By Elliot Worsell

ON Friday (April 19), at 1.35 pm in Manhattan, New York, CNN Anchor and Chief Legal Analyst Laura Coates was presented with the unenviable task of describing to her audience the sight of a man self-immolating in front of Collect Pond Park. As flames roared just metres from where Coates stood, the reporter, in a state of shock, somehow managed to remain calm and deliver a blow-by-blow account with an eerie composure; so much so, in fact, that some took umbrage with her style, suggesting she made it sound more like a sporting event than a tragedy.

“Outside the park,” Coates said, “we have a man who has set fire to himself… A man has emblazoned himself outside of the courthouse just now… Our cameras are turning right now… A man has now lit himself on fire outside the courthouse in Manhattan, where we are waiting for history to be made. We are watching a man fully emblazoned in front of the courthouse today, we are watching multiple fires breaking out around his body, and we have seen an arm that has been visible that is engulfed in total flames… There is chaos, people are wondering right now if people are in danger… I’m looking across the courtyard, there is a man racing to his aid, there are clothes coming off to put out the fire, we have members of security, NYPD is rushing to the scene, officers are on the scene, a fire extinguisher is right now present and being put on this man to try and put it out, people are climbing over the barricades to try to separate the public and put out the flame on this man… He has lit himself on fire in front of the courthouse right now and we are watching and can smell the air… I can smell the burning of some sort of flesh… I can smell the burning of some sort of agent being used as an accelerant to put out the fire… I smell an actual fire extinguisher… I see a person whose body appears to be on the ground being surrounded by officers… the fire is still burning…”

That same afternoon, across the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, Ryan Garcia happened to be weighing in ahead of his WBC super-lightweight title fight against Devin Haney. He came in heavy, as many had expected, and proceeded to sink a beer, or at least offer that illusion, when standing on the scales at the ceremonial weigh-in later that day.

By then all a performance, the only thing worse than the manic energy and the animal noises was the fact that Garcia’s behaviour had been both enabled and chronicled in real time by the people around him; each of them complicit in allowing Saturday’s fight to take place.

Ryan Garcia weighs in

It was, at that point, not a fight but a nightmare; a horror story. There were, within this horror story, no monsters, or ghouls, or even serial killers, but it was no less terrifying; the kind of nightmare from which you wake covered in a sheet of sweat, grateful just to be alive.

To be specific, it belonged to the subgenre “psychological horror” and Ryan Garcia, a 25-year-old boxer, found himself living one reality while everyone around him lived a completely different one, refusing to so much as alert him to the difference. This left Garcia unaware of the difference and therefore disconnected from true reality, unmoored on an island of his own making, in control of only the nonsense he was producing on his phone.

Occasionally, if just to see that he was still alive, the people who know Garcia, and stand to benefit from him staying alive, would check in on him and throw him a book, or something he could drink, but ultimately the care effort was no greater than that. Now and again a bloke named Bill, his opponent’s dad, would even remind him of his son’s intention to “kill him” at Barclays Center.

In fact, on reflection, is there any nightmare more terrifying than one containing the cast of characters Garcia has had monitoring his every move in recent days? Certainly, if I ever found myself stuck in a similar mental state, one that becomes so fractured you are deemed the “crazy one” at a boxing event, I can think of nothing worse than seeing around me the people with whom Garcia was rubbing shoulders this week. After all, each of them, to a man, looked him in the eye – whichever eye was in that moment settled and focused – and spoke to him about the fight, or Devin Haney, and pretended, despite knowing otherwise, that everything was absolutely normal; just another day in boxing.

Ryan Garcia (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

Alas, during fight week perhaps the only thing scarier than the faces pulled by Ryan Garcia were the faces of the people around him. These were the faces not of the concerned but the complicit. The faces of those for whom chaos, rather than disturb them, turns them on, invigorates them. From Garcia, they wanted more of it, you see. They wanted Garcia to get even crazier, even scarier, and to then reap the rewards. So long as nobody got killed, they thought, everything would work out fine. Just get through the fight, claim the money, and we can all go home. It’s then up to Garcia how he spends next week, next month, and the following years. That’s on him, not us.

