Sunday, March 18, 2001

Fighting for his life

Former world champion Greg Page lies in critical condition

By John Erardi and John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Greg Page is counted out in Erlanger March 9.
(Submitted photo)
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        ERLANGER, Ky. — As Greg Page walked the 20 paces across the asphalt parking lot between his hotel room and Peel's Palace, white wisps of his breath lingered in the misty night air.

        Underneath his hooded, long black leather jacket were the white trunks with the red stripes — and the robe of the same color and white shoes — that he had worn 16 years ago when he wrested the World Boxing Association heavyweight crown from Gerald Coetzee.

        That fight was in 1984, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in front of most of the royalty and glitterati of that part of the world.

        The only part of Mr. Page's outfit that had been added since then were the words stitched in red on the back of his fraying white robe:

        “Feel the Knockout Power of the Lord.”

        Gregory Edward Page, 42, was a long way from the crown on Friday night, March 9, at Peel's Palace, an Erlanger club that holds concerts and bingos and boxing and other social events.

        It wasn't that Mr. Page didn't have the legs to go 10 rounds anymore. He would show this night that he did. He had a good running regimen early in his career, and a good one during his comeback, which had begun two years ago. He'd been doing his full complement of road work, 3 or 4 miles a day, five or six times a week.

Dale Crowe lands a left to Page's chin.
(Photo from video)
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        Yes, he was fighting a 24-year-old, Dale Crowe from Alexandria. But boxing has a history of successful 40-somethings in the ring, some as distant as Archie Moore, some as recent as George Foreman, whom Mr. Page now sought to emulate.

        And yes, Mr. Page looked heavy (238 pounds, according to the pre-fight weigh-in) but mostly to those who didn't know him and hadn't seen him fight. He'd never been a sculpted specimen. He'd always tended toward being a bit flabby.

        No, what made Mr. Page a long way from the crown wasn't his wind or his desire. What was striking was this: He was a former heavyweight champ who had fought before kings, and here he was at Peel's Palace.

Now, on this night, fight night, the semis with the whir of their tires on nearby I-75, and the lamps glowing yellow as they lit the parking lot, dominated the scene as the aging former champion and his small entourage made their way to Peel's Palace.

        It couldn't have been for the money, say those who know him well. Not this kind of money. It was only a $1,500 payday. As recently as last year, he'd had a fight that paid him $15,000.

  Born: Oct. 25, 1958
  Lives: Louisville
  Amateur: National Golden Gloves heavyweight champion, 1978.
  Pro record: 58 wins, 17 losses, 1 draw, 48 knockouts.
  Career highlights:
  • Pro debut, Feb. 16, 1979
  • Won first 19 pro bouts over three years.
  • Defeated Gerrie Coetzee for WBA heavyweight championship, Dec. 1, 1984.
  • Lost title to Tony Tubbs, April 29, 1985.
  • No fights between Aug. 6, 1993-May 16, 1996.
                Mr. Page did not want to turn his back on the only life he knew and loved. He still harbored dreams of the crown, felt he could pull a George Foreman, who had won it his mid-40s's and got rich. Mr. Crowe, too, harbors championship dreams, which is why they were here.

        Mr. Page's sparring partner and friend, Russell Chasteen, 33, who had once held the Kentucky heavyweight crown for which Mr. Page would be fighting, held open the double doors. Mr. Chasteen had turned down the bout; not enough money. He had vacated the crown, and Mr. Page — much to the surprise of the promoter, Terry O'Brien — accepted the invitation to fight Mr. Crowe for it.

        The entourage walked through the doors, led by trainer James Doolin, and trailed by assistant trainer Kelley Mays and Mr. Page's cousin and two other family members. They made their way through the crowd to the ring.

        “Ladies and gentlemen ... in the white trunks, fighting out of Louisville, Kentucky, the former heavyweight champion of the world, Greg Page!” began the ring announcer.

        “And, in the dark trunks, fighting out of Shamrock Boxing in Covington, the future heavyweight champion of the world, Dale Crowe!”

