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.
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 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.
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 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.”