Brain surgery behind him, Barrera fights on

Sports Views

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2003

There's something that just doesn't seem right about fighting after having brain surgery.

Not in a sport where your opponent gets paid to hit you in the head.

Somewhere, you would think, doctors would be screaming. Somewhere, surely, there has to be outrage.

Not in Texas, where Marco Antonio Barrera goes into the ring Saturday night with a metal plate in his head. There, doctors have given him a clean bill of health and their encouragement to go out and trade punches with Manny Pacquiao at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

On the surface, it might seem like yet another reason to indict boxing as the cruel and unfeeling sport it sometimes is. If nothing else, it just doesn't look right.

But this isn't some $500 undercard fighter risking his brain being scrambled to put some food on his family's table. This is a million-dollar featherweight boxer at the top of his game who seems very comfortable taking his chances in the ring.

And before anyone gets too alarmed over Barrera's ability to reason, consider this: He has already fought 16 times with the metal in his head.

Besides, he seems to have gotten better since his skull was cracked open to relieve the genetic disorder he was born with. Barrera lost his last two fights before the 1997 surgery, and is 14-1 with one no contest since then.

''If it was a problem, I would have retired a long time ago,'' Barrera said.

The troubling thing here isn't so much that Barrera is fighting. Plate or no plate, every time any fighter enters the ring he does so knowing there's a chance that being hit in the head could cause permanent brain damage, or even death.

The problem is, Barrera hid the fact he ever had the surgery from the very people who are charged with protecting fighters.

Doctors in Las Vegas had no idea about Barrera's surgery when he engaged in a 2000 fight with Erik Morales during which they traded more than 1,500 punches. No one knew about the titanium in his head when he beat Naseem Hamed or Johnny Tapia.

Until it became a requirement earlier this year, boxers never had to take MRI's in Nevada on a regular basis. And Barrera certainly wasn't forthcoming in volunteering the information. It wasn't until Barrera had a bitter split with his manager and promoter that it leaked out this month.

Barrera's genetic condition causes a small group of malformed blood vessels in his head to cluster together. Some people go their entire lives without needing help. But Barrera began having headaches in 1995 and went to see a neurosurgeon in Mexico City who inserted protective implants in his head.

Barrera says he has since undergone brain scans at regular intervals in various places, including one at UCLA. All showed normal brain function.

''It's obvious I have a green light from all of the doctors around the world,'' he said.

He certainly got one in Texas, where state boxing officials had a neurosurgeon test Barrera before allowing him into the ring against the hard-hitting Pacquiao on Saturday night.

''His cavernous angioma, all that is is a dilated blood vessel,'' said Jorge Guerrero, doctor for the Texas Boxing Commission. ''This is a dilated vein that has no pressure in it and has been taken away, and I compare it to appendicitis. You take the appendix out and you'll never have another appendicitis again.''

All signs may be good, but no doctor can predict with any certainty what could happen to Barrera or any boxer for that matter who steps into the ring. Even neurologists will tell you their field can be an inexact science.

Boxing, like football, is an inherently dangerous sport.

Middleweight champion Gerald McClellan was at the peak of his career and a study in physical fitness when he met Nigel Benn in 1995. Today, he sits blind and brain-damaged in his home in Freeport, Ill., talking in cadence and forgetting what he said the moment he says it.

Doctors are still troubled over the death of Pedro Alcazar in the ring last year in Las Vegas. Alcazar was examined after his fight with Fernando Montiel and everything seemed OK. He spent the next day touring Las Vegas. The following morning, while in the shower before his flight back to Panama, he fell over dead.

Barrera's no dummy. He's college educated and understands the risks in the sport.

That he continues to take them despite a successful career that has made him a millionaire is really his choice. And if doctors continue to clear him, who's to say that is the wrong choice?

''Maybe now with all this coming out they won't call me the ''Baby Face Assassin'' anymore,'' Barrera said. ''Maybe they'll call me the incredible man or something like that.''

Maybe. Let's just hope he's never called another victim of the sport he loves.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sportswriter for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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