“ONE should really be sparing about according terms like ‘modern great’ to active fighters. But [Donald] Curry really does look like one of the outstanding pound-for-pound champions of the present day.”
“Curry is looking every bit as good as the division’s last undisputed champ, Ray Leonard. A fight between him and a peak form Leonard could be debated very much as an even-money affair.”
Boxing News, 1986
★ ★ ★
WITH nowhere else to go and nowhere else to turn, Donovan Curry, the 29-year-old son of former welterweight star Donald, started to type on his father’s Twitter account. He needed help. His father, the famed “Lone Star Cobra”, was in jail, damaged and alone.
The fighter boxing fans knew and loved is no more. The dad Donovan could have had is no longer the one he has to help today.
While many fighters say they know the risks going in to a career in this, unmistakeably the hardest game (though it clearly is not a ‘game’), not many consider the impact of accumulated trauma over time that results in CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
There are always the concerns about death or fight night damage but little heed is paid to the risk of what might happen to a brain that has taken years of trauma well after it has been rattled for the last time.
“Boxing has kicked him to the kerb,” said his son. “He has no money, he has no transportation, he’s been living my aunt since I was a child. He lost the house we lived in with my mom when I was three and he’s not had a home of his own since then and I’m 29. He’s literally lost everything.”
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In retirement, many fighters can change. They can become irritable, short-tempered, depressed and suffer from mood-swings. That can be due to trauma as much as the often-stereotyped symptoms of slurred speech and tremors.
Donald Curry was seemingly okay when he retired in 1997 but now, aged 60, he lives in a muddled and confused world of paranoia and despair.
“I feel it’s gotten a lot worse since the years progressed,” admitted Donovan. “Although I thought he was changing a little bit maybe when I was at high school, I could never put my finger on it – but it’s definitely progressed.”
It has placed an incredible strain on the Curry family. Donovan’s parents are divorced and Donald had been living with his sister for years but recently, when Curry woke up from a nap he went and punched her in the face as she slept, breaking her nose.
Curry was arrested and again thrown in to a Fort Worth, Texas, jail, his life on a sad, vicious cycle rebounding from one prison sentence to the next.
He’s served more prison time than boxing would care to admit, but as with many old or damaged fighters, they are either imprisoned or admitted to psychiatric wards.
Donovan continued: “My dad uses marijuana heavy and if you get arrested for an assault or whatever you have to submit a drug test, and from what I understand marijuana alleviates some of the issues with CTE. He may not even know why and it’s probably that reason and it lets him calm down and keeps him normal but then he’ll have to submit a drug test, fail the test and then he’ll have to go back to jail, so it’s like a system that just doesn’t make sense.”
Donovan’s aunt has had to take a restraining order out on the former welterweight king, which meant when Curry was released from prison a few days later he had nowhere to go.
Donovan lives in Austin, Texas, and works for Apple. “The Lone Star Cobra” still lives almost 200 miles north in Fort Worth. The Hall of Famer had no options, so his son once more took to social media to start a Go Fund Me page to raise money for his father so he could spend time in a motel to get back on his feet.
Enough was raised to get his dad in to a motel for a week and then a shelter took the former great in.
“He could be in better living conditions but his spirits are up so he’s good on that end,” said Donovan. “He’s just in a bad situation, to say the least.”
★ ★ ★
The Curry fortune, such as it was after world title reigns at welterweight and super-welterweight, and the purses he made for fighting the likes of Milton McCrory, Marlon Starling, Michael Nunn, Terry Norris and Lloyd Honeyghan are long gone. Donovan has no idea where or when the money went. He was born after Curry’s years at the top but before “The Cobra’s” descent.
“I’ve been trying to get him to open up and talk about the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong, to be transparent with people because everybody appreciates that now,” Donovan said. “But he still has that old-school pride and he doesn’t want people to know about those things – I say he’s getting to the point where he’s getting worse and worse and you need to start letting people know.”
Donovan has seen his dad’s highlight reels and interviews from his time atop the sport in the mid-1980s but they give him no comfort in 2021. He lives in reality, not YouTube clips. He has felt the hardship so many fighters’ families experience with a loved one in decline, whether the damage has been physical, psychological or emotional. For Donovan, it’s been practical, too. He witnessed first-hand his father’s fall when he took his dad to Canastota for his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“He can’t travel by himself, no way,” Donovan continued. “When I went with him to the Hall of Fame in New York I was travelling with him but I knew there was no way that he could travel by himself. He’s just not capable of doing that. I think they’re going to have to have people who can travel with him so he can get out to Vegas, New York or wherever he needs to go. I don’t think he understands and realises the actions of what he does. He kind of puts the blame on a lot of people all the time. I’ve asked him once about getting help and he said he’d like to but I think it’s a disease that makes you not aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and I think that’s what’s going on with him. The things I notice are sometimes when we’re walking down the hallway he would sort of slump, where he would kind of fall, lean on the wall and he sometimes can’t walk normally, he has to do a little jog because he couldn’t really keep his balance.”
Then there’s the short-term memory loss, aggression and the inevitable sadness.
Many with CTE symptoms are not aware they have it – it can’t actually be diagnosed until an autopsy – and some fighters are too stubborn to admit that they could have ever been damaged by boxing. They were too good. Some, perhaps, love the sport so much they don’t want it tarnished by the negativity. Some say Muhammad Ali was of that school of thought, but while Curry was a great fighter, it’s questionable he loved the sport. Even as a kid he didn’t really follow it and, upon turning pro he famously quipped that the only two fighters he had heard of were Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
That was even after reportedly amassing an amateur record of 400 wins against just four losses, although years later he contended he had boxed more than 404 times as an amateur. And when you look at his career, there were 45 fights, hard losses to the likes of Honeyghan and Norris and a left hook one-punch knockout to Mike McCallum – in a fight he was winning – that will echo through the annals of the welterweight division. Then, beset by legal woes and in need of a few bucks he made the always ill-advised comeback, going 1-1 in two 1997 fights, six years on from when he’d originally called it a day.
