We all know the stories: Fighter ruled the world, lost it all.
We have all seen it, a once great fighter, so strong, powerful and ferocious, now trembling as he shakes hands with old friends several years into retirement. His voice has changed, he seems different, he might walk a little clumsily.
You chat like its old times and then move on.
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Maybe you pretend to ignore what you have seen. Maybe you choose to believe it is something other than boxing that has changed these once vibrant young men. But while you can move on and go home, they are left. Some of them remain alone, engulfed in a lonely trap; others go home to families who do not understand what is happening and why there are changes.
Sometimes the alterations are physical: speech, stance, gait, tremors. While other times there are psychological alterations: mood swings, short-term memory loss, impulsiveness, erratic behavior, poor decisions and, yes, depression and worse.
For more than a hundred years boxers have fought CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and they’ve taken plenty of losses along the way. It used to be called punch drunk syndrome, of course, a name no one wanted and no one liked. When uttered today you can see a shake of the head, as if it is something that should not be discussed, a taboo subject you cannot admit to.
But to do that is to shy away from it and, rather than do that, it is important some of boxing’s foremost figures and personalities address it.
If you ask a boxer struggling with a shaking hand for an autograph—who may hit you up for $10 for a picture because he’s gone bankrupt, and who may have once gleamed like a proverbial golden boy but has undergone drastic personality changes—think twice, and think about boxing and how it might have changed his life. Think about the sacrifices he made, and take time to consider whether he thought his life would be like this, with long, slow, sometimes chaotic and oftentimes tragic endings.
One will not say this is the norm, but it is a more frequent tale than anyone in boxing would like to truly admit to.
“People are scared to talk about it and I think it should be addressed,” says Bolton’s former world champion Amir Khan, a man who has been rocked, dropped, and knocked out, and who has sparred hard for more than a decade. “People need to talk about it and get help. I’ll be honest with you, there’s a lot of times I forget things and you shouldn’t be scared of telling people because there should be somewhere we can get some help. I still feel sharp-minded but I still get my check-ups done. That’s something I will always do.”
Of course, you cannot tell until it’s too late. And once the horse is out of the barn, as one medical professional described it to me, you cannot get it back in.
This is from former heavyweight contender Bert Cooper, a man who had more than his fair share of wars. “I have early-part dementia,” he admits. “I was diagnosed in Vegas by neurologists. Symptoms are I’m good but sometimes I get tripped up on my words, I can’t think, and my equilibrium is off a little bit.”
Is he worried about it progressing?
“Nah. My grandma lived to a hundred, my dad to eighty-six when he passed to cancer a couple of years ago, I don’t drink or smoke . . .
“It [can] make you slobber, your mind goes, your speech goes. My speech is pretty good, it ain’t bad.”
Cooper had the mindset of so many. That they would go to war, hit the big time, make millions and retire in their mansions living off interest and other people’s generosity, safe in the belief that the rainbow will not end.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” he says of long-term damage. “I just wanted to fight, I know I couldn’t party and fight and stay healthy, too. You don’t think about it, you just go ahead and do it.
“They don’t like to talk about it but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I don’t mind talking about it. If I had to do it again I would make that sacrifice and I did.”
Although they did not fight, Cooper’s career overlapped with that of heavyweight great Lennox Lewis.
“We used to call it ‘walking on your heels, that type of thing,” explains the former world heavyweight champion. “They need to address it in all sports, even in soccer. It should be addressed because obviously it can lead to suicide down the line and a number of other illnesses, like Parkinson’s and everything, so it should be addressed. There are a lot of different things coming out. It’s interesting. There’s two types of fighters. There’s catchers and there’s pitchers. The catchers are the ones that will go through that because they’re taking punishment all the time and getting knocked out and it’s sad, but if you step in the ring there can only be one champion and you’ve just got to make sure that you’re the one champion. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t take the punches. You’ve got to make sure that you look after your life. People around you that you trust, such as your cornermen and your family, need to be part of that life so they can say, ‘Hey, listen, I think you’re taking too much. I don’t think you should take any more fights.’ That’s how serious the sport is. My mum was fully involved with my boxing in the sense that she knew if I was taking shots, she knew if there was a case of me being hurt.”
