“People look at me, look at my demeanor, and say, ‘Oh you’re such a nice guy, well-spoken, why do you choose to box?’ It’s about what’s in your heart … I have a fighter’s soul, a fighter’s spirit, and I love this sport,” Day said. “Boxing makes me happy, that’s why I choose to do it.”
It’s a question that has been repeated in the days that followed, though the tenses have changed. Day lapsed into a coma after being knocked out, less than 100 seconds before the bout’s scheduled conclusion. Emergency brain surgery was performed, but he died Wednesday, four days after the fight, aged 27.
In a sport where everyone is fighting for a piece of the same pie, Day was the rare example of someone universally well-liked by peer and promoter alike. He had been a standout student at his high school in Freeport, Long Island, and earned his associate’s degree in Nutrition at Nassau Community College, and later obtained his Bachelor’s in Health and Wellness through online classes at Kaplan University (now known as Purdue University Global).
Day, a Haitian-American, was the youngest of four boys. His mother, a translator at the United Nations would never be in attendance when he fought, though his father, a doctor, had been to a few. “It was a running conversation with us over the years how much his mom did not want him to fight,” said Lou DiBella, who promoted Day through most of his pro career.
“He’s the kid that, if you had a son, you’d want your son to be like him. If you had a little brother, you’d want your little brother to be like him,” said Joe Quiambao, who worked as the matchmaker for DiBella Entertainment when they signed Day to his first pro contract, and had matched him with his first nine opponents.
“In boxing, it’s very common, just a lot of people who don’t like anybody, it’s all about them. He wasn’t like that, he just produced positive vibes all over the place.”
Sean Monaghan, a former contender and gym mate who knew Day since he was 14, remembers that Day was always smiling, “a genuine smile”, but that he became a different person once the bell rang.
“He was the nicest kid you could meet outside the ring but he was pretty nasty inside that ring,” said Monaghan, who had been a constant training partner of Day’s, traveling together to find sparring, and spending days out on the track for grueling workouts.
“With the connections he made and how well liked he was, he could have walked away from boxing into a nice job, someone would have looked after him. But he was completely determined to become a world champion.”
That determination was evident since he was a teenaged amateur boxing in the New York Golden Gloves. After a preliminary fight, the 19-year-old told this writer about the anxiety he felt in the ring, but added, “I dreamed about getting in the Gloves and nothing is gonna stop me.” He made it to the finals, but lost a close, 3-2 split-decision. He was given the Gil Clancy Sportsmanship Award, but he wanted more. “I was down, I was going through a depression after I lost in the Golden Gloves finals, I felt so bad because I wanted it,” Day said in 2013, when he was two fights into his pro career. “I didn’t sit around and sulk for too long. I used that for motivation and determination, and I promised myself that I was gonna get gold next time I got in that tournament.” He did just that, unseating the incumbent champion at 152lbs and winning the Sugar Ray Robinson award as the tournament’s best open class boxer. He then went on to win the US nationals, earning the No 1 national ranking in his weight class, and was a 2012 Olympic alternate.
DiBella noticed immediately that he had a different vibe from most of the other fighters.
“He clearly didn’t need to do it, and if it wasn’t such a passion for him and he wasn’t compelled by whatever lies within his soul to do it, do I think a kid like this would have been better without it? Yeah,” said DiBella, who had previously lost Leavander Johnson, an International Boxing Federation lightweight champion he promoted, to a ring death in 2005.
DiBella says there was a quality about Day which he was immediately drawn to.
“Unlike a lot of kids, his charisma didn’t lay in braggadocio or swag. His charisma was in his approachability and his whole presence. He was just a positive, cool cat,” DiBella said.
Day went undefeated in his first 10 pro fights, but suffered a pair of defeats in 2015, after which DiBella released him from his contract. It might have seemed like an opportune time to disembark and move into post-boxing life. Though he’d been designated an “opponent”, he never lost the mentality of a winner. He won six straight, facing a level of opposition he often wasn’t expected to beat, and was once again re-signed by DiBella. He was rated in the top 10 by all four major sanctioning bodies after defeating the unbeaten Ismail Iliev in February, but lost to Carlos Adames in a punishing fight this past June.
The irony of last Saturday’s fight was that, though Conwell was undefeated and a 2016 US Olympian, he hadn’t looked good in his previous fight, a decision win over Courtney Pennington, whom Day had beaten in 2016. He seemed like another one of the prospects whom Day had derailed along the way. Several days after the fight, Conwell penned an emotional open letter, revealing that he had been brought to tears, replaying the fight repeatedly in his head, and that he had considered quitting the sport.
“I never meant for this to happen to you. All I ever wanted to do was win. If I could take it all back I would no one deserves for this to happen to them,” wrote Conwell.
It was Joe Higgins, the trainer and father figure to Day, who had reached out to Conwell on Twitter, reassuring him that he doesn’t blame Conwell for what happened to Day.
“He would have wanted you to continue. I’m am rooting for you to reach your dream, the same one he had,” wrote Higgins, a retired firefighter who has dealt with post-traumatic stress after being a first responder on 9/11.
The dangers of boxing, inherent to its very nature, are often justified by the direction it offers to many wayward youths. Boxing saves, but what about when it takes somebody that didn’t need to be saved?
Higgins, who first taught Day to box in the garage across the street from where Day lived with his family, told The Ring magazine that he plans to remove the ring and punching bags from the Freeport Police Athletic League Gym and convert the space into a fitness gym, one where no one else will be subjected to a blow to the head.
Though Eddie Hearn, who promoted the show on which Day would have his final fight, had only met Day moments before he walked to the podium, he was moved to tears in an interview with the iFL Youtube outlet, remembering someone he’d only known for “30 seconds.” Quiambao, who knew Day much longer, understood why.
“Whether you knew him for a minute, an hour, a day, year, he left that impression on you. After you finish you’re like, ‘That guy’s gonna be successful and I want him to do good.’”