A Dark Place
Here, there is neither denial nor hope. No more triumphs. No romanticizing. The bulb flickers, dims, and dies away. All becomes dark…
A 30ish man named Nigel stood at the bar of the Deluxe Bar & Grill on Capitol Hill. He spoke with an English accent and said he used to be a boxer. He had the build of one. “I was pretty good,” the former light heavyweight said. “Went 12-6. Eight knockouts…I didn’t have great balance. I’m white and from England. But I was persistent and I could hit hard.” It was noted to him that he got out of the game in time—that it was sad to see former heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry on television brain-damaged and barely able to speak. “Yeah,” he nodded. “But at least people know the name Jerry Quarry. You see a lot of people like that at the gym. They’re in the same shape, but nobody knows their name. People give them jobs to carry water around and stuff. (Kerry Murakami, “Reflecting at the bar” January 9, 2006)
“There is something so bitterly cruel and ironic about a fighting man not being able to remember the one glorious and exceptional quality that set him apart from the rest.”—Mike Casey
“He’s living over there, but really he’s dead…And nobody cares. Frankly, nobody ever will care. But I care.”—Denny Moyer’s wife Sandy Moyer
This is not a particularly unpleasant place. There might even be a garden outside with benches, upon which the sun shines warmly. The sound of birds singing may be heard by those who can still hear. Polite and helpful attendants with white uniforms move about, while visitors sit quietly with the patients. However, meaningful conversations are not commonplace. If you look closely and at the right time, you might have seen the Moyer brothers (Denny and Phil) walking down a pathway holding hands and wearing plastic helmets.
There is a sense of temporary, of “just passing through” that is unmistakable. Most here are locked in a clouded emotional prison punctuated with stares that see very little. They hear voices no one else hears, and they often scream at night. Some sit in wheelchairs, semi-paralyzed; others lie in bed unable to see, having to be fed and otherwise cared for. Some shuffle around without knowing their destination. Occasionally, a flash of glory is recalled. But soon the flashes cruelly evanescence, leaving the inhabitants to resume their blank stares with eyes glazed over. Often confused, childlike, and uttering unintelligible sounds delivered by thick tongues, some have friends or relatives to help out. Eventually, they will need to be cared for like babies, for this terrible thing they have is degenerative and unforgiving, and its symptoms often emerge once the victim is in his later years, long after retiring from the career that gave rise to the condition.
Some who have not yet arrived are huddled in lonely doorways or in subway stations on a frigid Chicago night; some are looking for aluminum cans to turn in for some extra change in alleyways in West Hollywood or in junkyards in Philadelphia. Still others shuffle from one flea-bitten hotel to another in New York City. Their world is one of irreversible sameness. They all seem to talk alike, slurring their words with a nasal monotone, and sometimes engaging in self-directed temper tantrums.
The symptoms are similar to that of alcohol intoxication, but the malady is far worse. They have speech difficulty, dizziness, and unusual and involuntary muscular movements like hand tremors. Their balance is unsteady, and their short-term memory is rapidly deteriorating, as is their cognitive ability. They have an unsteady, shuffling gait and a problem engaging in the most simple of daily activities or in working menial jobs; and they also have a tendency to wander. Once the conditions exist, there is no other choice but to deal with it and make the most out of what limited treatments are available. Soon, they might become eligible for admittance, but until then, these unfortunates must exist from day to day as best they can. They have no pension; in fact, most walk away with less than nothing, “because they leave boxing with less than what they had going in.” (Steve Buffery)
These men are all victims of the legalized violence of boxing, where the risk-reward equation was never in their favor. Most are unknown. Hopefully, the memories of those who are known will be kept alive through their fans long after they have left this world.
People with this kind of mental damage are sometimes described as being punch-drunk or punchy. Those words are demeaning and terribly misleading. A better way to describe it is to use diagnostic terms such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome. For the politically correct, the condition, which occurs in people who have suffered multiple concussions, commonly manifests itself as dementia or declining mental ability. It also can result in Parkinson’s tremors and lack of coordination (which is not as deadly). But, plainly stated, it is dementia pugilistica (aka boxer’s syndrome), nothing more and nothing less. It’s a condition caused by being on the receiving end of too many blows to the head, and it’s classically seen in boxers. It is horrific.
Chronic traumatic brain injury is the most serious health concern in boxing today. While other injuries such as cuts and fractures can be repaired, brain tissue, once damaged, remains damaged. The boxer can recover from the broken nose; severe brain damage is permanent. A single blow or knockout punch, while sometimes fatal, rarely causes the kind of long-term damage that results in this condition. Rather, it is the accumulation of blows, endured over a period of time both in actual fights and during the many rounds of gym training that is more likely to be the cause.
Now it’s not pleasant to say where this dark place is. Some refer to it colloquially as Palookaville, but it’s far worse than that. Oh no, this place is at the end of a one-way, irreversible descent, ending where cerebral atrophy occurs and where the brain rapidly shrinks with dead cells dissolving into liquid. Finally and mercifully, the all-but-dead brain eventually begins to shut down, and a decision must be made to remove life support, which in turn will result in cardiac arrest. And that is where it all finally ends.
No bell tolls with the final ten-count for these fallen warriors. Here, the thousands of rounds in the gym during which the blows landed upon their skull offset any possible lingering feeling of invincibility. Here, there is neither denial nor hope. No more triumphs. No romanticizing. The bulb flickers, dims, and dies away. All becomes dark.
Postscript: Denny Moyer (97-38-4) died of complications from dementia pugilistica on June 30, 2010. He is featured in the stunning documentary, “After the Last Round.” Phil Moyer (28-9-1), who once beat Sugar Ray Robinson, is 75 and is totally incapacitated with the malady and remains in the same nursing home enshrouded in a fog of living death.