Ten terrible seconds

        After that, it appeared to the untrained eye to be just another night at the fights. Until, that is, with 10 seconds left in the 10-round fight, things began to go terribly wrong for Greg Page.

Peel's Palace
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        It was intended to be, by those fans in attendance, a good night at the fights: a five-bout card, with Mr. Page and Mr. Crowe going on last, 9:30 p.m, they'd been told. It was past 10:30 before they went on.

        In the crowd were many boxers, past and present, including Cincinnati's luminaries, Olympic silver medalist Ricardo Williams Jr. and his teammate Dante Craig, both recently turned pros, and Tim Austin, a highly regarded pro, also from Cincinnati and an Olympic medalist.

        The crowd was hungry (chicken wings ran out early in the evening) and thirsty; business was brisk at the bar. The crowd was heavily pro-Crowe, an up-and-comer with a 23-4 record who had fought through some hard times after having to forfeit a full boxing scholarship to Northern Michigan University because he had fought in a tough-man contest.

        “I took the fight because I wanted the belt,” said Mr. Crowe, who will fight in the new Cintas Center on April 20 with Mr. Williams and Mr. Craig. “It's hard to get bouts sanctioned; you take what you can get. Greg just happened to be the guy.”

        By the fourth or fifth round, Mr. Crowe was having trouble drawing a clean breath because of the smoke in the room, and that concerned him: He considered himself in great shape coming into the fight. He felt a burning sensation in his throat, and it only added to his cautiousness about trying to knock out Mr. Page in the sixth through ninth rounds.

        Judging from the videotape, Mr. Page wasn't dominated by Mr. Crowe until the 10th round, and even then it wasn't so lopsided that the referee had any reason to stop it. In the 10th, Mr. Crowe cast aside his caution and began landing heavier blows, and more of them.

        “The timekeeper smacked the mat with his hand toward the end of the fight to indicate 10 seconds were left, and that's when I went after Greg with one last flurry,” Mr. Crowe said.

        The beginning of that flurry was a straight left flush to Mr. Page's chin by the left-handed Mr. Crowe. A videotape of the fight shows the punch moved Mr. Page's head forward, and his body then followed, and Mr. Crowe, as fighters are taught to do, pushed Mr. Page away — not a brawl-type push, but a fighter's push, to get some room — and then Mr. Page backed to the ropes and slid down to the mat. The referee counted 10, and then his cornerman and longtime friend, Kelley Mays, rushed to him.

        “Between the time of the punch and the time I got to him — no more than 30 seconds — he was in a different world,” Mr. Mays said. “His eyes were open, and yes, you could say he was conscious for a couple of minutes, but to my eye — and I know Greg well, have known him since he was 11 years old — there was nobody home. It was a deep dark glaze in his eyes. He wasn't there, anymore.”

The comeback road<9>         Mr. Page loved to box.

        And those who underestimate the pull that can have on a person underestimate the person.

        Mr. Page had always loved it.

        So precocious was the young Mr. Page — who would grow up to be the fourth in the line of heavyweight champions from Louisville — that he was only 15 years old when he first sparred against No. 2 in that line. Muhammad Ali had made a lasting impression on Mr. Page. The most famous of Mr. Ali's distinctive stylings were his dancing feet between punches, the Ali Shuffle.

        One time in the mid-1970s, at a locally arranged Golden Gloves match in Cincinnati, Mr. Page had done the Ali Shuffle in the first round. His opponent, a teen-ager from Lincoln Heights, was so mesmerized, he dropped his hands and watched. And so Mr. Page did what Mr. Ali would have done: He knocked the kid out.

        In his first pro fight, Mr. Page did a similar thing to Don Martin ... dancing, then flurrying, and then retreating to a corner to drop his hands and signal for Don “The Mad Man” to come in; the Mad Man didn't want to, but later said he knew he had to. He, too, was knocked out.

        “Greg always put a smile on your face,” Mr. Mays said. “Boxing gyms can be pretty tough places, but Greg always said if he couldn't enjoy what he was doing, he wouldn't do it anymore.”

