THE SWEET SCIENCE: BOXING AND GETTING ONE’S HEAD EXAMINED

If a boxer ever went as batty as Nijinsky, all the wowsers in the world would be screaming “punch-drunk.” Well, who hit Nijinsky? And why isn’t there a campaign against ballet?
—A.J. LIEBLING, “The Sweet Science”

This little essay is in written connection with the Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.

In the making of the film Facing Ali, one of the big questions was the choosing of the boxers. It wasn’t actually that difficult a decision. There were certain criteria that I felt had to be met by the boxers’ histories in order to enhance the narrative and push the film forward—while telling both the boxers’ and Ali’s stories.

JIMMY ELLIS

In the mix of this decision was the fact that a few other boxers who had played compelling roles in Ali’s journey were no longer alive. Well, Jimmy Ellis—who was a childhood friend in Louisville, sparring partner and one-time fighter of Ali—is alive. But tragically—I heard from one of the interviewed boxers—Ellis believes his wife is still alive. She isn’t.

That is my point. The sharp-punching Jimmy Ellis suffers from pugilistic dementia (better known as “punch drunk”).

The cumulative effect of getting punched in the head is devastating for some people—one would think for all people, and surely to some degree that is true. But it is a truism that some people—and some fighters—are more deeply affected by head trauma than others, and/or have a greater genetic propensity for dementia.

And granted, dementia and its variations are not uncommon in the elderly, but head trauma can undeniably speed up the process.

JERRY QUARRY

Jerry Quarry was a popular and animated boxer—having also been a colour commentator for the sport. Quarry fought Ali twice, and was stopped twice, both times due to cuts around the eye. He reached about the same high level of pro boxing as Jimmy Ellis. In fact, Jimmy Ellis defeated Quarry by a split-decision in 1968 to receive one version of the world heavyweight championship (WBA) while Ali was in exile (and Frazier refused to be part of the box-off).

Quarry also suffered from pugilistic dementia and died at 53, reportedly from a heart attack. Two of his boxing brothers were also affected by head trauma. Mike, like Jerry, had pugilistic dementia, and his death is associated with the disease. And today, Bobby, the youngest Quarry, has Parkinson’s syndrome—the condition that haunts Ali’s physical movements.

FLOYD PATTERSON

Two-time world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who fought Ali twice, was well-known for his insights on the boxing game. The legendary Patterson suffered from pugilistic dementia.

Floyd once said:

“They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most, but I also got up the most.”

And about boxing he said:

“It’s like being in love with a woman. She can be unfaithful, she can be mean, she can be cruel, but it doesn’t matter. If you love her, you want her, even though she can do you all kinds of harm. It’s the same with me and boxing. It can do me all kinds of harm but I love it.”

JIMMY YOUNG

Jimmy Young was a crafty boxer who almost defeated Ali in 1976, and would also have been a candidate for the film. Young’s awkward, cagey style made most fighters look ineffective—Young very nearly beat Ken Norton, which would have possibly led to his being awarded the vacated world heavyweight title—and he shone a clear light on Ali’s diminishing skills and insufficient preparation for fights.

Jimmy Young suffered from pugilistic dementia. He died from a heart attack at the age of 56.

Young also defeated Ron Lyle, and after an early knockout at the rock-hard hands of Earnie Shavers, in a rematch he held Shavers to a draw. It was also a Jimmy Young decision over the once-unbeatable George Foreman that stopped big George’s comback after his gargantuan lost to Ali in Zaire. All three of these fighters were in Facing Ali.

Those are a few of the warriors who would have been candidates for the film Facing Ali. Here’s to them—and hopefully for them, it was all worth it.

And lest we forget, four of the ten boxers interviewed in Facing Ali—Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton—required subtitles, despite being English speaking (Ken Norton’s speech difficulties were likely caused by a near-death car accident in 1986).

It’s a tough way to make a living.

