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‘It felt like someone cracked an egg inside my skull and I had something pouring down the side of it.’ The extraordinary story of Dan Sarkozi

Dan Sarkozi
Action Images/Adam Holt

HE was due to fight an opponent with a name, a face and a record in less than two weeks but was first struck down by a different kind of enemy. An enemy unexpected, unwelcome and unidentifiable. The original fight was scheduled, so allowed for preparation and a plan. The latest was not. Instead, the bell was an alarm, the ring a bed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and the rules were as follows: should the number on a heart rate machine drop below 40, an alarm would be triggered, and Dan Sarkozi would be woken by nurses at his bedside.

Predictably, given Sarkozi is an athlete with a low resting heart rate, the machine read 38 and his sleep was interrupted. “Look,” he told the fleet of nurses by his bed, “you’re just going to have to turn it off for me. I’m fine.”

It was soon seven o’clock in the morning and the first round was over. Sleep was rubbed from his eyes as six nurses, preparing for handover, rubbed theirs for different reasons. Never, they said, had they seen numbers so low and a patient so alive. They asked him if he was okay and Sarkozi confirmed he was. He then explained he was a fit and healthy professional boxer in full-time training and that the biggest fight of his life was just 10 days away.

“This,” he said, “is normal for me.”

***

What isn’t normal is slurring.

It might be considered normal for a boxer of a certain vintage, but it was anything but normal for Dan Sarkozi five days before his 29th birthday and 12 fights into a professional career. Slurring was something he feared later in life. Something they all fear later in life. Yet, on November 21, 2017, Sarkozi, a super-welterweight, slurred prematurely and couldn’t understand why. He had taken punches but not many. He had battled through rounds but not many.

If slurring is indicative of a fighter who has taken too many and stuck around too long, it made no sense. Sarkozi, 10-2 as a pro, had done neither.

“Haaaaaaa.”

That was the sound he produced inside the Bristol Boxing Gym on a Tuesday morning, when surrounded by fellow fighters and one of his trainers, Alan Thompson. There was no explanation for it. No warning. One minute he was talking about the prospect of meeting James Toney, the former world champion who happened to be in Bristol for a white-collar fight, and the next a conversation had been mistaken for an impersonation.

“Hahaha.”

He knew, just as those laughing did, that ‘Lights Out’ Toney was someone who had stuck around too long, taken too many and now, as a result, suffered slurred speech. But it wasn’t in Sarkozi’s nature to be disrespectful. He wanted to meet Toney, not mock him.

“All of a sudden it felt like someone cracked an egg inside my skull and I had something pouring down the right side of it,” Dan said. “Then the right side of my face dropped and my right hand caved in. Then I tried to talk for a third time and literally couldn’t say anything.”

Unable to communicate, he sat down on an exercise box and stared at the floor, something unlikely to move or deceive him.

“Are you all right, Dan?” he heard a voice ask.

He lifted his head to shake it.

No, his eyes said. No, I’m far from all right.

***

There’s no place like home and a good night’s sleep in his own bed had him believing it. No machines, alarms, numbers or nurses, Sarkozi was finally free to sleep until his mind and body decided enough was enough.

His brain was a muscle, experts explained, and because it had been damaged it now needed resting and repairing.

“The doctors told me I would sleep a lot but encouraged me to do it,” he said. ‘Naps I thought lasted five minutes were actually lasting three hours.”

December became a training camp for Sarkozi and progress was slow. His first walk lasted just five minutes before dizziness had him heading back home for a nap. Both permissible and recommended, the idea was to not push when the going got tough, as was his custom in training, but to instead quit. He listened to his body, not his coaches. He was training not for a fight but recovery.

Dan Sarkozi in action Action Images/Peter Cziborra

“I used to feel guilty,” he said, “if I went to bed late and had a run the next morning. I’d be convinced it would add seconds on to my run.

