In April 1985, Dr. John Stiller told a congressional sub-committee that football was just as dangerous as boxing. The hearing was held because the Journal of the American Medical Association was pushing for a ban of boxing. It had published multiple studies about how the sport caused long-term brain damage. Stiller was there to defend boxing. Rather than ban the sport, he argued, doctors needed to do more research on how to make it safer. It was unfair, he added, that boxing was being singled out as the dangerous and vicious sport. One of the congressmen asked the editor of the journal whether any studies had been done on brain trauma in football. The editor said, No, there had not.
Over the past nine years, the risks of football have been studied and doctors found that football players suffered from the same long-term brain damage that boxers had for decades been known to have: a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And now the football doctors are getting all the credit for discovering the long-term risk of brain trauma in sports, for conducting the same studies the boxing doctors had done nearly 30 years before.
“Some of these doctors, all these celebrity seekers who have gotten involved lately, are all over it now because it’s in football,” says Stiller, his voice rising with a mix of frustration and amusement. “They say CTE had never been found before. That’s bullshit. It had been. This was in boxing a long time ago.”
Stiller enters the Millersville Sportsplex, a small white bubble-looking arena that sits on a rural boulevard 30 miles south of Baltimore. He walks past rows of empty metal folding chairs and takes a seat at a table near the boxing ring. He is the chief medical examiner of the Maryland State Athletic Commission and tonight he is working as the ringside physician for a slate of fights between little known boxers. Stiller is a naturally lean man, 61 years old with a narrow face, brown eyes, a thick salt-and-pepper mustache and slick-backed black hair with patches of gray around the temples. Since his testimony 26 years ago, he has been on a quest to make boxing safer. And for the past 26 years he has faced resistance and defensiveness from the boxing community. Even as he and other doctors like him presented their recommendations on how to make boxing safer, the sport has stood still. And Stiller has watched as football made more progress in less than a decade than boxing has made in the past 26 years.
“With football’s popularity it’s not surprising that they reacted to the new findings by making all these rule changes,” he says. “But this is something we’ve known about in boxing for years.”
Spectators begin to file into the arena, making beelines for the seats closest to the front. Soon two fighters enter the ring. An announcer introduces them and the referee checks their gloves and gives them the instructions. Stiller scoots his chair toward the table and leans forward in his seat just a bit. While he is frustrated at boxing’s lack of progress, he believes the new focus on football will help the sport he’s loved all his life.
“Now that they’ve brought in football players, something may start to happen,” he says. “It’s gonna get more attention.”
The opening bell rings and the two fighters circle the ring, feeling each other out. Stiller eyes them closely, ready to spot any signs that the fight should be stopped. The brown haired fighter sticks a right jab to the bald opponent’s head. Then a left jab to the jaw. The bald fighter ducks and backs up and misses on a swing. Then he weaves to the side and connects on a right hook to the temple. A rising cheer surges through the crowd.
Doctors first studied the brains of former boxers and found in them signs of CTE in 1973. Since then, amateur boxing has implemented numerous rule changes that have made the sport relatively safe compared to football and professional boxing. However, professional boxing is the only major American sport without a unified governing body to enact sweeping changes. Rather it is governed by 48 separate state commissions, whose financial incentives often conflict with the health interest of the fighters. After all, how much risk can be removed from a sport before it’s entertainment value evaporates?
Many in the professional boxing community claim that changing the sport to make it significantly safer would ruin it. Unlike in football, a boxer cannot be removed from competition to be evaluated for a concussion. Fighting through a concussion has always been a seemingly unavoidable aspect of the sport.
“I might’ve had a concussion in some fights.” says Chuck Wepner, a retired boxer who took so many hits he earned the nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” “You can’t really tell. You might not get knocked down or lose consciousness. I probably fought with one a few times.”
