit was Renato William Jones, the secretary-general and co-founder of the International Federation of Amateur Basketball (FIBA). Oddly enough, Jones helped make basketball an Olympic sport when it debuted in the 1936 Games (also held, coincidentally, in Germany). However, from that time forward, Team USA had not lost a game. Basketball was an American sport, invented in a Springfield, Ma., YMCA gym by James Naismith, and as if to drive that historical fact home, America’s Olympic record stood at 63-0 with seven consecutive gold medals prior to their meeting the Soviet team in that historic game. Jones wanted to see America’s dominance ended.

As the head of the FIBA, Jones wielded extraordinary power in the international game. Some claimed that he ran European basketball by his very whim, and he often feuded with American basketball representatives. He complained that America’s success at the Olympics was holding back European basketball’s growth. In many ways, he was correct. The NBA in 1972 did not contain a single foreign-born player. Today NBA rosters are stocked with nearly 80 players from more than 30 different countries.

But many accused Jones of being a Soviet sympathizer. He reportedly held close ties with the USSR, and leading into the Games, allegedly received illicit gifts from Soviet representatives (though this was not uncommon, as many wanted to remain in Jones’ good graces). With the 1972 Soviet squad, Jones may have sensed a chance to finally end America’s command over the sport he loved. The Soviet team assembled for the Olympics was a solid, if not outright professional, squad. The USSR had played perhaps as many as 400 games together leading into the Games. By contrast, the American team played just 12 exhibitions prior to the Olympic trials. So when opportunity presented itself, Jones pounced.

When Soviet assistant coach Bashkin interrupted the game by demanding the uncalled timeout, Jones bounded down the stadium’s steps and thrust himself into the debate. He held up three fingers, repeatedly shouting “three seconds” in German to the scorers. Jones’ overwhelming presence was enough. The time was put back on the clock, even though all involved later acknowledged that Jones had no right or power to make such in-game rulings.

So as the Soviets celebrated the victory, the conspiracy against America’s boys deepened. Jones denied being part of any decision to restart the clock. After witnesses came forward contradicting him, Jones admitted to being involved. However, this was no win for Team USA. To protest the game and file an appeal, the Americans had to approach the Jones-controlled FIBA.

Here, aiding in the plot was Ferenc Hepp of Hungary, which at the time was a Communist Bloc country. Hepp headed the five-judge panel for appeals that included representatives from two Western countries — Italy and Puerto Rico — and two Communist nations, Cuba and Poland. America’s case was presented by U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee chairman W.K. Summers, with the support of one of the game’s referees, Renato Righetto of Brazil. It mattered little. Hepp was notoriously close with Jones, and though he reportedly despised the USSR, the kangaroo court was slanted in the Soviets’ favor. When the final vote was tallied, ballots seemed to be cast along ideological lines, with the Soviets retaining their gold medals by a count of 3-2. Neither the International Olympic Committee nor future incarnations of FIBA would agree to hear further appeals on Team USA’s behalf.

For many, including the members of the American team, this is where the story ends. Yet it is here where a conspiracy theory takes this controversial result to another level.

According to my source, the CIA had viable information that the second official on the court that fateful night, Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjan, was in on the fix. Not because he was an avowed Communist, or that he felt Soviet pride, or even a desire to end America’s dominance in the sport. Arabadjan allegedly participated in rigging the game because the KGB had threatened to kidnap and murder his family if the Soviets lost.

Arabadjan is an officiating legend in Europe. As a player, he was a member of four Bulgarian championship teams in the 1950s. Upon becoming an official, Arabadjan was a FIBA referee for 16 years, overseeing games in three Olympics, two World Championships and six European Championships. In 2009, he was elected into the FIBA Hall of Fame. He would appear incorruptible. But such a threat, especially coming from the likes of the KGB, whose reach easily extended into the Soviet controlled country of Bulgaria, would likely change anyone’s mind.

