Can Boxing Be
Made Less Dangerous?
By Bobby Franklin
Recently, I watched a news story from 1995 about heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry. The very popular Quarry who had twice fought Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was being inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame. This was considered a great honor and Jerry was there to bask in the glory. Well, he wasn’t exactly there. While his body was, his mind was no longer working, and the formerly very articulate Quarry was in such bad condition he was unable to sign autographs without the assistance of his brother James.
It was heartbreaking watching this footage. Not only was Jerry unable to sign his name he also needed assistance dressing himself. When asked questions he just stared off into space. This is something you might see in an elderly person who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, but Jerry Quarry was far from elderly; he was only fifty years old. He would be dead in less than three years. He was also broke.
Seven years after his passing, Jerry’s brother Mike would die from the same disease. Mike was only 55 and had been suffering for many years. At the time the cause was called boxing induced dementia. For years it had been confused with Alzheimer’s Disease, but it is quite different. Today, it is known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). It is caused by trauma to the head and is most common in boxing and football. It has also been found in military combat veterans, soccer players, ice hockey players, and victims of domestic violence.
Unfortunately, a true diagnosis cannot be ascertained until after death, when the brain can be dissected and studied closely. Dr. Ann McKee, Director of The Boston University CTE Center, has led the research into this terrible affliction. Doctors are becoming aware of the importance of looking at symptoms and patient history so as to be able to differentiate between Alzheimer’s and CTE.
In 2003, after former Middleweight Champion Paul Pender passed away from what was thought to be complications related to Alzheimer’s Disease, his widow Rose asked to have Paul’s brain examined by Dr. McKee. Rose was concerned that if it was Alzheimer’s it could be genetically passed on to their children. The results showed no signs of the beta-amyloid protein found in Alzheimer’s but did show clumps of Tau Protein which is now known to form because of repeated blows to the head. The hits do not have to cause concussions as the damage is cumulative. Also, the younger the athlete when the head trauma begins, the higher the risk of developing CTE. In Pender’s case the damage may have begun while he was playing high school football.
Thanks to the courage of Rose Pender and the dogged research of Ann McKee and others, much is being learned about this terrible disease. I highly recommend the documentary “The Brain of a Boxer” which delves into the story of Paul Pender and Rose’s search for an answer to why her husband suffered so. The tragic part about this is how it is very preventable and how little is being done to stop it from happening.
In recent years I have had a number of conversations with people who love boxing but also are very conflicted because of the injuries caused to those who partake in it. These conversations usually circle around how to make the sport less dangerous. To be sure, there are things that can be done to lessen the danger, but seeing as the whole point of the sport is to inflict injury to the opponent’s brain it is unlikely, short of not allowing head blows, to stop participants from ending up victims to CTE.
While it is true not all athletes who participate in contact sports will end up suffering from CTE, the risk is very high that a large number of them will. In the early years of the 20th Century President Theodore Roosevelt intervened when severe injuries and deaths were mounting in college football. There were calls to abolish the game. At TR’s urging, the rules were changed and football became safer. It is once again very dangerous, but rule changes could improve things. That is not likely in boxing as there is no way for the sport to be practiced without imposing head injuries. Rendering the opponent unconscious is the point of the sport and the thing that most excites the fans.
The Quarry brothers are just one of many examples of boxers who have ended up suffering from the blows they received years earlier in the ring. Former heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson both were diagnosed with pugilistica dementia when they died. Mickey Walker and Sugar Ray Robinson, two of the greatest fighters of all time, also had it. And most ironic of all was Muhammad Ali, a man who used to brag that he would never end up like the others. He was perhaps the biggest victim of the sport. It is a myth that he would have been fine if it hadn’t been for Parkinson’s Disease. Ali, like the Quarrys, began boxing at an early age and stayed in the sport long after his skills had eroded. In the last decades of his life his mind and body succumbed to the punishment he took. One of the most gifted athletes in history ended up physically and mentally destroyed by the sport he so loved.
Everyday we face danger. Crossing the street and driving a car can lead to severe injury or death. However, unless one is crazy, we take precautions when doing these things. We also don’t do these things with the intent of causing harm to others. In boxing, while there may be some precautions taken, the aim is to cause injury. There’s just no getting around that.
Years ago it was thought people watched auto racing because they wanted to see the crashes. It was found out that wasn’t sure. People watched because they enjoyed witnessing the skill of the drivers and the roar of the cars. When it comes to boxing, fans show up to see the accidents.