If a boxer is pulled from a fight, the bout is over, he loses, the fans go home and the telecast ends. However a recent study by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered that a simple one minute test of eye speed called the King-Devick test can diagnose a concussion as effectively as the 15 minute test currently used by college and professional sports teams. The test gives ringside physicians the capability to definitively diagnose a concussion between rounds without stopping the fight. Professional boxing has also struggled to prevent fighters from competing longer than they should. Trainers and promoters have long wondered at what point aging boxers are at risk for long-term brain injuries. Yet for the past eight years Stiller has been developing a protocol that could indicate when active fighters show early signs of brain damage, which would provide doctors an objective measure to persuade boxers to retire.
Now more than ever, science is introducing ways that boxing can be made safer. As the knowledge of boxing brain injuries has advanced, it has narrowed toward a single goal: making sure boxers are not fighting when they are most vulnerable to long-term brain damage, both during and between bouts. But Stiller and other boxing doctors still wonder: When will professional boxing listen?
Over the past few years, football listened to the new research by enacting rules to limit big collisions and stricter procedures for diagnosing concussions. Stiller believes the right balance between risk and entertainment in boxing can only be achieved once the boxing community accepts and acts upon the findings he and other doctors have been proclaiming for 26 years. To Stiller, it seems the best way to improve boxing is to batter it with knowledge.
When Stiller was eight years old, his uncle took him to a fight at the famous St. Nick’s arena on 66th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. He was hooked from then on. On Friday nights, he would sneak into the living room of his Westchester, New York home past bedtime to watch the weekly fights, cheering on his favorite fighters like Joe Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson. He even boxed for a bit, winning a tournament during a summer camp months after his visit to St. Nick’s. One day in the winter of 1964, when he was a ninth grader at White Plains Senior High School, he bet a classmate a quarter that a young underdog named Cassius Clay would beat the legendary Sonny Liston. It remains one of his fondest boxing memories.
Back then nobody worried about what punches to the head would do to Cassius Clay’s brain. Nobody worried about the dangers of the sport. Stiller grew up in a time when boxing was king. In the 1960s boxing was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated 26 times. By comparison, the sport was on the cover of the magazine just twice between 2000 and 2009. Back in the 1960s many doctors were defending boxing. The same year as the Clay-Liston fight, doctors argued over whether long-term brain damage was a direct result of boxing, at a symposium in London on the medical aspects of the sport. According to Dr. J.A.N. Corsellis, a neurologist who studied brain injuries in boxing, “some doctors cast doubt, even scorn, on the idea that the brain could be at risk in such a worthy and enjoyable sport.”
But the long-term risks of boxing were being studied as far back as 1928, when an American pathologist named Harrison Martland coined the term “punch drunk” to describe a “peculiar condition among prizefighters.” Martland was the first doctor to suggest that the dangers of boxing extended past the imminent risk of death or serious injury in the ring. In the 1950’s doctors began using Electroencephalography, a brain scanning technology, to study the neurologic function of active boxers. While these early studies found that boxers who fought more frequently were more likely to suffer cognitive dysfunction, they mainly focused on short-term damage and sometimes utilized suspect methodology. The first research into the long-term consequences of boxing was initiated not by neurologists, but by psychiatrists, as the issue was considered to be a psychological impairment rather than a physical one. In 1957, doctors at two psychiatric hospitals– one in London and one in New Jersey– examined 15 former boxers who were losing their minds. The psychiatrists administered simple cognitive tests, but could not find conclusive signs that the brain damage was a result of boxing– the results were inconsistent, the sample size was too small and there were too many variables in the boxers’ lives to account for.
The connection between long-term brain damage and boxing was first legitimized in 1969, when a doctor named A.H. Roberts studied the cognitive functions of 224 ex-boxers who fought between 1929 and 1955. He found that 17 percent of them suffered from traumatic encephalopathy (now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease that resulted in symptoms like memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. Roberts concluded that the number of fights and the length of a career played a role in heightening a boxer’s chances of getting long-term brain damage. Then in 1973, Corsellis studied the brains of 15 ex-boxers who had shown symptoms of being punch drunk while they were alive. In their brains he discovered a pink or red abnormal protein called amyloid plaque, a sign of dementia pugilistica (also now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Now doctors knew for sure that “punch drunk syndrome” aka dementia pugilistica aka CTE was a result of boxing.