“But now I was thinking, Wow, I can actually do whatever I want, whenever I want. I could say to my wife, ‘Let’s go down the pub.’ It was crazy for both of us. We didn’t have to go to bed at 10 o’clock. We could have a lie-in.

“I even had a few beers on my mate’s stag-do in Cardiff. I’ve never really been on a lads’ holiday before so that was nice.

“It’s quite a funny one-liner. How did you recover? I had a few beers.”

***

When, after three minutes, words returned, Sarkozi pretended everything was normal again. Attributing the slurring to a “funny turn”, he toured the gym, refused to believe an ambulance was necessary and fully expected to be allowed to come out for the next round.

But then he sat down again, on what was by now his makeshift stool, and concerned faces moved closer and grew larger.

“After that I stood up and my heart raced,” he said. “I felt like I was going to pass out.”

Sarkozi sat back down and accepted defeat.

“Something wasn’t right,” he said. “My heart was really pounding, and I felt nauseous. I then went through phases where I felt like I wanted to burst into tears.

“I was thinking maybe I had got a concussion from sparring, but I hadn’t taken any big shots.”

Sparring had been a success, in fact, which was one of many reasons why he looked forward to sharing a ring with Bradley Pryce, a former Commonwealth super-welterweight champion, on December 1. Dan was, by his own admission, “as fit as a fiddle” and ready for the step up in class. He had even discussed with his manager, Chris Sanigar, their plan for 2018. “I just felt like my life’s work was coming to fruition,” he said. “This was my time.”

Time.

Now there was none to waste. Jamie Sanigar, Chris’s son, heard the commotion outside his office and went to see what was going on. He noticed his fighter sitting down, confusion on his face.

“Are you having me on, Sarkozi?” he asked

“I wish I was,” Dan replied. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

To save time, Jamie decided against waiting for the ambulance and in the car Dan felt the need to prewarn him. “I feel like I want to burst into tears,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

***

Just as some things you would rather not know, some things you would rather forget.

Text message: “Hi Elliot. Just making sure I got some facts right in my story. My wife informs me I always make mistakes with the dates [See-No-Evil Monkey emoticon].

“I had the stroke on 21/11/17, my 29th birthday was in hospital 5 days later on the 26/11 and I was due to box Bradley Pryce on Friday 1st December 2017.”

Sarkozi warned me details might need to be double-checked and altered, which they were, and that his retelling of the drama was often muddled. It was my job, he said, to put it all in order, logical or otherwise.

***

Like most who walk through the doors of Accident and Emergency they were prepared for a long, agonising wait. Yet for once Dan Sarkozi’s misfortune meant he was in luck. His symptoms were described and the panic on the faces of nurses was an invitation to pass go.

“Obviously there’s now this elephant in the room. Nobody wants to commit and say the word stroke,” he said. “But I know the symptoms and I’ve seen the campaigns. I ticked all those boxes.”

On a hospital bed, Sarkozi looked down at his purple socks and matched the purple with the uniform of June, the stroke nurse. Then, as his boxing boots were removed, the nurse mentioned tests. Stroke tests.

“Of course, all the tests I was absolutely acing because I was in peak condition,” Dan said.

A CT (computed tomography) scan followed, which came back clear, but an ischemic stroke, a blockage, would take a few days to show, he was informed. (A hemorrhagic stroke, on the other hand, would appear immediately and indicate Sarkozi’s “funny turn” had been boxing-related.)

“My symptoms would come and go,” he said. “I’d feel fine and then all of a sudden wouldn’t be able to pronounce words or would start slurring again and it would sound like I’d had a few pints.

“I think that, coupled with the wait for the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine to become available, made them keep me in overnight.”

Phone calls followed, the first of which was made to his wife, Jenny.

“As soon as she walked in, she said, ‘There’s something wrong with your face. I can tell. The muscles on the side of your face are relaxed.’

