WINTER PARK, Fla. — In his bedroom at his mother’s house, Prichard Colon, 24, is surrounded by images of the boxer he used to be.
His head, elevated by pillows atop the incline of a hospital bed, comes to the mid-section of his depiction on a fringed, life-sized tapestry hanging on a wall of diagonal wood paneling. He’s shown in a fighter’s stance, and above that, victorious, with arms raised.
Colon appeared to have the skill and the will to fulfill the dreams that he first expressed as a little boy in this central Florida home where his parents raised him. Now he lies here as testament to the peril that accompanies prizefighting promise.
“He always knew what he wanted in life — he’d say, ‘Mommy, I want to be a professional boxer, and I want to represent Puerto Rico, and I want to be a world champion,'” said Nieves Colon of when her son was in elementary school.
ESPN recently visited the Colon family for Deportes’ SC Reportajes and Outside the Lines features airing over the next week.
“Imagine this is the ring, you had your heavy bag, (and) right here, (the) punching bag,” said Colon’s father, in the garage where he schooled him.
“I thought he was going to die. I thought he was going to die in the moment.”
“A lot of those memories you never forget, you never forget,” added Richard Colon, who before joining the military trained with the father of Felix Trinidad, the decorated three-weight world champion from Puerto Rico.
Nieves and Richard are divorced and the accouterments of the home “gym” are long gone from their old spots in the garage. But he comes each day to help her care for their son, whose future once seemed so bright.
A decade ago, confident in his boxing mission, Colon decided to leave home and attend boarding school in his parents’ native Puerto Rico.
“He’s only 14,” recounted Nieves. “He said, ‘Mom, you have to let me go.’
“He’s not with mommy and daddy, so it’s a scare when he made the decision, but he made me proud, and he proved he can make it.”
Colon, his mother said, was an honor roll student in Florida and maintained that in Puerto Rico, although Spanish was not his first language. And he won five amateur boxing titles there before turning professional at 20.
He fought successfully and often as a pro, winning his first 16 fights, 13 by knockout, by the time he turned 23 in September 2015.
Beyond the results, Colon captivated crowds with charisma and flair.
“What really made him feel alive was getting inside that ring and performing for people,” said his friend Andre Diaz, who shot promotional videos with him.
“The way he carried himself,” said Diaz, “He was a true showman.”
Then, on Oct. 17, 2015, Colon was in Fairfax, Virginia for a nationally televised Saturday afternoon matchup — a scheduled 10-round welterweight bout with undefeated 31-year-old Terrel Williams. It would be Colon’s fifth bout of the year and third in less than three months.
“Every time I go into the room, I expect Prichard to say, ‘Mom’ — I expect that word, ‘Mom.'”
“In the locker room, he was warming up, you could just feel the energy, feel the excitement,” said Diaz.
“The snap on his punches when he was hitting the mitts — he was ready.”
“I really like this kid.”
“Does he have power? Yes.”
“But what has impressed me the most is his assortment of punches.”
“Don’t be fooled by his good looks, either. I mean, I had the same problem back in the day.”
That’s what the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard — former champion of Colon’s weight class and four others — told the Premier Boxing Champions on NBC audience about Colon that day, moments before the fight began at EagleBank Arena.
Through the first few rounds, Colon, the favorite, seemed to be slightly ahead. But from the first round on, he repeatedly pointed to the back of his head and complained to referee Joe Cooper that Williams, 14-0, was hitting him there with rabbit punches.
In the middle rounds, Williams got the better of the action. He hit Colon with two solid rights in the fifth, and then Colon struck him with an obvious low blow, well below the belt. Williams writhed and then taunted Colon with a cut-throat gesture. Cooper deducted two points from Colon for what he ruled to be an intentional violation.
“When I see Prichard hitting the low blow, I say he maybe did it because he was frustrated,” said Richard. “He was frustrated by getting hit so many times behind the head, and the referee was not doing his job.”
Williams didn’t use the full five minutes of recovery time to which he was entitled before resuming action.
A round later, after another low blow from Colon and another complaint from him about a rabbit punch, Cooper admonished both fighters against the illegal shots, threatening the duo with disqualification.
In the seventh, Williams had the momentum when he hit Colon with a right to the back of the head and neck, landing his opponent on the canvas.
After the rabbit punch, TV microphones picked up Cooper saying to the fallen Colon:
“Come on, get up; you got a few minutes; come here.”
Cooper deducted a point from Williams, who again taunted Colon by signaling a throat-cutting.
Ringside doctor Richard Ashby examined the 6-foot, 156-pound Colon. Reporter Kenny Rice spoke moments later on NBC about his post-exam conversation with Ashby:
He told me that Colon said he was dizzy and was hurting in the back of his head, but he felt he could go on. The doctor concurs, he says he’s just waiting for him to shake it off and resume action.
