One thing I never do on this blog is discuss my current employer. The views on here are mine and mine alone. But over the last 15 months or so, I have learned a great deal about brain injury. I think about that a lot every time there is a big boxing match taking place. And that’s what this blog is about.
The human brain is incredibly delicate. If you were to hold a brain in your hands – and children, don’t try this at home – it would gradually begin to seep between your fingers. To quote the website science.howstuffworks: ‘Your brain and spinal cord are covered by a series of tough membranes called meninges, which protect these organs from rubbing against the bones of the skull and spine. For further protection, the brain and spinal cord “float” in a sea of cerebrospinal fluid within the skull and spine.’ What happens to the brains of boxers?
Medical science has proved that blows to the head cause brain damage. Cells do not replace the injured ones and over the long term punches to the head cause permanent and irreversible brain damage. I know as someone who has occasionally watched boxing on the television for many years that the sport is not good for the boxer. Look at any number of retired fighters and the signs of brain damage are clear. The greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, suffered from Parkinson’s Syndrome, turning him into a physical shell of the man he used to be. He fought for far too long and even before his retirement, he showed signs of brain damage through slurred speech and a deterioration in motor skills. Some people make excuses for Ali, that he would have developed Parkinsons anyway. Really? Read Thomas Hauser’s Life and Times, the definitive and official Ali biography, and tell me that boxing had nothing to do with his sad decline.
Look at other sports. In rugby league and union, players are tested for head trauma and concussion. If a doctor believes a player may have suffered even a minor head injury, he is removed from the field for immediate tests. In boxing, the fighter gets up off the floor, often in a state of concussion, and resumes the fight until he is rendered unconscious. The crowd cheers. I have cheered myself, albeit from the safety of my armchair. But then again, I watched the fight where Michael Watson received life changing brain injury and the fight when Gerald McLellan received catastrophic injuries, including blindness and deafness. Caused specifically and directly by boxing.
Early this morning, the well known misogynist and homophobe Tyson Fury fought Deontay Wilder for one of the many versions of the world heavyweight title. I declined to part with £20 and get up at 4.00 am but obviously heard the radio reports this morning. Fury was twice sent tumbling to the canvas as a direct result of being punched in the head, causing at least temporary concussion of some degree. Doubtless, the crowd erupted with excitement – I know the feeling, so I won’t try to be a hypocrite – after which Fury staggered to his feet and fought on. This would have been described as ‘courageous’ from Fury, as it probably was, but it would have carried huge health risks. And if they carry on fighting like that, they will end up slurring like Ali, like Thomas ‘Hit Man’ Hearns and every other fighter who has taken too many blows to the head.
If boxing was invented today, would it not be banned immediately? Smoking would, for sure, given what we know about the health risks. Yet we cannot uninvent boxing. We could ban the sport which would almost certainly drive it underground, meaning there would be no regulation at all. No doctors or ambulance crews present. Just a free for all where the best man would win and the other guy might even die. We’re between a rock and a hard place. However, that hard place is not the human brain.
Boxing is known as the ‘sweet science’, which describes the balance of being hit and not being hit. This turns on its head the idea that the idea of boxing is to render the opponent unconscious. The truth is that boxing is a little of both. Many see a certain beauty in the sport, when Ali danced and when Sugar Ray Leonard moved with bewildering hand speed and power. But then there were the boxers, the journeymen, who were little more than human punchbags and the big names who ended up horribly brain-damaged.
I find it hard to separate the ‘sweet science’ from the gory reality that faces many boxers, the bloody injuries we do see and the brain damage we usually don’t, until it’s too late. And knowing about brain damage like I now do, I find it very hard to justify what goes on inside the ropes.
*** This blog was written before I learned the news about Adonis Stevenson who is currently in a critical condition after being knocked out in a fight last night in Quebec City ***