The catchers and pitchers analogy is of great interest here. Was Ali a catcher or a pitcher? Was Wilfred Benitez? What was Joe Louis? What was Willie Pep? They would all suffer from neurological issues either at the end of their careers or in retirement. Certainly, Benitez, known as “The Radar” because you couldn’t hit him, and Pep, who lore (let’s not get into the actual truth of this) has it that he won a round without throwing a punch (so you get the gist about his defensive prowess) were not catchers.
As discoveries were made by scientists through the years, as punch drunk syndrome became dementia pugilistica and then morphed into CTE, a far more palatable term if no less serious, the idea was that it happened to lesser fighters, journeymen, and sparring partners alike.
What was not expected was that trauma over time simply was not good, no matter if you were a tomato can, a Mexican road sweeper, a Hall of Famer, or a living legend.
Yet, of course, for many boxing is a way out. It is their escape from poverty, family trauma, or something else. It is their haven, their lottery ticket, and the potential consequences are not of concern, they aren’t even on the horizon.
British middleweight contender Anthony Fowler, a former Olympian, does not look that far ahead. “No,” he admits. “Obviously I know getting punched isn’t good for me, but I’ve got nothing else to do with my life. I’m a boxer. I am what I am, so hopefully I will get my money and get out with my wits intact.”
That’s the dream. And one who seemingly has managed it is former world welterweight champion John H Stracey. He’s seen the degeneration of old sparmates, old rivals and other fighters over his sixty-eight years.
“I’m in great nick but we don’t know in ten years’ time how I will be,” he smiles cautiously. “No one can prophesize that, but now I’m still able to do things and run and train if I want.”
He can also sing and dance, but that’s neither here nor there.
“I think we all know that there could be issues. I wasn’t silly enough to think something may not happen. I’m always under the illusion that something could happen but at the moment I keep myself well. It’s never been properly addressed. It’s shocking. I’ve seen a few fighters over the years that are really bad, some don’t even remember me and I’ve been great friends with them. We’ve got to educate, that’s what we need to do, and when they retire we’ve got to help people. They can have all the wealth in the world but they’re not looking after themselves properly and no one is giving them anything to do. They could have a program, keep on training, don’t have too much food, do everything in moderation, then they’ll go better. But what happens is when someone retires they say, ‘Oh good, now I will do what I like’. And they go into more problems.”
One who found himself in problems, although not the problems the media made out—he insists—is Kelly Pavlik. The former middleweight king wants research to show the link from fighting to long-term damage, which is what the Cleveland Clinic Fighter Study in Las Vegas is trying to demonstrate.
“Boxers are known for taking shots to the head and dementia and everything else that comes with it,” Pavlik states. “I think it’s a serious point. Should they stop it [boxing]? No. Fighters know what they’re getting into and it’s the same thing with football, they know what they’re signing up for when they go into it, but I think there should be some more research into it. It’s scary. It truly is. I have a guy close to me and I could see the shaking, the trembles in his hand, and you’ve got guys like [Muhammad] Ali. . . . Do I think Ali got Parkinson’s from boxing? No. I think that’s something he would have had no matter what. People get it who don’t box, but I think boxing brought it on a lot quicker and more severe than what it was.”
There are plenty who hold boxing responsible for Ali’s decline. The idol of the world who became an icon for Parkinson’s could have gone a long way to helping reform preconceptions and existing notions about CTE. It could have made a real difference, but Ali gave so much to so many few begrudge him for that.
Gerry Cooney’s pomp came after Ali’s and he, too, had his share of battles.