By the early 1980’s, as Stiller was finishing his residency at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the long-term dangers of boxing had become well-established within the medical community. The push to ban boxing began in 1983 when the Journal for the American Medical Association declared that it supported a ban of the sport, which led to the congressional sub-committee hearing at which Stiller testified two years later. Amateur boxing, which is regulated by USA Boxing, responded to the growing medical research by enacting new safety regulations in 1984. Fighters were now required to wear head gear. They had to undergo medical examinations before every fight and yearly. Bouts were made shorter– only four two-minute rounds. Fighters who showed signs of head injury were barred from fighting and sparring for at least 30 days. Fighters who lost consciousness for less than two minutes were restricted from fighting for at least 90 days and those who were out cold for more than two minutes were restricted for at least 180 days. Fighters who got another head injury within 90 days of completing a restriction period could be barred for up to a year. Amateur boxing was suddenly significantly safer than football and professional boxing.
A year later, while he was a professor of neurology at George Washington University, Stiller published his first paper on boxing, an analysis of the key studies about brain damage in boxers, in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Next, Stiller wanted to do his own boxing study. Something more comprehensive and modern than all the ones he had written about. He called promoters and trainers, trying to get boxers to participate. But he couldn’t garner any interest. The boxing community, he says, assumed he was just “another one of these doctors trying to ban the sport.” In reality he was just the opposite. Over the next decade, Stiller would defend boxing in various medical journals, debating the doctors who wanted the sport banned. He was so passionate about boxing that one of his doctor friends told him, “Be careful. You don’t want to be labeled a cigarette doctor.” The lingering fear of tarnishing his name compounded with the lack of cooperation from the boxing community and by the mid-’90s Stiller waned down his efforts at trying to get his in-depth study.
In the meantime, he closely followed the research of his peers. He read with amazement a 1997 study by Dr. Barry Jordan, the chief medical examiner of the New York State Athletic Commission, that discovered that the accumulation of sub-concussive hits can lead to brain damage. Suddenly, doctors didn’t just have to worry about the big knock-out hits that sent fighters sprawling to the canvas, he thought. Now they also had to worry about all those smaller hits in between.
Stiller’s interest in making boxing safer was reinvigorated in 2001, when he met Patrick Patella, the executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission. Stiller told Patella about the study he wanted to do and Patella was interested. Stiller joined the commission, soon rose to chief medical examiner, and within two years he began his study.
Around the same time, new research began linking long-term brain damage to football. While the NFL started addressing the dangers of concussions in the late-‘90s, the long-term risks of playing football didn’t emerge until 2002, when Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist at the University of Pittsburg, discovered CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman. Over the next few years, the brains of dozens of football players (and at least five boxers) were analyzed post-mortem and found to possess the new primary sign of CTE, a build-up of an abnormal dark brown sludge-like protein called tau. More than 30 years after Roberts and Corsellis first linked CTE to boxing, doctors were coming to the same conclusion about football. The two sports’ research crossed again in 2004, when doctors at the Sports Concussion Research Program at the University of North Carolina found that the accumulation sub-concussive hits in football was just as likely to cause brain damage as any single big hit– the same conclusion Jordan had made about boxing seven years earlier. Football had finally caught up to boxing.
The crowd at the Millersville Sportsplex cheers louder and louder as the little known fighters exchange blows, ducking and weaving and swinging and connecting. Stiller watches them closely, going through a mental medical checklist every time a big hit connects. Is the boxer able to defend himself? Are his legs moving? Is he breathing okay? Yes, yes and yes. And the ducking and weaving and swinging and connecting continues. Stiller sees the fight differently than do the spectators. He sees past the punches and into the brains of the fighters.
