The Saddest of Ironies

By Gordon Marino on January 17, 2013
The Saddest of Ironies
“Just wait until he gets hit," some soothsayers predicted. "He won’t be able to take it.”

Ali’s late trainer, Angelo Dundee, once confided to me, “Being with Ali was like riding a comet. We had so much fun. I was so blessed…”

“I became a fighter because I didn’t want to be hurt like in those other sports.”—Muhammad Ali

A seemingly eternal symbol of youth and an inspiration to countless millions, Muhammad Ali turns 71 today. One of the greatest pugilists of all time, Ali transformed the sport of boxing both in his style of combat and the crazy theater he produced to build up interest in his fights.

In a world of grunt and truculent glare, he was and remains a comedic trickster. Ali’s late trainer, Angelo Dundee, once confided to me, “Being with Ali was like riding a comet. We had so much fun. I was so blessed.”

When the Adonis-like Ali was coming up through the ranks, fighting with his hands at his waist, almost all the cigar-chewing boxing scribes predicted, “Just wait until he gets hit. He won’t be able to take it.”

The truth, which was both good and bad for the supersonic heavyweight, was that Ali could absorb a blow as well as any fighter in history. He had endless resolve and his ability to see shots developing allowed him to roll with punches that would have turned the lights out on others.

But the hurricane blows that Ali weathered eventually exacted their price. For decades he has been suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder, now identified as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease in the same family as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In the saddest of ironies, the man who enjoyed and excelled at banter as no other athlete in history has been largely silenced by the sport that made him so beloved and popular.

Ali, of course, was far from the first fighter to suffer lifelong damage from his life in the ring. It would be easy to list scores of boxers who after long—or sometimes short—careers have become a pocket full of mumbles.

Recently, Americans have become attentive to the long-term effects of football-related concussions. But well before this awakening it was understood that between bouts and countless rounds of sparring, boxers were putting their brains in peril. In the past, the governing bodies of the bruising game have tweaked rules to protect combatants, but more needs to be done to shield these modern-day gladiators from their craft and courage.

In 2011, Dr. Charles Bernick of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center began the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study. Dr. Bernick, who is based in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world, has enrolled scores of professional boxers and MMA fighters for a study that he hopes will be completed in four years.

In addition to examining the cumulative effects of “repetitive concussive and subconcussive injuries to the brain,” Dr. Bernick and his associates are working to detect the earliest signs of brain injury and to determine why some boxers seem more likely to develop neurological disorders than others. What determines who is most vulnerable? Genes? Physical attributes? Perhaps the age at which one start’s exchanging blows?

Dr. Bernick is adamant that he is not trying to put boxing on the canvas but instead wants to protect fighters by letting them know when they might be entering the neurological danger zone and intervening, “by perhaps convincing them to take a pause from the sport” and in more dire cases to retire. He said he also hopes that medications might one day be developed to help protect athletes from the effects of taking punches.

A well known Las Vegas trainer, Pat Barry, has been encouraging his charges to sign up for the study. In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he noted, “I think for young fighters, it can be a good thing. You start with a baseline and follow their progress throughout their career. You can get an accurate measurement of how their brain has been impacted.” However, Barry cautioned, “I can see where an older fighter might not want to participate. They might be afraid they’ll find something [that will] force them to quit boxing.”

Of course, the Professional Boxers Brain Health Study came too late for “The Greatest.” Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor of many years, wrote, “After the ruthless destruction of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’”—Ali’s epic third fight with Joe Frazier, in 1975—“I began to see obvious signs of deterioration in Ali’s physical condition. His kidneys were beginning to fall apart…Then I saw a marked diminution of his reflexes in the gym. No one in his camp…wanted to acknowledge the change.” Pacheco warned Ali that it was time to put his boxing career to bed, and, to the doctor’s credit, he soon thereafter walked away from the warmth of the Ali circle rather than participate in what he was sure would be the champ’s demise.

It is hard to say, but perhaps if Ali could have been shown some of the objective evidence of the havoc going on behind his eyes, he might have been convinced to put his gloves on a nail. But then again, maybe not. Even toward the final bell, there was still so much money to be made, and most great artists would rather die than give up their canvas.

A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. You can follow him on Twitter at @GordonMarino.

Special thanks to the New York Times.

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  1. Jethro Tull 04:14am, 01/21/2013

    “After the ruthless destruction of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’”—Ali’s epic third fight with Joe Frazier, in 1975—“I began to see obvious signs of deterioration in Ali’s physical condition.”

    I swear I can hear Ali slurring his words slightly before fighting Ron Lyle when both men were being interviewed by Howard Cosell.

  2. Gordon Marino 09:37pm, 01/17/2013

    Eric, you’re right - his daughter Rasheda told me the other day that he has no regrets at all, that he loved boxing so much that he found it impossible to stop. I think the same holds for a lot of boxers who have been hurt in the hurting game. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Eric 03:25pm, 01/17/2013

    I bet you Ali wouldn’t do anything differently if he had it to do all over again. He led a life most of us can only dream about. He paid a price and continues to pay a price, but what a life. Hindsight is always 20-20 and this isn’t a dress rehearsal.

  4. the thresher 07:45am, 01/17/2013

    Indeed it is. Gordon writes with soul.

  5. Meinhard Schmidt 07:00am, 01/17/2013

    Very good article as always!

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