By Kim Constantinesco
In boxing, defeat comes not when one falls, but when one goes down and fails to get back up.
Retired Marine Corps Sergeant Eric Morante, 31, didn’t just hit life’s proverbial mat. He had a bridge crumble on top of him after being struck by a suicide bomber while serving outside of Fallujah, Iraq.
Losing a leg and needing to recover from a cluster of other serious injuries mere weeks after losing his father, Morante mustered up every bit of resolve to not only find his new version of normal, but to help other amputees along the way.
Morante is a board member and liaison of the National Amputee Boxing Association, a 501(c)(3) based in San Antonio that became the first organization in the U.S. to be authorized to promote amateur boxing for amputee athletes. He’s also the first Marine amputee sanctioned to compete in boxing in the U.S. and still hold an undefeated record.
“Sometimes people think we’re just going into the ring and hopping around without prosthetics, and beating on each other,” Morante said. “Or because some of us are veterans, people think that the PTSD kicks in and we just bash or hurt somebody.”
It’s nothing like that. It’s an outlet to compete. It’s sweat therapy. It’s a green light to move forward in life.
The sport is gaining such steam among those with amputations that Morante is working hard to get it into the Paralympic Games.
Double the Loss
A native of Houston, Texas, Morante was raised by a single mom, and surrounded by three sisters and two brothers. He grew up a multi-sport athlete, diving into soccer, football, and track. But, boxing was the sport that grabbed his attention first.
“My dad bought me my first pair of boxing gloves when I was five years old,” Morante said. “I put them on and I started play fighting with my older brother. He knelt down and I threw a right and knocked his tooth out.”
The desire to fight the good fight stayed with him, too, especially after seeing the devastation on 9/11. So, in 2003, the recent high school graduate joined the Marine Corps and shipped out to California for training.
“I chose the Marines because I knew it was the hardest one to get into specifically, and I wanted to step up to the challenge,” he said.
He deployed to Iraq for the first time in February of 2004. After returning home for only six months, he returned to the middle east in July of 2005, where his team lost 10 soldiers in an isolated attack, making it the largest loss in Operation Enduring Freedom history at the time. Morante was unscathed and spent six months finishing off that tour. Following a year of training stateside, he returned to Iraq for a third time in January of 2007.
A few months into his deployment, Morante learned from his mother that his father passed away unexpectedly a month earlier. She would have told him sooner, but he and his team had been guarding a remote observation post, which was located on a bridge outside of Fallujah.
“I requested to go to an actual base, to where there were phone lines and internet, so I could get in touch with people and send money home,” Morante said after learning about his father’s death. “I requested a week so that I could go to church and get my things in order.”
They granted him the request, but it was an extremely volatile time, so Morante had to return to his post after just a day and a half away. Being informed of Morante’s loss, the Marine Corps sent a chaplain from his battalion and a Catholic priest to him since he couldn’t attend the services at camp. They had a mass right there on the bridge with eight Marines.
“Once mass was over, we thanked everybody and as they were on their way out, I was messing with my junior Marine, picking on him, and that’s the last thing I remember,” Morante said.
A truck carrying 3,000 pounds of explosives had detonated underneath the bridge they were on. After the blast, Morante slowly opened his eyes and assessed his body all while his ears were ringing and other men were screaming. He had concrete stuck on top of him, but because of a heavy dose of adrenaline, he was able to lift it with one hand. His other hand had been shattered. Dirt and mud were flying and he was spitting blood. All of that was nothing compared to what he saw next.
“I looked down at my right leg, and my boot heel was by my hip on that same side, so my leg was in an ‘L’ shape,” Morante said. “It was being held by just a couple of ligaments.”
A Shattered Morale
Morante was flown to Germany where he had his right leg amputated above the knee and was treated for a closed skull fracture, a shattered wrist, a broken jaw, busted teeth, and a scratched cornea. His teammates had broken backs, punctuated lungs and kidneys, and concussions. All survived the bomb, but to this day, one corpsman remains in a vegetative state.