In the fourth round, the brown haired fighter connects on the left jab, rocking the bald fighter’s head backwards. As his brain rapidly accelerates and decelerates, it smashes against the walls of his skull, stretching his brain’s nerve tissue. The tissue temporarily deforms, but is flexible and recovers within minutes. The brown haired fighter ducks then hits his opponent with a right hook then a left hook to the sides of the head, popping it around like a jammed doorknob. The neck does a good job of absorbing hits that come straight at the head and rock it back, but these hooks rotate the bald fighter’s head laterally and are not absorbed as well by the neck. They are more likely than a linear hit of the same force to stretch or tear the brain tissue. The bald fighter covers up and the brown haired fighter pounces, striking with a vicious left-jab-right-hook-left-uppercut combo. As these hits connect and send the bald fighter wobbling, they damage his brain’s axons, the long thin branches that connect neurons and transmit signals through the nervous system. The body generally needs weeks or months to fully recover. Enough of these combos could rupture the axons and enough ruptures lead to long-term brain damage. Brain tissue becomes progressively less elastic after a person turns 28, so the older a boxer is, the more susceptible he is to a rupture.
Now Stiller is on high alert. The checklist cycles through his mind. But the bald fighter withstands the attack, knocks the brown haired fighter back with a couple of jabs, and makes it to the end of the round. Stiller watches the bald fighter as he paces to his corner. He took a lot of hits in that round and Stiller assesses his gait and his eyes, seeking to judge how many more punches he can take.
A punch can strike with a g-force as high 60 g’s, roughly two-thirds the force of a big collision in football. Between these knock-out punches, boxers will take many more weaker hits, in the range of 10 to 20 g’s– by comparison, an offensive lineman takes 20 to 30 g’s to the head on almost every play. The number of punches a boxer takes, of course, depends on the length of the fight and the styles of the two fighters in the ring. Boxers will often take upwards of 15 punches to the head per round, so nearly 200 in a 12 round fight, which is more than double the amount of hits an offensive lineman takes in a game. An aggressive fighter like Manny Pacquiao can land more than 25 punches to the head per round. In his November 2010 12-round unanimous decision over Antonio Margarito, Pacquiao connected on 401 hits to the head. In contrast, a defensive-minded fighter like Floyd Mayweather lands half as many punches as Pacquiao. In his May 2010 12-round decision over Shane Mosely, Mayweather landed 191 hits to the head. It should be considered, though, that top-level professional boxers fight no more than four to six times a year, while an NFL season consists of 16 to 20 games, not including the preseason. So both a boxer and a football player can sustain more than 1,000 hits to the head in a single year of competition. And between these fights and games, they take thousands of more head shots in training.
Stiller deems the bald boxer fit to continue. The bell rings and the fighters square off.
Athletes are most vulnerable to long-term brain damage when they compete before fully recovering from a concussion. This makes the structural differences between boxing and football significant. In football, when medical personnel suspect a player has been concussed, they can take him out of a game and assess his injury. The give him the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation (MACE), a comprehensive 15 to 20 minute test used to diagnose brain trauma in soldiers and college and professional athletes. The test asks the participant to recall a list of words and say the day of the week, among other things. As the player is tested, the game goes on. But in boxing, the bout is only stopped when it is blatantly obvious that a fighter has suffered too much damage to properly function. The boxer either keeps fighting or loses. A concussion does not necessarily lead to loss of consciousness and does not necessarily accompany a knock down. Ringside physicians and referees do their best to diagnose brain injury instantaneously, but even then it is entirely possible for a boxer to keep fighting after he suffers a concussion, as long as he is able to remain competitive.
