Concussion: Now It’s Boxing’s Turn – “(“Iron Mike” Webster was) a formidable man, at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, who sometimes forgot to eat for days — sleeping in his battered, black Chevy S-10 pickup truck, a garbage bag duct-taped over the missing window. ‘Sometimes he didn’t seem to care,’ said Sunny Jani, the primary caregiver the last six years of his life.” – Greg Garber, ESPN.com
They said he had died of a heart attack, but when I first saw photos of former NFL football legend Mike Webster with his forehead protruding grotesquely and a shelf of scar tissue over his eyebrows, I was pretty certain his issues were more frontal lobe than heart condition. Cardiac arrest may be how he died but not why. You could see it plainly during this interview toward the end. It’s difficult to witness, particularly for those familiar with why Mike was called “Iron” Mike and this was long before the NFL and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) would be connected through Mike’s death and legacy:”
“Dementia footballistica. This is crazy. This has never been identified before.” –Ronald Hamilton, neuropathologist
“[Like dementia pugilistica], it doesn’t get better…’You get more and more demented. It’s sad.”– Dr. Fred Jay Krieg,
The 2015 Sony Pictures movie “Concussion,” based on an article by Jeanne Marie Lascars titled “Bennet Omalu, Concussions, and the NFL: How One Doctor Changed Football Forever,” was not about boxing, at least not directly. It was about football which has gained more attention thanks to pioneering forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who discovered neurological deterioration similar to Alzheimer’s disease while conducting an autopsy on Mike Webster. Omalu described Webster’s brain as one of “a boxer, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s…or someone who had suffered a severe head wound.”
The doctor found that Mike’s brain contained the buildup of an abnormal form of a protein called tau. This buildup, which is also an Alzheimer’s hallmark, leads to brain cell death. “Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning,” he said.
There is no treatment and no cure for CTE. The only known way to prevent it is to avoid repeated head injuries. However, several major research initiatives are underway. Omalu has set out to cure CTE. “You pop a pill before you play, a medicine that prevents the buildup of tau,…like you take an aspirin to prevent heart disease. Why not?,” he says.
Thus, and to make a very long story short, there was no other explanation for Webster’s deterioration; the repeated banging of his brain against his skull had damaged the brain’s nerve cells. Amidst controversy (and denial and pushback from the NFL), Omalu named the disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and published his findings in a medical journal. The NFL called his findings flawed.
That was then and this is now, and now, as other athletes face the same diagnosis, the crusading doctor has raised public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma. No more denials; no more pushback. The doctor has studied too many brains for any pushback.
The film spread the story of CTE’s discovery in football players—and the NFL’s years of alleged inaction. Unable to change the past, the NFL is now focusing on the future, but over the last decade, the league has repeatedly avoided tying football to brain damage, even as it has given disability payments to former players with dementia-related conditions—including Mike Webster (but that’s another shameful story for another day). Yet, in all fairness, the league has clearly taken extra measures in recent years to make the game safer.
Aside from a few high-profile doctors like John Stiller, Margaret Goodman, Ray Monsell, Joel Kleinman and others from the Association of Ring Physicians (ARP), no one has really come out in the manner of Bennet Omalu to dramatize the fact that if football produces CTE, what precisely does boxing produce?
Tom Moyer, the filmmaker of the riveting (and frightening) documentary “After the Last Round” says he made the movie because he was so tormented by the head injuries that stripped his boxing cousins of their memories. His goal is to increase awareness so more people will care. The documentary has had minimal distribution, which is a shame.
Writer Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun touches the tip of the iceberg when he says, “They [boxers] have no pension; in fact, most walk away with less than nothing, because they leave boxing with less than what they had going in.”
Compared to professional football players and with a very few exceptions, boxers have just about nothing. Thus, for those who suffer chronic traumatic encephalopathy or pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome, Parkinson’s tremors (which is not as deadly}, or dementia pugilistica (aka boxer’s syndrome), matters won’t improve. Dementia pugilistica is a one-way ticket to Palookaville. While other injuries such as cuts and fractures can be repaired, brain tissue, once damaged, remains irreversibly damaged. The plain fact is Dementia Pugilistica is a variant of CTE.
Football, soccer, rugby, and hockey teams and wrestlers are, for the most part, represented by unions. Boxers have no such collective strength. Unless promoters (see postscript below) and state commissions do something, no one else will. It simply is what it is. But all the hoopla these days is about catch weight, doping, PPV counts, and other things that mask the darker side of boxing—the one in which the thousands of rounds and blows in the gym eventually offset any possible feeling of hope.
Except for the elite few who enjoy their place at the tip of the pyramid, most boxers do, in fact, leave the sport with less than what they had going in.
Now this is not about Rocky Balboa who was named the seventh greatest movie hero, and who solved the Cold War with Russia by beating the evil Ivan Drago and who, as a 60-year-old, even overcame suspected brain damage to go the distance with Mason Dixon. This is about reality. What happened to Iron Mike Webster was every bit as horrible as what happened to boxing’s Moyer brothers and to the Quarrys.
This is about former boxer, sparring partner, and highly respected trainer John Bray who has now been clinically diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. (Pugilistic Dementia is considered a sub-type of CTE.) John also has Alzheimer’s and Cavum Septum Pellucidum as a result of his boxing career. He is 46.
This is a subject that no longer can be ignored by those who essentially run boxing, or by those who write about it, or by those who comment about it.
Postscript: The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas is in the midst of a multiyear study of professional boxers and their brains to determine just what happens to them, and when, and why, and how and if it can be prevented. The study, which unites Golden Boy, Top Rank, MMA, and U.S. Senators, has enrolled nearly 400 active and retired fighters with the goal of evaluating 625 by its completion. Participation is completely voluntary, and fighters in the study receive free, ongoing assessments of their brain health and brain function, including MRI scans. Individual tests will be repeated annually for at least four years. It’s a great, great start!
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records. He enjoys writing about boxing.
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