“It’s a sad story,” he says, when asked to discuss the long-term effects of boxing. “Because you see the fans cheering but the fighters are killing themselves. They’re killing themselves. They’re beating themselves to death. Ninety-nine percent of fighters end up broke and depressed and not happy and it’s because, at the end of the day, they feel lost, nobody helps them fill up on the inside. It’s very sad because you know what happens in the end and you’re seeing it, with the depression and they don’t want to talk, there’s no happiness about the fight game. I had a great career. Did I get to where I wanted to go? No, but I enjoyed every minute of what I did. I had so many great moments in my life, so did those guys but they don’t appreciate it anymore because they feel like boxing turned its back on them and in a lot of ways it does.”
That leads to another issue. The lack of structure in the sport means there is no universal care provider, no umbrella organization that can help fighters when the cheering stops. James Scott, the Rahway prison boxer, once said, “When boxing finishes with you, it really finishes with you.”
Incidentally, Scott, too, died of a dementia-related illness several years after he was eventually released. He passed away back home in New Jersey in May last year, a year after New Yorker Paulie Malignaggi hung his gloves up.
Malignaggi believes that in order to prepare for a fight you need to spar hard. He’s not alone in that school of thought, either, while others—including some damaged retired fighters—believe the amount of sparring should be greatly reduced to help fighters and their health down the line.
Malignaggi, still relevant on the scene due to his work with Showtime and gregarious personality, has seen the changes in other fighters and, thirty-eight this year, has witnessed changes in some of his contemporaries.
“We’ve started to see some of the studies they’ve done for American football, that I’ve seen in the States, and you see guys reacting violently, you see guys going through depression and being in depressive states, you see a lot of that,” he says, when asked about CTE. “A lot of these things they see with boxers—they think it’s from winding up with no money or whatever, that only adds to it. I think some of it starts with the brain trauma you receive. Look at Jermain Taylor. I was signed to the same stable as Jermain Taylor for years and he was a totally normal guy. After his retirement, he was shooting guns up in the air and all that kind of stuff so, you know, I think the brain trauma can be linked to some of these fighters, it’s just nobody does their research. You always consider brain trauma and whatnot, but I was not super-educated in it and you don’t worry about it until it happens. If you start thinking about it, you will be thinking about it all the time. Especially when I was fighting, I didn’t think about this kind of thing.”
Others, including former heavyweight champion George Foreman, maintain they have been well preserved by refusing the lure of drink and drugs.
Julian Jackson, who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this summer, concurs.
“I have my health because I respected the sport and the sport respected me,” he says. “If you treat the sport right then it will treat you right.”
Yet you cannot say that with any degree of certainty.
Fighters have lived right. They have retired, thinking they had made it out before it was too late. Then . . . Bang. Problems set in.
“It’s going to be very sad if I get dementia one day, but I like to say I wouldn’t be surprised but I might not remember,” jokes newly-retired former super-middleweight world champion George Groves. “It’s risk-reward. You pick a job and it could have a negative effect on your quality of life, but you hope you have already lived your life by the time those negative effects kick in. I could be Calvin Harris, but he might be deaf in both ears when he’s fifty because he’s been a DJ for so long . . . But I’m sure he’d put up with a bit of deafness to do his job. This is much the same. If you get as much out of boxing as I have, I’m pretty sure you’d trade that off for the risks that are involved. But at the same time, once you’ve got a family you start thinking past boxing and you’re thinking how far are you willing to push it. I don’t want to be on a kidney waiting list because I’ve been making weight for twenty years, or I don’t want to be on long-term medication for Parkinson’s because I’ve taken one too many punches.”
Has he always been aware of the dangers? Was it something he had considered? Having been involved in a fight that altered an opponent’s health one night, had he thought about the long-term impacts?
“Yeah, of course,” Groves concludes. “I mean, as a kid you might not be, but I’ve been getting punched in the head now for twenty-plus years. I would be shocked if that doesn’t have a negative effect on my health in years to come.”