“When the right side of my face dropped, I could feel it but no one else saw it. Sometimes when I would speak, I would think it came out badly, but Jamie would go, ‘No, you didn’t slur.’

“My wife, though, picked up on it all.”

Next to receive a call was Dan’s father, Tony, only this time it was made via FaceTime as opposed to more traditional means. He wanted his dad to see him rather than simply hear him.

“When you say the word stroke there’s a panic,” Dan explained. “I made sure I FaceTimed my dad so he could see that I was okay before I said the word.

“Of course, he’s dropped everything and come up as well.”

So did Darren Hamilton, the former British super-lightweight champion and Sarkozi’s current trainer. He arrived in Bristol from London that day and immediately rerouted to the hospital. As far as Sarkozi was concerned, he was still needed.

“I’m thinking everything is going to be okay,” he said. “You can’t really switch off as a boxer.”

And he didn’t. Even when Jamie Sanigar suggested making the necessary calls to withdraw Sarkozi from his upcoming fight, the boxer in the hospital bed was having none of it.

“No,” he said. “Listen, Jamie, I’m fine. This is a funny five minutes. I’ll probably just need a good night’s rest. I’ll have tomorrow off and be back in the gym on Monday.”

***

The tears in the consultant’s eyes broke the news before she had even opened her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said, having pulled the curtain, “you have had a stroke.”

It was an ischemic stroke, Sarkozi was told, and the next step was to figure out the cause. First, though, his father wanted to confront the latest elephant in the room.

“I doubt it very much,” said the consultant when asked if a fighter would be able to fight again.

“That was quite a heavy moment,” Dan remembered. “It was me, my wife and my dad present. After she left, I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about that. Let’s just get me out of here.’

“Although I needed to do more tests, I left hospital on day three and felt fine really.”

On the way home Sarkozi stopped at a phone shop in order for his wife to get some paraphernalia for her phone. It was then he stopped feeling fine.

“I nearly passed out in the shop,” he said. “I was getting all the symptoms again and was like, ‘Oh no, I think I’m having another one.’ It felt exactly the same.”

***

Round two.

Back in the hospital Sarkozi had no option but to confront all he had previously chosen to ignore. He conceded he may never box again and realised, in the process of battling chest pains and sleepless nights, his life may never be the same again.  

“When your brain has suffered an injury, it deals with it in a funny way,” he said. “It feels like it’s playing tricks on you.”

He spent a total of six days in hospital, one of which was his birthday, and during this time had a bubble echocardiogram.

“They said one of the main causes of strokes in people under the age of 40 is a heart defect,” he explained. “They said they were going to put some bubbles in my left arm, and these would go into my heart. They then look at the activity of the bubbles to see if there’s a hole.”

When the ultrasound results were in, Sarkozi discovered his heart, a key attribute for any fighter, did indeed come with a hole.

“They were gobsmacked that I was an athlete,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Have you never felt tired or breathless?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but only at the end of something like a run, when you’re meant to.’”

Sarkozi was released from hospital on November 28, the day after his birthday. He was told he would have to return for a more thorough bubble echocardiogram in February, once his brain had healed and thought of something else to do.

***

Knocked out.

It’s the fate all boxers strive to avoid yet a desirable state when surgery is on the horizon and the choice is between being unconscious and seeing everything happen.

In this case, to be knocked out Sarkozi would have to wait another six months for his operation, whereas it would happen immediately if he was happy to go through with it awake. By now it was October 5, 2018, more than a year since he last boxed professionally, and he had been stuck on the NHS waiting list long enough.

“They do it keyhole,” he said. “They go up through your groin and carve a hole in the massive artery in your groin. They go up with what look like fishing rods all the way into your heart. I was awake throughout. I could feel them in my heart.

“I was just trying to keep my heart rate as low as possible. I was thinking if something goes Pete Tong, I’m going to need my energy.

