Just two and a half years after his last professional fight, Muhammad Ali was a guest on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. Dapper in a white suit, he still cut a rather pathetic figure, a diminished version of his famously ebullient self.
That trademark scattergun delivery suddenly slow and ponderous, a record being jarringly played at 33rpm instead of 45. The most bombastic voice in sport almost too faint for microphones to pick up for much of the excruciating 10 minutes he was onscreen.
Sure, there were occasional glimpses of his old charm and wit but, the mouth that roared now mumbled and the glaring symptoms of his precipitous decline shocked America. Within weeks, the 42 year-old checked into Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York for tests on his brain and was diagnosed with Parkinson's Syndrome, an umbrella term covering a slew of neurological difficulties that cause slurred speech, tremors and problems with gait and posture. Ailments that had all been bothering Ali since the latter stages of his fistic career.
"It was kind of always my one regret because the one fighter who had the notoriety and could have brought a lot of attention to this was Ali," said Frankie Pryor, talking about how the sport leaves so many of its finest exponents in a parlous state. "And then they went off on the Parkinson's thing and that really kind of, in boxing . . . that pissed off a lot of people in boxing, that Ali's family chose to say, 'Oh, he has Parkinson's, it has nothing to do with boxing.' It has everything to do with boxing."
Frankie Pryor watched her husband, Aaron, one of the great light-welterweights of all time, battle dementia for years before dying at 60. His cautionary tale is told in Tris Dixon’s fascinating new book, “Damage - The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing”. Everybody knows fighters put themselves in harm’s way every time they lace them up but the picture painted by the veteran boxing scribe is grim, compelling and essential, a forensic accounting of the harrowing toll the sport has taken on generations through the decades.
They said I got hit and all the blood vessels have exploded and all that type of stuff. It's a depression
Equal parts prosecutorial argument, sporting reportage and damning scientific evidence, Dixon begins his trawl through the wreckage in the psychiatric ward of a North London hospital. That is where he finds Herol "Bomber" Graham billeted, after a succession of failed suicide attempts and long-term mental health struggles. For the one-time Sheffield protégé of Dubliner Brendan Ingle, these are the consequences of a pro docket that yielded 48 wins, six defeats and enough blows to the head to wreak havoc on the middleweight contender's brain.
"That fight in itself triggered it," said Graham about the night Julian Jackson knocked him out in the fourth round of a world title fight in Spain. "The one shot I got there was like all the shots I got in boxing combined, adding up to the big one. It's because of the trauma to my brain. They said I got hit and all the blood vessels have exploded and all that type of stuff. It's a depression. Since then I've been in a depression. It's going to make me cry."
If Graham is a name that evokes the heyday of midweek televised boxing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the ghost of Galway-born Bartley Madden looms from farther back, one of 23 fistic casualties featured in "Punch-Drunk", a 1928 academic paper by Dr Harrison Martland published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Once described by Gene Tunney as the gamest heavyweight he ever met, Madden incurred savage punishment in many of his later bouts, once leaving the ring with both his head and torso swaddled in towels to disguise the bloody extent of his injuries.
List of names
Journeying through the sport, past and present, Dixon encounters a dilemma that in itself indicts the fight game. So many people offer him directions to retired combatants now struggling to speak, to remember or to even function, that he realises at one point in his research it will be impossible to feature them all or the book would be merely a list of names of men who are suffering with classic symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). After all, as one person says to him, “Boxing is American football injuries on steroids.”
Cleverly, he hones in on select stories to make the overwhelming case that boxing, like the NFL was eventually forced to, needs to have a reckoning with the impact of concussion, brain injuries and an intrinsic culture of excess bravery on its denizens. Freddie Roach, a decent pro boxer turned Hall of Fame trainer, told Dixon the story of his latter-day battle with Parkinson's and so much more. There were five Roach brothers. The three who boxed have neurological problems of some sort today. The two who didn't have no issues.
Mickey Ward, whose trilogy of epic bouts with Arturo Gatti are part of the sport's lore, explained his difficulties with short-term memory and anger management and other tell-tale signs of CTE, and how when he dies, his brain will be donated to scientists to analyse the true extent of the damage done.
“I hope it helps the next generation of fighters,” said Ward, “not only in boxing but contact sports in general, and it helps them to better understand the effects of concussion.”
Dixon’s disturbing book ensures boxing no longer has any excuse.