And what’s the answer with boxing? With head injuries? I don’t know.

One of the funniest boxers of all-time was Randall “Tex” Cobb. He once said he punched Larry Holmes in the hand all night long with his head. Cobb put it this way in a Sports Illustrated article from 1983:

“If a man doesn’t want to fight, then lay down, sucker. I’m not going to have someone run my life for me. If you get a federal commission involved, all you’re going to have is a bunch of political appointees. A lot of flurry, a lot of fluff, all show and no go. I’m a whore who sells his blood instead of his ass. But that comes with the sport.”

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6 Responses to “THE SWEET SCIENCE: BOXING AND GETTING ONE’S HEAD EXAMINED”

  1. This is some great backstory to Facing Ali. But you ought to mention that Leon Spinks very nearly needed subtitles at the start of his career, too.

    The recurring theme of boxing and Gladwell’s NFL story is how repeated impacts are so important to the chronic problems these athletes face in their dotage (if they live that long).

    Contemplate the idea that the rise of UFC is probably a sort of mercy, in that UFC fights are substantially more devoted to grappling and strikes other than headshots, and the fights are invariably stopped the moment one fighter has trouble defending himself.

    On the other hand, a ton of athletes have lousy second acts. The penniless sports star isn’t just a common trope, it’s just plain shockingly common. Of course, your average basketball player doesn’t suffer from pugilistic dementia.

    You read this stuff, and even with Tex Cobb’s eyes-open description of his sport, it’s hard to be a fan anymore.

  2. Very true about Leon. There is still a slide in clarity, but very true. Man, Leon was a real treat to meet and talk with.

    I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying. The second acts are tough. It’s like coming back from war and trying to find civilian life interesting. Plus these great athletes have mostly only ever been focussed on one thing (if, for the male athletes, you exclude women!).

    As for UFC, I hear that argument, but it remains to be seen. Punches without any significant hand padding is curious. And other injuries must be much more regular. I’ve definitely seen at least one broken neck/back (seen on youtube during my Facing Ali research). Ignorantly, it was mixed weight, but it was brutal. And then I saw women doing UFC. That was brutal, and almost impossible for my obviously chauvinistic mind to grasp. It was visceral, and in that pornographic sense (like fighting in hockey), compelling, but it’s just horrendous. Getting in a cage and really pounding on someone. Geezuz.

    This from the Malcolm Gladwell questionnaire:

    QUESTION FROM DAVID: To address the comments related to violence in sports, what does the increased popularity of extreme fighting say about our society today and where do we set the level of a spectator sport being too violent?

    MALCOLM GLADWELL: Football is like dogfighting. Extreme fighting is dogfighting.

    Great note,

    Pete

  3. Edward says:

    I don’t know if you’re following this comments thread still, Mr. McCormack, but here goes…

    Coincidentally UFC 118: Edgar vs. Penn 2 (their first Massachusetts show) will actually be co-headlined by Randy “The Natural” Couture versus James “Lights Out” Toney, IBA Heavyweight Champion… and from what I’ve heard, Toney’s promos to build this fight have actually veer between surprisingly articulate and near-incomprehensible.

    While I haven’t seen the math as to punching power with smaller gloves versus bigger gloves, but there IS a noticeable amount of padding in the gloves; the fingerless aspect was for the sake of grapplers, and small joint manipulation IS illegal under American MMA rules. When advocates talk about MMA being safer they’re mainly referring to head trauma. “Serious” injuries during fights are fortunately rare, but “off-season” injuries between fights are not unheard of, arguably common; UFC 108 was actually notorious for being plagued by multiple forced card changes.

    If by “mixed weight” you mean fights where a guy was pretty obviously in a different weight class… yeah, brutal is the least of it, those are rare in (American) MMA now; while there is considerable debate over the merits of having a heavyweight division with a wide variety of allowed weights (basically between 205 and 265), it’s the only weight class with such a weight range.

