Dangers of Boxing on the Brain: Eminent Doctor and Pro Boxers Weigh In

Recent high profile examples of head trauma cases in sports have increased discussions around the dangers and risks of repetitive head trauma, with the UFC and NFL leading the way in research and financial backing over recent times. We wanted to investigate the dangers of boxing on the brain with some expert opinions.

For many years now the deliberate and highly visible effects of CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy have been seen as a way of life for the professional boxer.

CTE is a life limiting condition brought on by blows to the head it is untreatable and is difficult to diagnose.

There are numerous side effects including aggression, depression, suicidality, memory loss, mood swings and reduced cognitive function to name but a few.

Although nothing new and so common that the condition has made it into the boxing language as ‘Punch Drunk’ or ‘Punchy’, no meaningful steps have been taken to reduce the risk and exposure for young fighters or fighters past their best.

If we take American Football as our case study the research into this realm recently has been excellent after an initial struggle to get the nation talking about the health aspects of large hits on the athletes.

A number of measures have been considered resulting in rule changes, equipment improvements and moving to take certain techniques out of the game.

Grass roots coaches are aware of the risks and are encouraging the new breed of pro athletes to train safely. This will encourage a step change within the sport that will reverberate through future generations.

Speaking exclusively to Boxing News and Views, the man who had a great deal of responsibility raising awareness and opening up the dialogue within the NFL, Dr. Bennet Omalu (famously played by actor Will Smith in the recent film Concussion) paints a grim picture on the state of boxing.

Dr Omalu states that boxers are at the same risk of CTE as American footballers and when asked if there are any preventative measures young fighters and coaches can take to limit the risk of CTE. he commented:

“Children should not be allowed to to engage in boxing, children younger than the age of 18 years old. The brain becomes fully developed at 18-25, you cannot make boxing a safe sport. It is inherently dangerous.”

Dr. Omalu goes on to explain that there is:

“No cure and prevention is the best cure.”

This presents a problem to boxing with such a highly respected opinion stating that boxing is “Barbaric”.

In my experience and listening to the views from a number of professionals and amateur athletes, the culture within the sport appears to favour sparring ‘wars’ where toe to toe battles are seen as a badge of honour and a good way to progress in the amateur and paid ranks.

(Interesting short documentary on the subject via DigitalMimbar):

Tony Jeffries, an Olympic bronze medallist, unbeaten former professional boxer and now successful coach and gym owner, Tony (9-0-1, 6 KO’s) told us his goal was to go to the Olympics which made him start boxing at 10 years old.

He eventually took bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and speaking to Boxing News and Views, he described training for the Olympics as “intense”, training four times a day, four or five days a week and sparring three days a week.

Worryingly for a fighter at the top of the amateur game Tony explains:

“I never had one person talk to me in my 17 year career about the damage boxing does to your brain, it is something no-one speaks about in the sport. No-one wants to know about the damage they are doing to themselves.”

Tony who recently visited medical professionals to check for symptoms or damage that may have been caused by a career of 96 amateur and 10 professional fights, was asked if he had any CTE related symptoms. He answered:

“My biggest thing is memory, it’s bad. I often struggle to remember what I did in the morning or the previous day,.I feel like this is the effects of getting punched in the head. I feel its getting worse over the years but at the same time I’m getting busier and busier at Box ‘N’ Burn (Tony’s Gym) and I’m thinking about it more, so maybe I’m over thinking it?”

Tony has trained elite level fighters and during discussions around the difference between boxing and MMA, Tony goes on to discuss training Brendan Schaub, former UFC heavyweight:

“I trained Brendan Schaub, he trained as hard as anyone but with MMA they are not getting punched as much as boxers. With MMA the athletes wrestle and practice BJJ which is a lot safer for the brain. Brendan was a very smart fighter too, he didn’t get hit much.”

Brendan left the fight game early, taking advice from fellow professionals partly due to the dangers posed from head trauma.

Tony Jeffries was never in any professional 12 round wars and was never knocked out or outclassed in the ring, so worryingly a large part of the damage sustained would of come from training, sparring or the amateur game.

It is hard to summarise a way forward for boxing, a sport that has and continues to entertain and help millions.

However it is also important to realise the other boxers and ex-professionals do have different views on the dangers of boxing on the brain.

We also got the opinion of Belfast heavyweight Martin Rogan (16-6-8KO) who told us:

“No dangers, (boxing is) 100 years old. No complaints man, thing is if it’s not in the ring then people would still do it in the streets. It’s controlled (in the ring) on doctor’s and hospital’s ends.”

The positives far outweigh the negatives but a serious awareness campaign from grass roots to the elite ranks similar to the NFL is greatly required in order to change the culture of hard sparring and reduce head trauma at an early age.

Every trainer, coach and participant must be aware of the risks.

The sport must move with the times if it is too survive the next decade, there are ways to reduce the exposure to these injuries and in it’s purest form, it’s basically reducing the number of times you get hit in the head.

Tony Jeffries sums it up perfectly when asked if he has any advice for future boxers, he says:

“Train Smart – don’t spar because you like it, spar for fights. Every spar does not have to be a war.”

You can catch Tony Jeffries latest discussion on the effects, his relationship with head trauma and the dangers of boxing on the brain in his latest Box’N Life podcast here.

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