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Thursday, December 19, 2013
Mago still fighting to get better

By Michael Woods

“No Left Bone Flap” reads a sign above Magomed Abdusalamov, who used to be a sturdy-looking man, with exemplary posture and a collection of muscles that suggested he put them to use frequently and successfully. He's lying in a bed at Roosevelt Hospital, in Manhattan, in the space reserved for patients who have suffered neurological damage.

There is a considerable indentation in Mago’s skull on that left side, which his younger brother Abdusalam avoids as he presses his left hand to his older brother’s brow, to check for fever.

It is 46 days since Mago, a Russian born and bred heavyweight boxer, stepped into the ring at the Madison Square Garden Theater in Manhattan against Cuban Mike Perez and left a changed man.

Today, Mago, 32 years old, lies in a bed at Roosevelt, which has a trauma center, the one Mago was rushed to when he began to vomit. It was not that long after losing a 10-round unanimous decision to Perez.

Mago very nearly lost his life. There is hope he will continue to show improvement. So I didn't feel the level of sadness and despair that I had anticipated when I stepped into his room on the neuro unit Wednesday night. I was ushered in by the 28-year-old Abdusalam, who speaks just a bit of English.

I spent a few hours in that room, pondering Mago’s future, and the future of boxing, and left with mixed emotions. Mostly I felt the devotion and purity of love that Mago’s brother showed in that hospital room. It overrode any sorrow or hopelessness that crept into my head.

An old man shared the room with Mago, and there were some cards and flowers next to his bed. Next to Mago’s bed is a helmet hanging on a pole, which also holds the liquid nourishment feeding him intravenously. That helmet will be put to use when he is transferred to a rehab facility in New Jersey perhaps as early as Thursday, where he'll be getting treatment in hopes that he will regain the ability to walk and talk.

No. He'll never fight again.

Mago’s eyes open, intermittently. His chest rises and falls. There is a tube running from his neck to a machine to his right. He is breathing on his own, though, no longer attached to a ventilator. The ventilator was necessary after he arrived at the hospital postfight with a blood clot and subdural hematoma in his brain.

He has lost weight and muscle mass since he showed that warrior physique and resolve, when he was still looking to land that one game-changer left hand in the waning seconds of his fight with Perez. His pupils are fixed on the ceiling, and he swallows.

Once every 20 or so minutes, the little brother -- there are seven Abdusalamov children, two men and five women -- walks to Mago’s side. With his left hand, he touches the damaged man’s forehead, monitoring his body temperature. During the course of my visit, the brother proves himself to be invested heavily in the care of Mago. Abdusalam, who has boxed but told me he will never again lace on the gloves, doesn’t speak while he takes a tissue smeared with anti-bacterial liquid and wipes Mago’s face. He does so tenderly, the same way he wipes Mago’s lips with another tissue smeared with moisturizing lotion.

“Mago,” he sometimes says to his big bro, testing his response. Mago doesn’t respond, not vocally anyway, though that’s not to say he isn’t aware of things going on in the room. Little brother tells me Mago follows motion with his right pupil, and I am pleased to note I saw Mago follow motion with his left pupil late in my visit, when Abdusalam moved his palm from left to right, in front of Mago’s face, testing the response.

"How are you doing?" I ask the brother early in my visit.

“Sad,” he admits. “Morning, day, night here. Sleep, no.”

Mago’s wife Bakanay visits from Connecticut, where she’s staying with their children, ages 6, 4 and 11 months. The kids haven’t visited Mago. It wouldn’t be right for them to see him in this condition. Abdusalam makes a motion, wiping his eyes with his hand, the universal symbol for weeping. Visiting would be too traumatic for them.

The brother and I make each other understood. The back and forth is aided when he uses an app on his phone to translate from Russian to English. “Mago very much loves his daughters. He never imagined himself in such a situation,” Abdusalam typed. “He always said boxing is my life.”

Now, after the brain damage, his life is not about boxing. But yes, it will still be about fighting. He will need weeks, maybe months, of rehab and the caring soul of a neurologist at Roosevelt. Dr. Rupendra Swarup, director of the neurosurgical ICU, said he is hopeful that Mago will continue to improve.

“He’s going to get better. I’m confident,” Swarup said. “But he will not be the same. He’s going to have neurological deficits.”

The indentation in his head told me that, I guess.

I don’t fall into a depressed state from my visit. I couldn’t, not when I was so awed by Abdusalam. I watch as little bro wipes some oil on his hands, lifts the blanket and begins rubbing it on Mago’s feet. A nurse comes in, observes the caregiving and says, “You’re a good brother.”

Late in the visit, I ask Abdusalam if Mago was a good big brother.

“Very good brother. Brother. Friend.”

In all that time, he never so much as tears up. He admits the experience is rough, but there’s no self-pity in his voice or body language. I am grateful he allowed me in to see Mago and want to give him something in return. “Can I get you something to eat?” I ask, making a fork-to-mouth motion.

“I OK,” he says. “Thank you. I cannot leave brother for a moment.”

You can reach Michael Woods at fightwrite@gmail.com.