Boxing’s Moral Quandary

From The Wall Street Journal:

To use all the old metaphors, Tris Dixon’s “Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing” is a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, a kick in the groin. Given that this remarkable, long-overdue treatise on the mental and physical ravages of boxing doesn’t hold anything back, it’s fitting that Mr. Dixon’s book lands with power and precision. For boxing fans, it’s a wake-up call. To remain a fan of the sport—to cheer on the punishment that takes place in the ring, then choose to ignore its consequences—constitutes a cruel form of enabling.

Even for readers who are not aficionados of the sweet science, “Damage” hits hard. At its core is the public adoration of athletes as modern-day gladiators—or, at least, icons of physical prowess—and what we demand of them: the courage and sacrifice that we celebrate from the peanut gallery. “This is a sport in which bravery can be measured by the amount of punishment one can withstand,” Mr. Dixon tells us. Meanwhile, in the ring, “bravery” is a surefire prescription for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a deterioration of the brain caused by repeated head trauma.

A veteran boxing journalist in the U.S. and England, Mr. Dixon tackles his subject with great compassion. He interviews neurologists, psychologists and overseers of the sport—managers, trainers and commissioners—but mostly he spends time with the fighters. Some are remarkably sanguine about the physical and mental toll they can see coming. “I’m on the back end, I know what it’s like,” says former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs, who is still fighting as he nears his 50thbirthday. “I know I’ve got something wrong with me, I know all these punches are going to eventually catch upto me, so I’m reading about CTE and I started taking CBD,” Mr. Briggs tells the author, referring to cannabidiol, the cannabis-derived compound. “I poured the [antidepressant] pills down the toilet the day I tried cannabis.”

Like lambs to the slaughter, boxers trudge on, only to wind up on “queer street.” The most notable example is Muhammad Ali. In his prime, Ali was known for his ability to slip punches and avoid punishment, but his career was long and brutal. He fought the best and toughest fighters. And, like nearly all boxers, he stayed in the ring too long. “Age thirty is the cusp,” Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s onetime fight doctor, is quoted saying. “Thirty-five is over the line. I don’t care how good you are, after age thirty-five you’re getting brain damage.” Ali had six fights after the age of 35; he lost three of them. The result may well have been Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s and other maladies—dementia; memory loss; the rapid deterioration of verbal skills and motor functions such as bowel control, breathing and walking—are all common results of CTE.

In the past, the image of the punch-drunk fighter was a source of humor and playful ridicule, on stage and on screen. Mr. Dixon cites the example of “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, a light-heavyweight from the 1930s who had 298 professional fights. Following his boxing career, he became a comic actor in movies and on television, where he lampooned the tortured speech patterns and lumbering mannerisms of a late-career palooka. But after generations of concussions, cerebral hemorrhaging and deaths in the ring, by the early 21st century the image of a brain-damaged boxer was no longer funny. Unlike Rosenbloom, most wound up in asylums, hospitals and sanitariums.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

5 thoughts on “Boxing’s Moral Quandary”

  1. There’s a similar book waiting to be written about football (aka,gridiron, elsewhere) concussions.
    Due mostly to the “better” helmets and padding. And steroids and…
    Not sure there is actually a quandary.
    The romans had bread and circuses.
    Nothing has changed.

  2. I’m disappointed in the review when it starts with the clichés of a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, a kick in the groin…presumably, on any level, it’s a blow to the head, as designed. I don’t mean that facetiously, I’m serious — the article outlines the cost, but starts with a farcical summary?

    I have never been a fan, I confess, and even less so for MMA with the ground and pound style of fighting. I see nothing redeeming about knocking someone on the ground and jumping on them or kicking them while down. While any of this behaviour would be considered assault if done in the street, MMA rises to the level of malicious intent, surpasses voluntary assumption of risk, and moves in stealthily on grievous bodily harm. Not in the long-term, as boxing is, but the short-term even.

    I literally cannot watch, and I don’t tend to like it much in modern movies. Yet I survived Rocky 1-100 or however many versions there were with nary a qualm. Sigh.


  3. Life is risks. You can trip over the cat and break your neck (glancing at the one currently lying innocently in her bed).

    Where people take enhanced risks, whether it is driving a car in city traffic, strapping two sticks on their feet and caroming down a mountainside, or facing off against an opponent in a martial arts ring, I “judge” by factors that have nothing really to do with the activity.

    1) Is the person informed of the risk and the potential consequences? (This was not always so in the contact sports, but there is little excuse for not being informed these days.)

    2) Is the person, with that information in hand, voluntarily taking the risk of suffering the consequences?

    3) Is the person willing to take responsibility, primarily financial, for any consequences? (Either from personal resources, or collectively via insurance with others taking the same risks.)

    I don’t care whether it is MMA or ballet. I don’t enjoy either one, but their participants are welcome to engage in those activities, and others are welcome to pay them from their own pockets to enjoy their efforts.


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