Boxing: 1979

Willie Classen's 1979 death was not in vain

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
3:17
PM ET
Nine bouts featuring 18 men will unfold at the Madison Square Garden Theater tomorrow night. Sergio Martinez will battle Matthew Macklin and look to keep hold of his unofficial title as the best middleweight in the world.

And we can all hope at the end of the night, all the boxers will have done their level best, and made it through the night nicked, maybe a bit bruised and bloodied, but alive and basically well.

Every so often, the sport is touched by a tragedy. In New York, old timers remember one of those nights boxing people want to never experience, a night when a fighter was beaten to death. It was Nov. 23, 1979, in the Felt Forum at MSG, and young prospect Wilford Scypion, at 12-0, was matched against rough rumbler Willie "Macho" Classen (16-6-2).

Scypion had pop in both hands, and an urge to score KOs, while Classen was a guy who had been right there with future middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo 15 months before, at MSG's big room, but didn't always treat the sport with the seriousness it deserved. Vito won a UD over Classen, but really, on that night, very little separated them physically. Mentally, emotionally ... well, different story. Antuofermo trained with purpose and diligence and knew he had a connected team, including fabled trainer Freddie Brown, in his corner. The Puerto Rican-born Classen, a Bronx resident, came from a rugged youth, from a mom who was still a kid when she had him, and sometimes succumbed to the lure of the streets. He was a guy who would take a fight on short notice, without a connected team of backers.

Classen lacked snap from the get-go against Scypion and by the third round on this night after Thanksgiving, he was looking ready to go. But he battled back, and won some rounds. That was his way. He'd summon something from down deep when it looked like he was almost finished. The boxer ate some mean shots in the ninth, and was out of it as he made his way to his stool. But he answered the bell to start round ten, the last round of his career, and Scypion tore into him. Down Classen went, and doctors quickly knew he was in deep trouble. He fell unconscious. Showtime's Steve Farhood was there, and recounted to me an image that is seared in his head, that of Classen on a stretcher, with blood shooting out of his mouth. Sorry for the directness, but it is necessary for fight fans to sometimes be reminded of the potential for severe trauma to the athletes who entertain us. Despite surgery to relieve a blood clot in his brain, Willie Classen died five days later. He was 29, and left behind a wife and four children.

His death, though shocking and sad, and to this day, a source of pain to surviving family, was not in vain. Because of Classen, today, all those men fighting at Madison Square Garden can know that if they are seriously hurt, an ambulance will be onsite, ready to bring them to a nearby hospital. A boxing official had to flag down a passing ambulance on the street on Nov. 23, 1979, and that took about a half hour. Willie's death forced New York to reform some of their regulations, and, I dare say, saved some lives.

Here is a full examination of the life of Willie Classen, the fateful fight, the aftermath of the tragedy and the legacy he left behind.

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