December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Stacy Young had no more business being in a boxing ring than Mike Tyson would have teaching kindergarten. But there she was, an out-of-shape, 30-year-old optician and mother of two who had never fought before, agreeing to enter a Toughman Contest in Sarasota, Fla., in June. “It was a lark, a fun thing,” says her sister Jodie Meyers.

It didn’t end that way, though. Young held her own in the first two one-minute rounds. But by the third she was pummeled again and again by Sarah Kobie, her stronger and fitter opponent, as an announcer cried, “A real cat fight!” and beer-swilling spectators roared with approval. With time running out, Young hit the canvas hard. It’s anyone’s guess if she could hear the words of her then 9-year-old daughter Chantelle, who climbed into the ring, saying, “Mom, are you okay?”

Nearly 48 hours later Stacy Young was dead—the latest victim of a popular sporting spectacle so violent it has claimed four lives in the past 14 months. Police in Sarasota investigated the death and found no wrongdoing, and referee Ray Blackburn told officials that he saw no punches to the back of her head. But on Sept. 22 Young’s husband, Chuck, 40, a welder from Bradenton, Fla., filed a wrongful-death suit against the Toughman organizers, alleging that poor safety precautions, lack of medical supervision and the actions of the referee were all to blame for his family’s loss. Stacy’s relatives are also campaigning to have laws passed so that the tragedy will not be repeated. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel the pain,” says Meyers, 34. “She didn’t deserve this.”

As Jodie and the rest of the family have already learned, they are up against an imposing adversary. Toughman, the brainchild of millionaire Michigan fight promoter Art Dore, is big business, staging more than 125 tournaments around the country each year in which ordinary men—and more and more women—don gloves and headgear and batter each other, sometimes without a doctor at ring-side. In Florida, where professional boxing is regulated by the state, Toughman offers prizes worth less than $50 and is thus considered an amateur event and exempt from governmental oversight. Dore, who declined to respond to the allegations in the Young family’s suit, says he is merely giving amateur boxers, and about 500,000 paying fans a year, what they want. “They know it’s not tiddlywinks, it’s a fight,” he says.

Even so, Dore maintains that his bouts have a better safety record than amateur boxing, with only eight deaths during the past 24 years. Fighting officials dispute that, arguing that the percentage of deaths in U.S. amateur bouts is far lower. “When you just pick people out of the audience and put them in the ring with no prior experience,” says Chris Meffert, the executive director of the Florida State Boxing Commission, “it’s a recipe for disaster.” (For stories of other victims, see page 68.)

There is also sharp disagreement over whether Stacy Young understood what she was getting into. Raised in Tucson, she had just moved with her family, which also included daughter Cassie, 13, and stepchildren Jesse and Tara, to Bradenton to be close to her sister. She even took a job as an optician in the same Pearle Vision store where Meyers worked, and both were taking online college courses offered by the University of Phoenix.

Meyers contends that promoters downplayed any danger the night she and her husband accompanied Young and her family to Sarasota’s Robarts Arena on June 14. In the family’s lawsuit, they claim that the organizers told Young the bout would be “safe and fun.” But Dore, who was there that night, notes that Young signed a waiver acknowledging the possibilities of serious injuries or death.

Yet from the opening bell, Meyers says she knew her 5’6″, 240-lb. sister was badly outclassed by her opponent, Sarah Kobie, 21, a solidly built 5’11”, 185-lb. bakery worker who had won five Toughman bouts in the past year. In the final round Kobie landed blow after blow against fading resistance until, with seconds left on the clock, Young turned her back and headed to her corner, apparently giving up, as her family claim she was advised she could do. But the referre never stopped the fight, so Kobie landed three more shots to Young’s head, sending her to the mat. “I feel very badly for the family and the kids and everything,” says Kobie of the match. “I wish it wouldn’t have happened.”

In the absence of a doctor, paramedics rushed Young to a hospital. As soon as her family arrived, a chaplain told them that Young had suffered a severe brain-stem injury, which would leave her in a vegetative state for life. Two days later, on June 16, she was declared brain-dead.

Promoter Art Dore says he is heartsick over what happened: “I feel terrible. But if I thought there was something wrong, or a way to make it different, I would do it.” Through their lawsuit and their effort to better regulate amateur boxing, Young’s family hopes to show him the way. The Stacy Young Act, scheduled to come before the Florida legislature next year, would close many of the loopholes in fight regulations, forcing promoters to have a physician and trained referee on hand, as well as making sure that the combatants are suitably paired.

Had basic requirements been in place, Young’s family feels her fight would never have been fatal. Meanwhile at least one of Young’s dreams has come true: The University of Phoenix recently awarded her a posthumous degree. “[The fight] was just three minutes,” says Meyers of last June’s fateful bout. “We never anticipated it would make any great change in the course of our lives.”

Bill Hewitt. Kristin Harmel in Sarasota

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