First female boxing death occurs in US sanctioned match

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Becky Zerlentes, 34, died on Sunday, April 3 in what was to be her last boxing match before retirement. The match, a Colorado State Golden Gloves bout, was held in Denver on April 2. Her opponent for the senior women's title in that match was Heather Schmitz, 32.

Zerlentes received a knockout punch in the third round by a straight blow to her left temple. She received immediate attention from ringside physicians, but never regained consciousness, even after being admitted to Denver General Hospital for emergency surgery on Saturday night. She expired on Sunday due to blunt-force trauma injuries received to the head, resulting in a blood clot on the brain.

Her opponent Heather Schmitz met with reporters and expressed her regret, saying, "I didn't want to hurt her. I feel very bad about that."

"Nobody thought it was a very hard blow," said Jeanne DePriest, manager of Zerlentes' team. "We've been talking to people all day trying to find out what happened." Zerlentes was wearing her required protective headgear at the time of the accident.

Several commentators have remarked on the coincidental similarities between Zerlentes' death and the events depicted in the recent Oscar-winning film, Million Dollar Baby, in which a character becomes quadriplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury suffered during her last fight.

USA Boxing oversees the sport of amateur, Olympic-style boxing in America, as a member organization of the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA). The non-profit organization has overseen men's amateur boxing since 1888, but has only admitted women to the sport since 1993. There are currently 2,200 registered women boxers, according to USA Boxing, and interest in the sport is increasing.

"The USA Boxing family's thoughts and prayers go out to Becky's family and husband. We are deeply saddened by this loss," said Sandy Martinez-Pino, president of USA Boxing.

In the aftermath of Zerlentes' tragic death, the USA Boxing authorities have continued to affirm their high level of safety precautions and close oversight of the sport's conditions and equipment. According to their website, amateur boxing was ranked 23rd in rate of injuries, behind soccer and gymnastics (National Safety Council, 1996) and 8th in rate of sports-related fatalities, behind football and scuba diving (Boxing and Medicine, Human Kinetics Illinois, 1995).

Zerlentes had an amateur record of 6-4 (6 wins to 4 losses), and was a former regional boxing champion with several brown belts in martial arts. She had a PhD in Geography from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and was an Adjunct Instructor in geography at Front Range Community College in Colorado. She is survived by a husband and family.