You can see them in the dim corners of dingy gyms from one end of the country to the other. They play dominoes at rickety card tables. They wander back and forth, unsteadily, across the room, the heat—almost never offset by whirring ceiling fans—and the permanent stench of sweat, grit, and cracked or creaking leather a backdrop to nearly all they say or do. Now and then one of them will come up to you and offer advice when he sees you struggling with the heavybag or making a fool of yourself in front of a mirror. They teach arcane, archaic methods. Their eyes, unfocused, wander here or there; you can catch a glimpse of pain in them from time to time. Their hands are as gnarled as tree roots breaking through the earth. They stand in front of begrimed windows looking down on the faraway streets below. Who can tell you what their daydreams are?
It was a savage affair at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California last month. Timothy Bradley and Ruslan Provodnikov, whose guiding motives, in the end, can only be guessed at, tore at each other from bell to bell in a bout Bradley barely edged out on the scorecards. In the post-fight interview with Max Kellerman, a groggy Bradley forgot what he had said to Kellerman just moments before the cameras cut to him for live comments: that he, Bradley, was sure he had suffered a concussion in the first round. When you think about the way these men pushed themselves to limits most of us can only imagine, you think about courage, will, determination, endurance, character. Maybe, just, maybe, you think about what these men do and what, exactly, it means to you. Sometimes, however, you stop to think about the cost … and what the cost may mean to these men years from now.
Dementia pugilistica is back in the news in a way that it has not been in nearly thirty years, when the American Medical Association began its first concerted effort to ban boxing across the country. A few years ago, The New York Times even assigned a reporter, Alan Schwarz, specifically to cover head trauma in sports. An affliction historically associated with boxing, has, over the last decade or so, been at the forefront of serious sports journalism. Except now the focus is not on men who punish each other for a living at the sound of a bell. That slow dissolution of magnificent athletes whose lives, in the end, seem more appropriate for pathographies than they are for biographies is no longer considered solely a grim byproduct of prizefighting.
No, now what was once known as being “punch drunk” is a mainstream concern, one connected to popular pastimes like football and hockey. Shocking stories whose generators may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have left the American sporting public stunned: murder, bankruptcy, drug overdoses, madness. Then there are the spectacular suicides: by hanging, by shooting, by the consumption of antifreeze. The dreams of broken men now the stuff of outlandish nightmares: Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center, who used to Taser himself into unconscious for a few precious hours of oblivion; tortured Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the heart so that his brain could be preserved for an autopsy; Justin Strzelczyk, only 36 years old when he led police on a high-speed chase that ended when his car exploded in flames after crashing head-on with a tractor-trailer.
Hockey, too, has seen CTE overshadow its stick-handling and goal-scoring. In 2011, three hockey players died over a span of a few months. All three players were “enforcers—” men who fight on skates for a living. Repeated blows to the head—which cause CTE, whose symptoms include depression, amnesia, and lack of impulse control—may have led them to the same misfortunes that so often afflict professional boxers: An autopsy of Bob Probert, who died of a heart attack in 2010, revealed that the legendary brawler on skates suffered from CTE. (Ironically, in the past, a few hockey teams had approached Emanuel Steward and Georgie Benton to train them in the sweet science.) “My left has been smashed and broken so many times I’m missing a knuckle,” Brantt Myhres, who played hockey for over a decade, told The New York Times. “From the concussions, my memory—I have a lapse with my memory at times. It’s just little things, and important things. If you look at the fights I’ve had since I was 16, I’ve had about 300. These aren’t boxing gloves. These are fists. There has to be an impact.”
Behind these stories, just off to the side, it seems, stands the ragged shadow of prizefighting, once again—even under such bleak circumstances—ignored by the establishment. Or, as Ben McGrath of The New Yorker put it in 2010: “The campaign to ban boxing has been going on for decades—The Times endorsed the idea in 1967 and the American Medical Association lobbied for it in 1983—to no avail. Boxing has a bigger problem: it has slipped into cultural irrelevance.”
Unlike the NFL, with its pension fund and a roster of athletes comprised largely of college graduates, or even hockey—90 percent Caucasian and with an official concussion protocol—boxing does not have the right prerequisites for drawing attention. Because most boxers are minorities, and because most boxers are poor and uneducated, a call to arms concerning health reform is stifled before it can develop. Without unions, health care funds, and pensions, boxers could not be part of the recent collective gasp of disbelief, despite the inherent risks and dangers posed by the hardest game, and the glaring toll it has taken on some of the most celebrated athletes in American history. Think about the bleak fates of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis—three of the best fighters ever to step under the lights. As Jack Newfield once wrote: “If this is the fate of the greatest boxers, what happens to all the clubfighters around the country? What happens to the tough kid from Mexico or Philly who has thirty hard fights over six years, and never becomes famous or a world champion? How does he take a vacation? What chance do his children have of going to college? Who pays his medical bills? Who pays for his funeral?”
Fighters, except under the direst circumstances, are not removed from the playing field—a square ring whose canvas is often mottled by the bloodstains of previous fights. Against the merciless Provodnikov, Bradley looked like he was on the verge of being stopped three or four times. He took punishing shots from the opening round until the final seconds of the fight, when he finally dropped for an eight-count after a fusillade of blows. Although Bradley was taken to the hospital after the fight, the extent of his injuries remains unclear. At worst, Bradley, who complained of amnesia and dizziness after the fight, seemed to suffer from what NFL players euphemistically call a “ding.” An accumulation of “dings,” however, can lead to serious problems down the line. For years, boxers practice ducking, parrying, and blocking. But just as there is no guarantee that they will avoid the hardest blows aimed at them, there is no certainty that they can sidestep a grim future: life as a sickroom. Still, they can ignite the present when they choose to, like superflares in a distant sky. Thanks, always, for that brief illumination, and for what it takes to spark the light.
Like your trainer, who forgets your name from week to week, he seems confused every time you take up from wherever it was you last left off. Wherever it was you last left off is long forgotten. At least to him it is. One day, he simply disappears, a ghost who could not recall the purpose of his haunting. But you make sure to say something just before he vanishes. You say, I remember the night you beat Johnny Summerhays out in Comack, and then you watch the toothy smile break across his face. The dim eyes brighten for a moment and then fade to black. You were four years old when he fought Johnny Summerhays. Fuck it. Your lie is made to order, the same way his darkness is.