Morante was evacuated out of Germany after a week, and sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where he stayed for two months. Then he was transferred to Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he remained in in-patient care for another month.
“I tried to stay strong because I was with fellow Marines and I was concerned about their morale and their injuries,” Morante said. “It wasn’t until we were transferred to different locations, that’s when it all hit me, how difficult things were going to be. I was 22 at the time, and everything I ever stepped up to the challenge for, I had been able to complete. I couldn’t stop thinking, what am I going to do now? For nine months, I ended up going into a downhill depression. Then I realized I needed to make a change. I told myself to get back to who I was, not what I had gone through.”
Back to the Ring
Morante got back to the activities that he once regularly enjoyed. He walked a 5K and cycled a couple of other races to get motivated again. Then he started going to various boxing gyms, even sparring with some of the champions from those respective facilities. He trained hard, jumping rope and hitting the speed bag, too.
“It would take me out of the ordinary therapy, and because it was my sport, something that I grew up with, I ended up falling back in love with it,” he said. “I could stay at the boxing gym all day long.”
After a while, he thought it would be nice to be able to compete again. But, when he started asking around to see if anyone would let an amputee fight, he got turned down everywhere.
“They thought it was too risky,” Morante said. “It had never been done before. It had never been seen in the U.S.”
He began digging through research and compiling a file to see how he could find a loophole and create his own association that would allow people like him to compete inside the ring.
Then in 2012, the National Amputee Boxing Association (NABA) was officially sanctioned in Texas.
“We have people coming in from all over the country,” Morante said. “Some military, some civilians who have also had that same type of dream to box.”
NABA currently has about 40 boxers who compete and/or train as a form of therapy.
Morante, who stands 5’6″, was 194 pounds at his heaviest, but training for fights has helped him to get back in shape. And, its side effect has been even greater.
“Because of the match, I had to prepare myself and I ended up losing about 45 pounds,” he said. “My balance is way better and I have less atrophy in my residual limb. I can run further, I’m confident, and my PTSD has calmed down tremendously. Being in the ring and being able to take that frustration out on the bag and working with a coach, it’s helped me tremendously. I’ve been very calm and patient about things. I still have PTSD episodes, but since I’ve been with NABA, I haven’t had as many.”
The organization puts on about two fights per year, and their first one drew a crowd of 500. They’ve had Hall of Fame officials and well known announcers take part in their fights. Each bout is governed under amateur style rules with three-minute rounds up to five rounds.
“We’re given a little bit of leeway on the rest periods because we’re wearing prosthetic limbs and the limbs get sweaty,” Morante explained. “Sometimes the legs will turn and twist because of the moisture, so in between rounds, they give us a little more time so that our corner can work as a pit crew and make adjustments with the legs.”
NABA would host fights more regularly, but the reality is those with amputations can’t get their bodies prepared in the standard three months that a training camp typically runs. They need six months to train.
“When you’re going through a training camp as an able bodied boxer, your camp is very intense for three and a half months,” Morante said. “With that intensity, we can’t beat up our limbs that bad on a daily basis, so we have to stretch it out so we don’t overexert ourselves or injure ourselves in the process.”
Getting the Sport to the Next Level
For now, NABA features all lower extremity amputees. As they became more established, Morante hopes to include those in wheelchairs who want to compete.
Another goal is to get the organization sanctioned in New York, New Jersey, and Nevada.
“There haven’t been any issues or long term injuries that have been caused by this,” Morante said.
The ultimate prize, however, is to get the sport into the Paralympic Games. There are amputee boxers in Africa, Italy, and the United Kingdom, according to Morante.
“We already have the case to make it a Paralympic sport. We just need some help from the public to make it a popular sport,” he said. “No one from the Paralympics has contacted us to try and make it a sport as of now because we still need to show that other countries and other people are wanting this sport in the Paralympics.”
And that’s a fight worth going to the bell for.