“There are certain things you have to look for,” says Randy Neumann, a former-boxer-turned-referee who has officiated more than 230 fights. “Did the fighter demonstrate that he is still all there? I look at his eyes and his reaction time and his gait. If the guy’s pupils are dilated, of course you stop the fight. But what if none of the obvious signs are there? I look to see if his performance is better or worse. If the performance is worse, is it because it’s the ninth round and he’s tired or is it because he has a concussion? If he is limping around, is it because his foot might be hurt? You’ve got to learn to read the signs of a concussion. I would say that most referees don’t know how to do this as well, so they take their best guess.”
According to Jordan, the New York chief medical examiner, there has been no research done on how often boxers suffer concussions during fights. Dr. Jeffrey Barth, a neurologist at the University of Virginia who has studied brain injuries in boxing, believes that concussions occur regularly in boxing matches– more often, he says, than most fans and even some ringside physicians think.
“If a guy gets knocked down and it’s a hit to the head, he’s lost his balance from a disruption of the neurological functions of the brain,” he says. “The vast amount of people who get hit on the head and go all the way down to the canvas, they’ve likely had a concussion, which we would define as an alteration of consciousness.”
A February 2011 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has the potential to change the way concussions are diagnosed in boxing. In the study, researchers recruited 27 boxers and 12 mixed martial artists to spar for three rounds. At least 15 minutes before fighting, the boxers were given a cognitive test by one set of researchers. A different set of researchers observed the fights and noted when a fighter sustained head trauma, by their judgment. Half the fighters were given the MACE, which is the standard test doctors use to diagnose a concussion. The other half were given the King-Devick test, a one minute evaluation based on measuring a participant’s ability to read from left to right a bunch of numbers scrambled on an index card as fast as he can. In both tests, scores post-competition are compared to baseline scores. A drop in performance below a certain threshold signifies a concussion.
The researchers found that the King-Devick test was just as effective as the MACE at distinguishing who suffered head trauma. Every fighter who experienced no head trauma improved his King-Devick score by at least .9 seconds. Every fighter who did suffer head trauma took at least 5.5 seconds longer to complete the test. The researchers concluded that, for future diagnosis, if a participant’s score drops by at least five seconds, he should be judged to have suffered a concussion.
The aim of the study was to investigate the King-Devick test’s potential for “sideline use.” The researchers had football in mind. Incidentally, the test is particularly promising for boxing because it fits into the structure of a fight. In a boxing match, the ringside physician is allowed to examine a woozy boxer between rounds to judge whether he is fit to continue. The time it takes to examine the boxer is not deducted from the one minute trainers and cutmen get to manage him. The King-Devick test can be administered without stopping the flow of the fight. Dr. K.M. Galetta, one of the lead researchers in the study, doesn’t think the test should be used as a quantitative way to end a fight. Rather it is a useful tool to help ringside physicians diagnose a boxer more effectively, perhaps for after a round in which he gets knocked down.
“I think that it is certainly an objective measure but it requires a professional at ringside to help put the test into context. It should be part of a battery of tests,” he says.
Since ringside physicians are under pressure to make important decisions in a short amount of time, the test would give them a solid measurement to affirm or rethink their initial prognosis. And if post-concussive hits are reduced, boxing doctors agree, boxing will be that much safer.
When Patella, the Maryland commissioner, gave Stiller the access he needed to do his in-depth study, Stiller immediately knew what he wanted to focus on. A key to reducing a boxer’s risk of long-term brain damage, boxing doctors had long known, is to keep fighters from prolonging their careers past a certain point. But when exactly does this point come? And how is a doctor supposed to convince a professional prizefighter that this point has come? Over the past eight years, Stiller has dedicated his career to solving this problem. His study seeks to figure out a way to identify early signs of brain damage in active fighters. Every boxer with a fight in Maryland is invited to participate. In exchange, the commission pays for their mandatory pre-fight neurological examination, which costs as much as $300 and usually comes out of the boxer’s own pocket. Stiller and Patella wanted to make the study as convenient as possible for boxers. The results are kept anonymous and the baseline test takes place during the day of the weigh-in. The participating boxers are tested annually, to track any changes in their scores over time. More than 250 boxers have joined the study.
