Though He Killed One Man in the Ring and Disabled Another, Gaetan Hart Won't Stop Punching

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I saw his eyes rolling around and around," Gaetan Hart recalls quietly. "I hit him again on the chin with a right, then a left hook to the eye. When the referee stopped the fight I raised my hands. I was happy I'd won. But a few seconds later when I turned around to see Denny still lying on the mat, I thought to myself, 'Oh no, oh no.' "

Hart's lightweight battle with Cleveland Denny was supposed to be merely a prelude—one of four warm-up bouts preceding last month's Leonard-Duran welterweight world championship fight. Instead it became a brutal reminder of life—and death—in the ring. Hart, 26, battered the 24-year-old Denny before the referee called a halt with just 12 seconds left in the 10-round fight. Denny was carried from Montreal's Olympic Stadium and hospitalized, never to regain consciousness. For a while a respirator kept him alive. But two weeks ago he died, the fifth boxer in seven months to be killed in the ring in North America.

Inevitably, Denny's tragic death—he was the father of a 6-month-old son—brought demands for tighter regulation of boxing. It underscores what a merciless business prizefighting is—and will surely remain. "It's a tough sport," says Hart. "You can be friends with a guy before and after a fight, but in the ring you have to hate him. I focus on the other guy's face—if he has a cut, punch it. If his nose is broken, swing at it." Hart is no stranger to savagery, having won 45 bouts and lost 17 in his eight years as a pro, with 21 of his victories coming by knockouts. Just six weeks before fighting Denny, he knocked out another young Canadian lightweight, Ralph Racine, 24, who later slipped into a coma and is now recuperating in a nursing home. Racine remembers nothing about the match and has difficulty moving his right leg. Hart phones each week to check his progress.

Born in Buckingham, Quebec, Hart was only 12 when his father, a mill worker, gave him his first pair of boxing gloves. Turning pro at 18, Hart lost his first two bouts but kept on fighting and advanced in the ratings. In 1977 he met Denny for the first time, losing a close decision. The following year he avenged the loss and won the Canadian lightweight championship. The nontitle fight last month was a rubber match of sorts, and vital to each man's career. Because newspaper reports indicated the injured fighter's condition was improving, Hart took his manager's advice to go fishing and decided not to visit Denny in the hospital. Then, on the morning of July 7, as he was preparing for his daily four-mile run, Hart heard the terrible news on the radio. "I fell into the chair," he recalls. "My stomach was in knots. I wanted to be sick and I wanted to scream how sorry I was all at once."

After several phone calls, Hart learned that Denny's mother, Dorothy (whose husband was also a pro boxer), had no objection to his attending her son's funeral in Montreal. Neither did Denny's wife, Clarine. Hart drove the 100 miles from his home near Ottawa and nervously made his way through the crowd of mourners. When he got to Denny's open casket, he opened a brown paper bag and pulled out his lightweight title belt, carefully draping it about the dead boxer's waist. "It was my first championship belt," he says, "but I somehow felt it should be his. He was a good fighter, a clean fighter. And I wanted to prove to the Denny family that I wasn't a bum."

Despite his remorse over Denny's death, Hart has no plan to quit the ring. "I can't," he says plaintively. "I've spent the last 11 years getting ready for a crack at the world title. All I want to do now is concentrate on the future." That may be easier said than done. His manager, disturbed by Hart's listless inattention to training, has already pulled Hart out of a fight scheduled for next month. Realizing that he has acquired a kind of gruesome celebrity, Hart pleads: "I'm a boxer, not a killer. The man who died could have been me."

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