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The man Donovan sees and tries to help now is unrecognisable to him in comparison to the elite boxer he has watched on YouTube.
“The fighter, he was definitely great, definitely amazing, especially in the ‘80s and capturing titles,” Donovan admitted, talking proudly of his dad. “He was a bad dude. I see why so many people thought he was the greatest at the time. The interviews, it seems like a different person than who I know. I never met him.”
Donovan’s mum and dad never wanted their son to box. If he was to go into the sport it would have been behind the scenes but it’s the business-side of things Donald is most resentful of. He feels used, abused and lost, like he’s been “left out to dry.”
Donovan lightly follows the sport and he’s been to some shows with his father, who actually helped a few fighters with their own careers after he retired through his Uppercut Management company, including heavyweight title challenger Kirk Johnson.
How does the former 1980s legend feel about the sport now?
“It’s a good question,” Donovan explained, having paused for thought. “In my opinion, he is a little bit upset about the business of boxing more than anything. I think he still loves boxing, he still watches it, but I definitely think the business of boxing, there are a lot of things he regrets. Some of the management decisions and things like that…”
And in the bigger picture, both father and son both need and want things to change. When Donovan reached out to the boxing world on social media recently, he said he wanted things to be better for both his father and other boxers who need help.
“I know my dad needs some type of help because to me there’s no reason he should be where he is, especially having been this great fighter. There should be no reason he’s living the way he is. Yes, I was thinking that maybe if I put this out there it will help him, but I do understand there is a larger problem because if I ask other fighters and say, ‘Where do I get help’ and they don’t even know where to get help from, then that’s an issue. I think there should be an infrastructure people can go to. There should be something in place where it’s easy for families or friends or business partners to be able to get access to resources in a simple way and I didn’t see that there was. I’m not in the boxing world like that but I’ve been trying to look up any kind of resources, anything to help my dad. I’ve tried to set him up with a specialist down here, like a psychologist or anything… but I just did it on my own. I didn’t have any resources. I’ve asked former boxers, some of the people my dad fought, they keep in contact with me, they don’t know where to go or what to do. This is my last option, make a statement on his behalf on his Twitter and maybe we can figure something out. I just didn’t know where to go, and I think a lot of people feel like that.”
Donovan’s plea – in full – from his dad’s Twitter account
Hello All, I’m speaking on behalf of my father, Donald Curry today. A champion of the world of boxing, one of the greatest welterweights of all time. However, today I’m asking for help. Not in a monetary way, but to spread awareness hopefully find a solution for retired athletes with head trauma and symptoms of CTE. For the last 3 years, I’ve tried to find help for my father to possibly get a CT scan or have a mental evaluation take place, but living far away and him not being able to travel correctly have dampened that situation.
I have not been able to figure out how to do so. My father has declined mentally since I was in high school. He now sits in jail again, where he has spent quite a bit of my childhood, teenage and adult years. I didn’t feel for him at first when I was younger because I was unaware and uneducated on CTE and mental health. I didn’t realize what was going on. I had no idea why we would sit on the phone, and he would ramble for hours. He would ask me the same question multiple times in a conversation.
He would forget where I went to school after telling him 100s of times or forget where I live. My family members would say he would talk to himself in the bathroom for periods of time. He would randomly be aggressive to someone. Instead, some feedback I receive, or when I look at people’s comments from the internet, people say “that’s just the way he is”, “he’s crazy”.
I went to a pawn shop in the DFW area where a fan reached out to me because there was memorabilia and family photos that were probably sold in an auction, and the employee said, “I heard he was on drugs”.
It was disheartening to hear, knowing what truly is going on.
Then, for the first time in my life, I spent a weekend with him when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. There I could see, he had trouble walking down a hallway. He would lean on a wall while walking and seem impaired.
He would need assistance with simple things and tasks. He would be confused about going to different events that we talked about before getting there.
The last thing that broke me down, was during the final day. I heard great, thoughtful speeches from Teddy Atlas, Julian Jackson, Buddy McGirt and more. All of their families are there to support them. I tried to prepare a speech for my father for months and he never wanted to really get to it. He thought he could go up to the stage and speak from his heart and talk about memories. But when he got there, all he could say was thank you and he walked off because he was not able mentally.
Things like this dishearten me, because I know the reason why he is like this, but unfortunately, CTE & mental health is something that’s new to us all in 2021. He has more than likely broken relationships because of this disease, and I’m here to apologize on his behalf.
The only person who continually takes him back after verbal or physical assaults or more is my Aunt. But at this point, she does not know what to do. I don’t know what to do.
The last thing I could think of is to ask all his fans, supporters, friends, and former business colleagues for help before he hurts someone, someone hurts him, or he hurts himself.
There is no infrastructure in place that I’m aware of for athletes, especially boxers, that can get the help or treatment they need for mental health and CTE. I’m asking you to tag ESPN, Top Rank, the WBA, Floyd Mayweather, Mayweather Promotions, or any higher ups or large entities who focus on mental health to help spread awareness around this, so there can be resources for retired boxers/athletes that may have early symptoms of mental health and CTE and they can get the help they need before it’s too late. Thank you.