The examination consists of four parts: a 90-second neuropsychological test to measure a boxer’s cognitive function, a balance test, a snout test where Stiller taps a boxer’s closed pouted lips, and a smell identification test where a boxer closes his eyes and is asked to distinguish between the scents of various objects, like a flower or a chocolate bar. Since he began the study, Stiller has found a correlation between cognitive function and a boxer’s performance in the balance and smell tests. He believes that smelling ability and balance may be the key to identifying who is at risk for long-term brain damage. However, definitive conclusions will only emerge as the boxers in the study age and actually do or don’t get long-term brain damage. After all, how badly does a boxer have to do on the exam to merit being barred from fighting?
“Whether or not a combination of testing and changes in testing over time will give us an indicator of brain damage, well, you have to do it over years, follow people long enough, and see the pattern that puts you in danger,” he says.
As he has conducted his study, the tangible consequences of long-term brain damage in sports have consistently emerged. Football players and boxers have been going crazy. In 2005, former football player Terry Long killed himself by drinking anti-freeze. In 2006, former football player Andre Waters shot himself in the head. Former boxer Arturo Gatti killed himself in a Brazil hotel room in July 2009. Former boxer Alexis Arguello shot himself a few weeks later. Former boxer Darren Sutherland hanged himself in his home in September 2009. Former boxer Edwin Valero hanged himself in a jail cell in April 2010 after being accused of murdering his wife. In February 2011, former football player Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Just before his death, Duerson had sent messages to his family requesting that his brain be examined for CTE. It was and doctors found signs of the disease.
The problem with CTE is that it can only be detected post-mortem, by slicing up a brain and looking at it under a microscope. The marks of CTE are too subtle to show up in CT scans and MRIs. So, like Stiller, other doctors are trying to figure out a way to identify early signs of long-term brain damage in living athletes.
A study currently being conducted by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, seeks to determine whether signs of CTE can be found in retired athletes while they are alive, through the brain imaging technology used to examine people with schizophrenia. The study is comparing the brains of former NFL players who experienced lots of hits to the head– like linebackers– with the brains of those who didn’t– like kickers. It is one of several current studies examining whether various brain imaging technologies can identify CTE. But just like Stiller’s study, true conclusions are still years away and only really possible once the athletes’ brains can be analyzed post-mortem. The football players and boxers competing today represent the first generation of brains to be followed through their careers, into their retirements, and after their deaths.
Even as Stiller pushes his research forward, he sometimes wonders if his life’s work will ever help make boxing safer. Even if his the test in his study is able to identify early signs of brain damage in boxers, will it ever be implemented as a mandatory protocol across the country?
After damning lawsuits, growing evidence and media spotlight, the NFL responded to the new findings on brain damage (and the controversy that accompanied it) by eventually enacting rules to limit collisions– on receivers going over the middle and on kickoffs– and tightening protocols for dealing with concussions. But boxing has neither the media attention of football, nor a governing body to be held accountable for the sport’s flaws. States gain revenue when they host a fight, so there is a financial incentive to have more relaxed safety regulations than other states. If a boxer fails a mandatory neurological evaluation in New York or Connecticut– two states with some of the strictest regulations in the nation– and cannot get licensed there, he can go to Kentucky or Ohio instead, where the pre-fight examinations are less rigorous.
“It’s about money and power,” says Michael Schwartz, the chief medical examiner of the Connecticut State Athletic commission. “The fact that there’s a lot of money in this sport, without a commission, there’s nobody watching the money. A national commission would cause a disturbance among the promoters, managers, even the TV people.”
Schwartz is well aware of the boxing world’s attraction to the status quo. In 1997, he founded the American Association of Ringside Professionals, a coalition of doctors involved with boxing, to promote unified safety protocols among ringside physicians and give a voice to the only people he believed were protecting the boxers.
“Who are the only people who look out for fighters?” says Schwartz. “Our only job, as physicians, is to take care of the fighter. You can’t say that about anybody else in a fight. The manager wants his fighter to win. The promoter wants his fighter to go on, wants a good fight, and the TV is TV.”