Indeed, when you look at how boxing now rewards its fighters and how its media operates, a spectacle like Haney vs. Garcia was always catnip for the human beings content to turn a blind eye to their humanity to ensure the fight took place. It was, in every sense, a fight for the social media age. It was a man setting himself on fire as all around him people just stood and watched; some encouraging it, some ignoring it, some filming it, some writing about it, and some fanning the flames, seeing in them not a man on fire but instead bright lights and an opportunity.

“…Here’s a stretcher coming out… We’re about to see this body be lifted off the ground that has been engulfed in flames for over three minutes… Although the flames have totally dissipated, the cloud of smoke is still there… We’re getting ready to see what no human being should see… I see a totally charred human being… His entire body is covered in a white type of chalk… We’re going to go to a break but we’re going to be right back and will reset in a moment…”

Given everything preceding it, it was assumed by most that Ryan Garcia would tonight (April 20) crash and burn and that the inquest into boxing’s duty of care, or lack thereof, would begin in earnest. Yet the reality is, no sooner had we prepared for and come to terms with this potential outcome than something strange happened between Garcia and Haney in Brooklyn. Suddenly, having looked so lost and out of control all week, and indeed for months, Garcia appeared more focused, more controlled, and more like his old self in the ring; this most dangerous of territories. Despite the fears beforehand, he had managed to hurt Haney in the first round, therefore gaining his respect straight away, and this, rather than a fluke, set the tone of the fight, with Garcia continuing to sting and trouble his unbeaten opponent whenever he landed his spiteful left hook, even dropping Haney three times (in rounds seven, 10 and 11). Bigger than Haney, and stronger than Haney, and certainly more powerful than Haney, Garcia was content to endure spells of the champion clawing back control with his jab, but only because he now knew that all he had to do was clip “The Dream” and it would likely swing the momentum and the fight back in his favour.

Ryan Garcia wobbles Devin Haney (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Sure enough, things would, as anticipated, get a little weird as the fight progressed, that was only natural. (Garcia, for example, was prone to turning his back on occasion and he also found himself docked a point in round seven for punching on the break. He could then be seen shaking his hips and sticking out his tongue at Haney in the final moments of the 12th round, confident, by now, that the job was done.) These moments, however, were nothing compared to the kind of behaviour we had expected from Garcia going into the fight. Prior to it, many were predicting Garcia would do something stupid; so stupid it would lead to a disqualification and deliver boxing another black eye and another reason for the rest of the sporting world to point its finger and shake its head.

That this never happened was a victory in itself, both for Garcia and the sport, yet more important for Garcia was the majority decision he received at the end of 12 rounds. Scores of 115-109 and 114-110 overruled an even card of 112-112 and there it was, both Devin Haney’s first professional loss and the most unexpected win for Ryan Garcia, the man everybody believed to be either ill-equipped or just mentally ill. Or both.

In the end, there was no place more hospitable and no place more welcoming of Garcia’s antics and unique brand of agitation than the boxing ring. It remains, as it has been throughout his life, his refuge, his safe place, the only domain in which, like so many boxers, he truly feels comfortable; at home; himself. Tonight, it took all the things that had put people on edge in recent months and turned them into attributes, advantages, and the very tools Garcia, 25-1 (20), would use to execute his career-best win. It reminded us all, moreover, that perhaps the only difference between Ryan Garcia and the “crazy” fighters who came before him is the phone in his hand and the ability to tell the world his thoughts every minute of every single day.

As for Devin Haney, meanwhile, the dream really did turn into a nightmare; his, not Garcia’s. As well as a stark lesson in complacency, he came to realise tonight that the scariest thing for any human being is to be confronted by something you cannot understand.


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