“I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell…
…And I’m goin’ down
All the way” —Highway to Hell by AC/DC
You come in on your own
and you leave on your own– On Your Own by the Verve
“I was champion of the world and there are three things that go and that’s how a fighter knows that he’s all done. First, your legs go… The second thing is that your reflexes go, and the third thing is that your friends go, and you know you’re all done when there’s nobody hangin’ ‘round no more.”—Willie Pep
When the fighters get to the place sometimes known rhetorically as Palookaville, they quickly find out that there are no gold watches handed out here. Oh no, this is a dreadful place from which there rarely is a way out. The fighters don’t purchase the tickets; that’s done for them. In most cases the punishment absorbed in the ring accomplishes it, although sometimes the propensity might be inherent. Adrian Broner might be speeding down that road in a modern-day example of uncontrollable self-destructiveness, but thankfully this isn’t about Broner.
Picture: Perhaps the greatest of all-time Sugar Ray Robinson is seen hoisted on the shoulders of opponents Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer while Randy Turpin and “Bobo” Olson stand by. The picture above is from a December of 1965 ceremony honoring Robinson held at Madison Square Garden. On that night, Robinson was also given a trophy that turned out to be too heavy to put on any of the flimsy tables he had left. It was all gone.
Rocky Lockridge, a former champion, got there and remains homeless in Camden, NJ. Meldrick and Jermaine struggle. Leon Spinks seemed to have had the aforementioned innate propensity to get there. Without interdiction or intervention, others will get there just as sure as boxing is all about guilty pleasure. Larry Holmes and George Foreman are exceptions but for each exception, there are hundreds of ex-boxers who are struggling. For every De La Hoya, Froch and Mayweather, Jr., there are hundreds of Danny Williams’s and Bobby Chacon’s. Iran Barkley got there but thanks to many helping him to help himself, he got out and turned things around. Scores of others survive as best they can, sometimes getting help from the Retired Boxing Foundation or some of the Ring Associations.
The real tragedy is that the one sport that needs the tightest and sharpest regulations is the one with the poorest regulations. Money dictates exactly what goes on in boxing and like any other business endeavor; anything that can increase the gap between costs and revenue will be done including the neglect of the fighters. Medical insurance and pension plans narrow that gap. Thus, many fighters are booked for a one-way ticket without ever having access to counseling about viable options after they leave the fight game. Almost like meat, they are used up and then cast away to fend for themselves.
And for those who are damaged, the fate is far worse. Says neurologist Barry Jordan, M.D., director of the brain injury program at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y.: “The problem with chronic brain injury is that when boxers develop it, the horse is already out of the barn. If you could find preclinical markers [signs of injury before the onset of permanent symptoms], you could advise them to stop boxing.” Thus, the best that can be done is to help them after the fact but that’s where the oxymoronic behavior has already set in and welfare is nonexistent.
To paraphrase the late Jack Newfield, if this can happen to our best (Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Willie Pep, Ali)—whether it be Parkinson’s, early senility, dementia, or Alzheimer’s—what does it mean for the rest? What does it mean for the lower end of boxing?
The need to establish and enforce standards and uniformity without destroying boxing has been discussed ad nauseam. Fact is, boxing needs a Roto-Rooter. The state of boxing has become more complex and more difficult to cleanse than ever and therein may rest the problem. Unlike football, baseball, and basketball, the uniqueness of boxing and its lack of any structure or union create an inherent confusion that impedes reform.
It’s a Catch 22 that favors the promoters, officials, and spineless political hacks that remain unmoved in their single-minded quest to make money and/or gain power from the sport without giving back to those who generated the money in the first place. Nothing could be more incongruous or more unfair. However, boxer welfare has become a joke–an oxymoron.
Some have said that if the boxers themselves don’t do anything to take care of themselves, why should reformers care? However, as Cesar Chavez said, “You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.
Football players and their union –and even Rugby and Soccer players–are getting it. Movies like Concussion spotlight the complex issue of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the attendant class-action lawsuits from hundreds of former players regarding head trauma. Sooner or later, boxers are going to get it and when they do, the impact of the Catch-22 will begin to diminish. As Las Vegas Assemblyman Harvey Munford says: “…Savvy lawyers one day will file lawsuits on behalf of boxers….”
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records. He enjoys writing about boxing.