Was Arabadjan complicit in stealing the victory from Team USA? Attempts to contact Arabadjan were unsuccessful (and likely pointless, given the circumstances). There have been few complaints about the officiating during the game itself. The focus has always been on the last three seconds. Had America lost by 10 points, it’s likely no one would’ve claimed a courtside robbery had occurred. It is interesting to note, however, that in the final 3:30 of the game, seven fouls were called — five on the U.S., two on the Soviets. Of those calls, Arabadjan was responsible for four, all of which were against Team USA and led to free throws for the USSR.

In the waning moments, Arabadjan also helped drive the final nail in Team USA’s coffin. In accordance with Jones’ “three seconds” plea, Arabadjan had to agree in some fashion to resetting the clock. He also appeared to look the other way when Soviet head coach Kondrashin illegally substituted Edeshko into the game to inbound the ball. But more importantly, when the Soviets attempted to inbound the ball a third time, Arabadjan signaled U.S. center McMillen to back away from Edeshko. McMillen complied, despite having the right to guard the play (American head coach Henry Iba warned his players to follow any official order, afraid that the referees were looking for an excuse to hand the game to the Soviets). Originally, McMillen’s presence had forced Edeshko to take a short inbounds pass on the first failed attempt. Without McMillen’s 6’11” frame in Edeshko’s face, he was clear to heave the court-length pass to Belov that resulted in the game-winning shot.

Brazilian referee Righetto, who believed that the game ended improperly, had allegedly refused to sign the game’s official scorebook and would later testify on America’s behalf in the appeals process. Yet Arabadjan would take no such action. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he participated in the appeal at all, and scant few words are heard from him in regard to this hotly contested game.

In an attempt to prove my source’s claims, I went straight to the CIA by filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking any files relating to this game. The initial response I received stated, in part, “The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.” The letter really said that. It continued, “The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure by section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949, as amended, and section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. Therefore, your request is denied pursuant to FOIA exemptions…”

As is allowable by law, I immediately appealed their decision. As I wrote to the Information and Privacy Coordinator, this was a 40-year old basketball game, not a national security issue. The files, if they did exist, should be made public. The CIA accepted my appeal… then promptly denied it on similar grounds as before. The denial included a taunt (of sorts): If you want us to produce something, then you’ll have to sue us.

Seeking further assistance, I contacted a Washington, D.C., attorney who had gone toe-to-toe with the Agency on similar matters in the past. His response to my query stated, “You’ll never get the records, at least not now. Perhaps if I win the cases I’ve already briefed on this matter, then you could get some records (or at least an acknowledgement that they have some), but as it stands right now, this is a pipe dream that could easily become a pipe bomb. Probably the only judge in the country who would rule in my favor is currently considering an argument that would help you, and if you tried to sue on this you’d almost certainly get another judge who would quickly affirm the CIA’s argument and undermine any victory I might win.”

It is here that my addition to this historic game ends. Not for lack of trying, but due to a lack of access to information. However, I didn’t earn the moniker of “America’s Leading Sports Conspiracy Theorist” by avoiding controversy. Unlike many (any?) in the mainstream sports media world, I’m willing to trod the wild path, shine a light in the dark corners, and risk disbelief and derision in search of the truth. Because that’s where it’s going to be found, buried like Jimmy Hoffa under the old Meadowlands endzone (or in the business end of a wood chipper, or wherever the hell Hoffa wound up).

So this is your chance, Sports on Earth fans. Do you have a sports conspiracy you want me to investigate? Do you have inside information you’re afraid to discuss because you cannot confirm it? Think something is rotten in the sports world and needs to be straightened out for the good of fans everywhere? If so, I’m here, I’m listening, and I’m at your disposal. It’s not much of a job, but it’s my job, dammit, and I’ll do it — happily.

Email me at and I will do my best to answer any and all inquiries here. Have at it.

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Brian Tuohy has been called America’s leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he’s just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He’s also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website

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