Less than five minutes after Colon fell to the canvas, he was up and fighting again.
Colon, according to the telecast’s unofficial tally, won the eighth round and trailed Williams by one point overall — the difference between the penalties Cooper assessed them for their illegal blows.
In the ninth, Williams accomplished something no previous fighter had — he knocked down Colon. And then he knocked him down a second time.
After the end of the ninth, which Colon struggled just to get through, his corner men undid his gloves, saying they thought the final round had just ended.
Colon was disqualified.
After the bizarre ending to a contentious, foul-marred fight, an exultant Williams went over to Colon and embraced him.
In the commotion of Colon’s first defeat, some fans heckled him for “acting” hurt, rather than really being injured in the late rounds.
“I got mad because they say my son was faking,” said Nieves, wiping away tears. “He was a fighter — since he was a baby, you never see Prichard complain of nothing.”
When her son left the ring, she said he put one arm around her for support.
“I ask him in Spanish, ‘Papi, ¿cómo tú estás?‘ And he answered in English: ‘Mommy, I’m dizzy, I cannot see.'”
Diaz observed: “His legs are becoming really shaky, which I thought was odd. I couldn’t understand it.
“He’s becoming weaker as he’s getting closer to the locker room. Now his mother can’t really hold him.”
“Then in the locker room,” said Richard, “Mom tried to put him in — sit him down in the chair that was there, and he started sliding down, started vomiting.”
“I remember him collapsing in his own throw-up, and then at that point he was trying to hold onto consciousness,” said Diaz.
“Daddy say, ‘Prichard, please come on. Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,'” said Nieves.
Added Richard: “I thought he was going to die. I thought he was going to die in the moment.”
With his mother at his side in the ambulance, Colon was rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where a CT scan showed a subdural hematoma. Emergency brain surgery relieved pressure on the skull, but it was too late to restore him to any semblance of the effervescent athlete who entered the ring hours earlier.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Nieves. “Everything changed that day, that night, [it] was awful.”
An investigative report released a year ago by the state of Virginia found that “While Colon’s medical condition following the contest against Williams is tragic, there is not one action so apparent and/or egregious to justify laying blame to any one person.”
The Colons did not participate in the investigation and have retained an attorney. Williams, now 33, was among those interviewed by the state. He has not fought in the nearly 18 months since the Colon bout.
The Virginia report did not resolve questions over referee Cooper’s management of the fight, although a state official quoted in it took the ref to task for not doing a better job of controlling the bout in the early rounds. And there was no finding of fault with Ashby, the doctor who cleared Colon to continue the fight in the seventh round when he reportedly complained of a headache and dizziness.
In a sport lacking national regulations for such matters, and with many doctors reluctant to criticize their counterparts, a 2014 statement from former longtime Nevada ringside physician Margaret Goodman stands out.
According to a transcript obtained by Outside the Lines from New York State’s investigation of the 2013 fight that left heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov brain-damaged, Goodman said, “Obviously, if a fighter ever told you they had a headache, they’ve got to go to the hospital right away.
“That’s the hallmark of a head injury, I mean, until proven otherwise, it’s a serious head injury,” said Goodman. Sending a fighter who complains of a headache or dizziness to the hospital is an imperative, she added, “because you just don’t know; you’re not a mind reader.”
A message left for Ashby at his Washington, D.C. family medicine practice was not returned.
Prichard Colon breathes on his own, but that is the extent of his independence.
Doctors describe his condition as a persistent vegetative state. He is unaware, unresponsive and under his mother’s 24-hour care.
Nieves said she can’t leave him alone, because he is unable to swallow, so she needs to suction him when he coughs. He has a feeding tube and a colostomy bag. And he needs to be turned every two or three hours to prevent bedsores.
When Richard comes, he lifts his son out of bed, carries him into a wheelchair, and takes him around the neighborhood, talking and reading to him.
The Colons’ other son is in New Jersey, and they have a daughter, Natalie, who lives nearby.
“I always talk to him,” Nieves said. “I just don’t want him to ever feel like he’s a problem to us.”
For the family, the fight against exhaustion and despair is ongoing.
“It’s not easy; it gets emotional. Sometimes we get attacks, you know, crying,” said Richard.
“A lot of this has made me isolate myself from a lot of people,” said Natalie. “(I’m) scared of what if I get close to somebody again and I lose them as well.”
Colon’s parents say they have not lost hope that their son will regain some brain function, despite doctors giving them no cause for optimism.
“I do believe in miracles. I do believe in miracles,” said Richard.
“Every time I go into the room,” said Nieves, “I expect Prichard to say, ‘Mom’ — I expect that word, ‘Mom.'”
ESPN’s Fernando Calderon contributed to this report.