    Don’t feel bad about feeling weirded out by female MMA… there’s quite a division among MMA fandom about the subject too, especially considering that the most prominent female fighter is Strikeforce 145 lb women’s champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos… unfortunately, she’s actually a symbol of how the “fighting above your weight class” has actually affected women’s MMA more than men’s MMA; a shallower talent pool (and her… athleticism) have meant that both of her two most recent opponents were normally fighting at 135. Likewise, Zoila Frausto (normally fighting at 135) recently fought Roxi Sexton (normally 125) at 121 lb, and even then I could see the weight difference.

    It should be noted that as young as the sport of mixed martial arts is, the issues associated with boxing HAVE been learned by several fighters. In late May welterweight champion Georges Saint-Pierre (who very much has a post-fighting life waiting for him) admitted that “I fight safe, and I’m not going to hide it,” and added: “I’m not going to give names, but if I would tell you names, you would know who’s a brawler (and) who’s not and who now has a problem with his career because he got hit too much. They can’t take a punch anymore.”

    Also, recently the light heavyweight legend Chuck Liddell was forcibly retired: after his third straight T/KO loss in three years (each being his only fight that year), UFC president/promoter Dana White has said that Liddell will not be allowed to fight again in the UFC.

    TBH, regarding “dogfighting”… I’d be more concerned with violence in society in general than “extreme fighting” (read: mixed martial arts) in particular.

    Unfortunately I don’t know how to insert embedded links under this comments system, so here’s links to some of the stuff I’ve cited:

    http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2010/5/25/1487639/quote-of-the-day-georges-st-pierre
    http://www.mmafighting.com/2010/07/01/dana-white-ill-release-chuck-liddell-if-he-wants-to-fight-agai/
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExX8zB07d4g#t=0m58s (Cyborg training)
    http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2010/7/9/1560649/dementia-and-it-s-implications-for
    http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2010/7/12/1564702/michael-kirkham-chuck-liddell-and

    (Please note regarding the Michael Kirkham incident, he was 6-foot-9 yet allowed to fight at 155 lb, which several people have blamed the only-recently-regulating South Carolina athletic commission for allowing. And yes, there is considering debate in the MMA community about the quality of the state athletic commissions and officiating at times.)

  4. Edward says:

    Darnit I’m sorry I didn’t realize the comment would be that long!! :(

  5. Hey Edward,

    Thanks for the great notes. And no, they’re not too long. And please, call me Pete. Mr. McCormack makes me sound even older than I already am. Yeah, the details and the nuances of MMA are important to understand. The bottom line, in some ways, is that people want to fight, like to fight, are built to fight, and can make money fighting. Thanks so much for taking the time. Really interesting.

    Pete

  6. Kirby says:

    Hi Pete

    My neuropysch class the other day was on traumatic brain injury and I found myself thinking a lot about Mohamed Ali, and your film, and how it is that working class men’s bodies are a commodity. Your film is such a poignant illustration of this ‘human resources’ mentality that is pervasive in professional sport. Ali was one of the first sports celebrities loved enough to be followed into his second act, where it was plain for all to see that repeated brain injury causes profound damage over time. But this couldn’t have been news to the professional boxing industry, or to any of the current owners of sports teams where head injury is endemic and who despite new rules and all the talk around preventing repeated concussions, seem to have a don’t ask don’t tell arrangement with their players. Tex Cobb could have said it better: “I’m a whore who sells his blood [and his mind] instead of his ass.”

    Neuroscientists now know that that this kind of brain injury not only causes cognitive deficits, but often leads to increased irritability, rage and interpersonal violence. But the wives and children of sports stars, and soldiers, and labourers, have long had intimate knowledge of these effects. So I begin to wonder, how is the tolerance for head injury in men’s sport, related to a social construct of working class masculinity that exploits the physical body, on the one hand, and accepts aggression, on the other? Boys will be boys.

    k

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