As a group, the doctors have made recommendations: better medical training for trainers; mandatory neurological examinations between fights; apprenticeship experience for new ringside physicians; and that ringside physicians specialize in neurology. Some states– like Stiller’s Maryland, Jordan’s New York and Schwartz’s Connecticut– have listened and followed the recommendations. Most other states have not. Most state commissions, according to Stiller, focus on the rate of deaths-in-the-ring to judge their safety regulations. Deaths in boxing are rare, though. In fact, statistics show that college football players, jockeys and motorcycle racers are more likely than boxers to die in competition. When it comes to the long-term damage that emerges years after a boxer’s career ends, he says, “not enough people care.”
After all, boxing makes money because it’s entertaining. And entertainment can conflict with safety. Dr. Vincent Miele, a neurologist at West Virginia University, found in a 2006 study that fights where a boxer dies feature nearly three times as many landed punches per round as the average fight. He also found that “classic fights,” which he defined as highly competitive, well-known matches, consist of more than twice as many landed punches per round as the average fight. There is a thin line between fights that are epic and fights that are dangerous, he concluded. In many cases, the two sides probably overlap.
“It’s a delicate balance. A human being’s health on one end and millions of dollars on the other,” says Neumann, the boxer-turned-referee.
Yet even as doctors like Stiller and Schwartz strive to tilt the scale toward a boxer’s health and push for protocol changes, a lingering question persists: Can sports like football and boxing really be made safer or are they unavoidably dangerous?
“What you’ve just asked me is, how can guns be made safer?” says Omalu. “A gun is intrinsically dangerous. How can you make a weapon completely safe? To make a gun completely safe, it would not be a gun anymore. You cannot make boxing completely safe. And football is like boxing. The way football is played, contact is intrinsic to the game. Once you remove contact from it, you create a new sport.”
Sports will always involve a degree of risk, but at what point does the risk become unreasonable? What is the line between dangerous and too dangerous? How much can a sport strive to become safer before it erases its appeal altogether?
Stiller thinks the important thing is ensuring that participants are fully aware of the risks they face. Yes, boxers (and football players) know that they may be injured in competition. But, he says, for the sport to be ethically sound, boxers must understand the potential long-term consequences they face. It must become common knowledge, posted in boxing gyms around the world and instilled in every trainer. It must be fully integrated into the boxing community, he says, and boxers must become informed participants.
“Who is anybody to tell Muhammad Ali he would have been better off being a coal miner?” says Stiller of those who propose banning boxing to protect the fighters. “But the key is making sure Muhammad Ali knows what he is risking.”
The rewards of the risk, after all, can be quite great. Historically, boxing– and many other sports– has been linked to upward mobility, to the American Dream. Manny Pacquiao, arguably the best boxer of the current era, went from poor boy in the provinces of the Philippines to multi-millionaire congressman. Mike Tyson went from robber on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn to mega-celebrity with cameos in blockbuster movies. Benny Leonard came from the Jewish ghettos of pre-World War II New York to become the hero of a culture for generations. All because of boxing.
Chuck Wepner understands the rewards and the risks better than most. He sees his friends deteriorating before his eyes because of the sport that made him famous. Muhammad Ali, Emile Griffith, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier. All slowly losing their minds. Wepner tries not to think about the possibility of reaching the same fate as many of his contemporaries. He took tens of thousands of punches over the course of his 14 year heavyweight career and the thought of losing his own mind inevitably lingers.
“What good would it do to worry about?” he says. “It’s done. It’s just something that might happen and if it does that would be unfortunate.”
He’s pretty sure he’s fought through concussions. Any self-respecting fighter keeps fighting to the end, he says. But he acknowledges the danger in which he put himself.
“If you get a concussion and you get hit again, you could die,” he says after a moment of contemplation. “If they’re testing between rounds and they find you got a concussion, they should definitely stop the fight.”