“That was a bit of a scary moment if I’m honest. I was fine until they wheeled me into the theatre room, but the room was cold and you’re just in this gown and there’s metal everywhere and the doctors are wearing masks. You feel like you’ve been taken into a torture chamber from a film. I was thinking, Oh no, this is where the magic happens.”

Never had the thought of being knocked out seemed so appealing.

***

Two months after surgery Sarkozi was back in the gym and his mind, still recovering, was at least made up. He was going to launch a comeback and would, based on early signs, come back better than before.

“On a run I beat my personal best time with pretty much the same effort,” he said. “The doctor told me to expect that. He said they’ve done the operation with marathon runners and they knock minutes off their marathon time.

“It’s funny, Chris Sanigar would often pick up on me flagging. I was skilful and always doing the rounds but that was always a little thing with me.

Dan Sarkozi
Sarkozi with Chris Saniger (right) Action Images/Peter Cziborra

“Before I turned pro, I wasn’t as fit as I should have been given the amount of training I was doing. I’ve always been a dedicated gym rat but sometimes I would be blowing in the third round of an amateur fight. My amateur coaches used to say, ‘You’re probably just nervous.’ But I’d say, ‘No, I’m not nervous. I’ve had enough bouts now.’

“Obviously now we know what it was.”

Soon, Sarkozi, on blood thinners, felt well enough to start body sparring.

“I said to the surgeon, ‘How about body sparring?’” he recalled. “He said, ‘Listen, if a boxer dislodges that metal in your heart, let me know and I’ll bet on him.’ That was so reassuring.

“That bit of metal is a bit like a Brillo pad or a gauze. With the tiny holes in it your own skin grows through and around it. That’s why you need blood thinners during that stage, because if it clots it will become dangerous.

“At the moment it’s just embedded in me.”

After submitting letters from the heart surgeon and stroke consultant, Sarkozi booked himself in for an MRI and an ECG (electrocardiogram), at the request of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), and, two months later, was granted a fresh licence to box. It was on the condition that, in addition to an annual MRI scan, Sarkozi must have a yearly cardiology report. He didn’t argue.

“I was in the hairdressers one day and received an email from (BBBC General Secretary) Robert Smith,” Dan said. “I couldn’t even stand up. It was crazy. I phoned my dad and my wife. My wife, bless her, was in tears.”

***

Dan Sarkozi’s comeback fight takes place in Bristol on Saturday (October 5), exactly a year to the day since the hole in his heart was fixed and almost two years to the day since pro fight number 12. He stresses he’s not just returning for one but is instead keen to now get a “good career” under his belt.

He is also taking certain precautions as a result of his experience, the first of which is to break a habit of sparring every week in favour of body sparring and full, competitive sparring only when close to a fight. He has done his reading. He has done his research. He calls what he found out “horrible”.

Yet Sarkozi also now knows the boxing ring, despite its inherent dangers, is both where he belongs and where he wants to be. It is, like the metal in his heart, embedded in him.

“If I had to do another job, a part of me would have died,” said the 30-year-old. “This must be what retired fighters go through. It dawns on me now.

“I’m lucky to have got it back but one day I will have to call it a day. And with me suffering a stroke already, I don’t necessarily want to call it a day while flat on my back and unconscious. I’m very aware now that I would like it to be me who picks the day I say, ‘That’s enough.’ I don’t want to push my luck.

“But we’re fighters, aren’t we? We always think we’re better than we are, and we never know when to quit.

“That mindset got me through this. I treated it as a metaphorical fight. You go into a fight and the first thing you look to do is find your range and land your jab. You might take one, okay, but you keep your composure, grit your teeth and keep going.

“You don’t give up when you take a big shot. I didn’t give up when they told me I wasn’t going to be getting surgery straight away. I didn’t give up when they said I’d probably never box again. Those were just big right hands I had to take. Let me regroup and try something else.”

In true warrior fashion, Dan Sarkozi’s heart got him into trouble and his heart then got him out of it, too.

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