The End Game
If this can happen to our best—whether it be Parkinson’s, early senility, dementia, or Alzheimer’s—what does it mean for the rest…
“Fighting, to me, seems barbaric. I don’t really like it. I enjoy out-thinking another man and out-maneuvering him, but I still don’t like to fight.”—Sugar Ray Robinson
“I was champion of the world and there’s three things that go and that’s how a fighter knows that he’s all done. First, your legs go, but if you got reflexes, you can see the punches coming, and you can bob and weave. The second thing is that your reflexes go, and the third thing is that your friends go, and you know you’re all done when there’s nobody hangin’ ‘round no more.”—Willie Pep
In my book Boxing is my Sanctuary, I have a chapter in which I list my top 100 fighters since 1950: My first five are as follows:
1. Sugar Ray Robinson (175-19-6-2)
2. Willie Pep (230-11-1)
3. Joe Louis (69–3)
4. Eder Jofre (72-2-4)
5. Muhammad Ali (56-5)
Jofre, now 74, recently put out a video in which he is shown doing calisthenics and looking fit and ready to go 10 rounds. He is the picture of health—both physical and mental. Arguably, he is the greatest fighter who fought under the radar. A Brazilian, he was one of the few champions to have never suffered a knockout. Jofre has become a respected boxing trainer in Brazil, and also owns businesses such as supermarkets. But what about the others, how did they end up?
We all know about Ali and the story is not a particularly happy one depending on your point of view. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984 and his physical condition has deteriorated ever since. Still, he remains a beloved and active figure—one who seems content within himself and with the price he paid.
In the case of Sugar Ray Robinson (Walker Smith Jr.), his performances inspired writers to create “pound for pound” rankings. However, there is no way to sugarcoat his end game. He became senile and broke in his last years and was diagnosed with early senility disease. Ray, who enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring and seemed to encourage a large number of hangers-on, spent all of his millions in earnings. In fact, he is credited with being the originator of the modern sports term “entourage.” Ray lived pretty much in poverty until his death in Los Angeles in 1989 at the age of 67 and his stare at the end was chilling.
Willie Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo) died on November 23, 2006, in a nursing home in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. There likely were many reasons why only 100 people attended his funeral. Maybe some had gone to the wake the previous night. But there were only two professional fighters present. There were no promoters, managers, or commentators. The fact is, Willie outlived most of his contemporaries. Of those living, many are infirmed themselves. Willie had been ill for years; Alzheimer’s running roughshod over his precious memories.
Joe Louis (Joseph Louis Barrow), like Ali, transcended boxing. But following surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977, he was confined to a wheelchair. His health over the years had deteriorated badly, beset with heart problems, emotional disorders (including paranoia), and strokes. He died in 1981 of cardiac arrest in Las Vegas at age 66. Like Sugar Ray Robinson, Uncle Sam had Joe on the ropes over his tax problems. He owed more than $1 million. Sadly, this wonderful human being who gave so much back to his country wound up living on the house in Las Vegas. They called him a “Greeter” at Caesars Palace.
While Ali’s brain is still sharp, he is trapped in a Parkinson’s ravaged tomb of physical hell. Yet, he preservers and inspires others with his courage.
There have been attempts to separate the physical and mental demise of these great fighters from the sport that clearly was the cause, and in this regard I often wonder if Alzheimer’s is used as a politically correct substitute for Dementia pugilistica. In this regard, greats like Floyd Patterson, Bobo Olson, and Ingemar Johansson come to mind.
To paraphrase the late and great writer Jack Newfield, if this can happen to our best—whether it be Parkinson’s, early senility, dementia, or Alzheimer’s—what does it mean for the rest?