        Veteran former boxers in the crowd at Peel's Palace, some of them now trainers, said Mr. Page still had the bounce in his step, but that he didn't have the hand speed and elusiveness that went with it. It was as though he still envisioned himself as he used to be, but that his body couldn't deliver on its owner's image. Mr. Page even showed some of his former Ali-like moves, bouncing off the ropes, dropping his hands and shimmying his head and torso to indicate that Mr. Crowe's blows hadn't fazed him.

        “This was a guy who once upon a time was heavyweight champion of the world,” said Ron Scott Stevens, fight matchmaker for Cedric Kushner Promotions, one of the largest fight promotion companies in the world. “He expected people to be reverential to him. But that was 15 years ago.”

        Mr. Kushner agreed in early 2000 to promote three fights over the next eight months for Mr. Page with the possibility of national exposure on cable networks like HBO or Showtime if Mr. Page won his fights.

        It was another glimpse of the big time for Mr. Page. Mr. Kushner handles about 60 fighters each year and promotes nearly 70 fights annually all over the world.

        The first for Mr. Page was against Terrance Lewis in Chicago in Feb. 9, 2000, when Mr. Page won by a technical knock-out in the seventh round. He received $15,000 for the fight, enough to pay for another three months of training.

        After a battery of medical tests in New York in late June that included a CAT scan, eye examination, heart test, full physical exam and blood tests, Mr. Page was approved to fight Robert Davis.

        Mr. Page lost in a technical knockout in the eighth round. At the time some observers blasted Mr. Page as a “human punching bag” and after the fight, New York boxing authorities indefinitely suspended him. That suspension marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Page's return to the heavyweight spotlight - a journey of blood and sweat and hope that he could once more taste the glory and riches of a championship fight.

        “After he lost to Robert Davis, he certainly wasn't going to fight on HBO,” Mr. Stevens said. “If he had any real value to get the fights he wanted to get, we lost that ability after the Davis fight.”

A fighter brought down

        In October, Mr. Page won a bout in the parking lot of a bar in Louisville with a first-round knockout. It was his first bout in his hometown in more than a decade.

        The ringside doctor in Erlanger, Dr. Manuel Mediodia, a primary care physician with offices in Covedale, was surprised at Mr. Page's condition during the pre-fight physical.

        “His blood pressure was 130/80,” he said. “That's something I usually find in a man 15 years younger. His heart and lungs were fine. Neurologically there was nothing I was concerned about. He was alert and fit. If he had problems before from other punches in previous fights, it didn't show. He was very active and responding to my requests.”

        Dr. Mediodia, 75, who has been ringside physician at about 100 fights in the past decade, said he entered the ring within minutes of the fateful last punch to examine the fighter and take his blood pressure.

        “He was alert enough to open his eyes when I asked him to. He may have been confused but he was responding. I didn't ask him to answer any questions. He was breathing normally. His airways were good and the blood pressure was good.”

        After he left the ring, Dr. Mediodia was not worried about the boxer.

        “I thought he might have had a concussion,” he said. “I even remarked to friends that it looked like he would be all right but he was going to the hospital anyway for tests and to make sure there was nothing internally inside his brain that might be bleeding.”

        The confusion around the ring was obvious, the doctor said. “Some guy was saying we need a doctor, we need a doctor,” Dr. Mediodia said. “By that time I had already seen him twice in the ring.”

        There was no oxygen available that night, as Kentucky boxing rules require. But Dr. Mediodia said he would not have administered the oxygen anyway. “I didn't ask for any,” he said. “I didn't see any heavy breathing and made a note that his breathing was unharried.”

An opponent's prayers

        A week after the fight, Mr. Page lies in critical condition at University Hospital. The family won't allow anything more to be said about his condition. He had brain surgery to remove a blood clot. His plight has drawn widespread press attention throughout the boxing world; editorialists again call for a stricter, uniform standard in regulating the sport.

        “You never want something like this happen, even though in boxing you know it can,” Mr. Crowe said. “I had seen him with his kid, and that image comes back to you. He was on the mat for a long time. I was thinking, "Damn, can't somebody help him?' Now, he's in the hospital fighting for his life. I'm praying for him.' ”

        Patrick Crowley contributed to this story.

Life squad, oxygen were missing at ringside

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