Wepner, who is now 72, has long ears, a flat nose, and a thick brow that leans over his light brown eyes. He sits in a beige recliner in the living room of his Bayonne, New Jersey condominium. His fourth floor home sits at the corner of the red brick building and its big windows overlook the towering red and white cranes parked on the docks of Newark Bay. He has found success in his post-boxing life. He works as a salesman for Majestic Wine and Spirits and serves as president of his condominium complex. He drives a sleek silver Cadillac with a retractable leather red roof and a license plate that says “CHAMP.” For years he has been an advocate for a pension system in boxing. If boxers knew they would have a source of money later in life, he says, they would be less likely to extend their careers longer than they should. He has tried to get bills passed in the state legislature, but he hasn’t been able to get enough support from active fighters. Many of them aren’t willing to pay the necessary pension fees during their career, he says.
On the back of his Majestic Wine and Sprits business card is a photo from the ninth round of his 1975 war with Ali, taken moments after he knocked Ali down with a right hook to the body. In the image, Wepner is walking toward the neutral corner and Ali is on the canvas, his left arm wrapped around his torso. Sylvester Stallone was in the audience for this fight. This was the fight that inspired Rocky andWepner was the fighter on whom the character Rocky Balboa was based. After that moment in the photo, Ali would get up and return fire with a vengeance. By the final round, Wepner’s face was bloodied and swollen. Ali was clearly ahead on all the cards, but the world anxiously watched in amazement, wondering whether this no-name from Jersey could go the distance with The Greatest. With less than minute left in the fight, Ali connected on a vicious right-left hook combo, sending Wepner into a wobbly daze. Then, with Wepner teetering, Ali rocked him with a straight right jab to the head and Wepner dropped to the canvas. It was the first time in the fight he had been knocked down. Wepner raised to his knees, struggling to stand, as the referee shuffled over to him to administer the 10 count. After reaching eight, and with Wepner slowly getting to his feet, the referee waved his hands and stopped the fight. TKO in the 15th round for Ali. Wepner was 19 seconds away from going the distance with The Greatest. To this day it pains him that he was not allowed to finish.
Wepner sighs and says, “The referee told me later, ‘If I had known there was 19 seconds left, I wouldn’t have called the fight.’”
By the sixth and final round, the crowd at the Millersville Sportsplex is heartily enjoying the fight between the little known boxers. It is a small venue and only a couple of hundred people are in the audience, presumably friends and family members of the fighters and die-hard Maryland boxing fanatics. These are Stiller’s type of people: the men and women and boys and girls who appreciate the beauty of the sport he loves. And like Stiller, the spectators keep a close watch for connected blows.
“Stick the jab! STICK THE JAB!” screams a man in the crowd.
The brown haired fighter sticks a jab.
“Yeah! YEAH!” yells the same man, his voice so piercingly loud his eyes must be bulging out of its sockets.
More chatter pours in front the masses.
“Shoot the left hook! Shoot the left hook!” says somebody else, a man with a powerfully deep voice.
“Come on! Get him! Get him!” screams the high pitched voice of either a woman or a young boy.
The brown haired fighter now connects on a vicious right-left-hook-right-jab combination to his opponent’s head, momentarily stunning him. The chatter erupts into a frenzy of shouts.
Stiller cranes his neck, inching forward to get a better glimpse into the eyes of the fighter who just took the punches. He doesn’t hear the shouts from the crowd. Doesn’t even flinch as the punches connect and the brains rattle. He is zoned in.
He instantly runs through the checklist, which became second nature long ago.
“Yeah, baby! Put him down!”
The defense? Check. The legs? Check. The breathing? Check.
“C’mon! Finish him!”
The fighters lock up, trade a few errant swings, then lock up again. The final bell rings and the fighters embrace. A mild applause ripples through the arena. Stiller rises from his chair, climbs a couple of steps and enters the ring to check on the boxers.