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Review: Damage – The untold story of brain trauma in boxing

Damage
Matt Christie on Damage, an essential read from author and former Boxing News editor Tris Dixon

I CAN still remember the phone call from Tris Dixon, my good friend and predecessor at Boxing News, when he told me he planned to write a book on the effects of brain trauma in boxing. There was as much trepidation as determination in his voice because, for those of us entrenched in the boxing business, it’s perhaps the trickiest of all subjects to address.

“It wasn’t something I felt I could do while I was still editor at BN,” he explained back then. “I couldn’t be trying to champion the sport every week while working on a book that might be perceived to do the opposite. But I have to do this. Not for me, but for the fighters.”

Dixon is a man of strong principles and a journalist of high standing in the sport. One only has to listen to his weekly podcast, Boxing Life Stories, to understand his affection and respect for the boxers who risk their lives every time they step in the ring. Boxing Life Stories is, I’d argue, one of the finest and most thorough collections of fight interviews in the sport’s history. Before that came Road To Nowhere, a terrific book detailing his experiences as a young and penniless amateur boxer-cum-writer travelling the length of America to track down forgotten warriors. Many of those ex-fighters were in a bad way, particularly Matthew Saad Muhammad, the former light-heavyweight king he would become close friends with and is currently in the process of writing a book about. While still the editor of BN, Dixon was the first journalist in the industry to seriously address the subject of depression among fighters and the connection with their brutal trade. So though it is only four years since Tris and I discussed what would become Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing, it’s clear that this has been a project of many more. Today, after a gruelling and sobering journey of discovery, Dixon is the author of perhaps the most important book the fight game has ever seen.

How it is received by the industry will ultimately be the measure of that, however. This is a book that explores the history and consequences of brain damage in boxing, which was first investigated by Dr Harrison Martland in his 1928 medical paper, Punch Drunk. That we’re nearly 100 years removed from that ground-breaking work, and its findings remain largely taboo, underlines exactly why this book needed to be written. Though the theme is anchored in the early days of boxing, this is very much a book for the modern era. Because its purpose is not to criticise the sport but educate it.

That education is of course difficult because boxers, particularly those who are still active and therefore still invincible in their own minds, are not always in the business of worrying about their long-term futures. Frankie Pryor, the widow of the brilliant but damaged Aaron Pryor, warned: “You have not met a fighter at the Hall of Fame, and I’m talking over the age of fifty, you have not met one who is not struggling with this. I do not know a former world champion who doesn’t have CTE. I don’t know one. And you’ve got to remember that you can go through years and years of just being at the early stages, and Aaron went through the early to middle stages for a very long time. Then, all of a sudden, it can just turn into late-stage stuff real quick.”

There might be a temptation to brush Dixon’s investigation under the carpet in the same way that smokers ignore the warnings of premature death on their packets of cigarettes. Not every smoker will get cancer and not every fighter will end up brain-damaged but to ignore the evidence, as Dixon’s book shouts from every page, is inviting serious trouble in the future.

“Obviously I know getting punched isn’t good for me but I’ve got nothing else to do with my life,” said Anthony Fowler in the book. “I’m a boxer. I am what I am, so hopefully I will get my money and get out with my wits intact.” It’s a familiar gamble but one that never really ends. George Groves, recently retired and for now free of any complications, explained: “I’ve been getting punched in the head now for twenty-plus years. I would be shocked if that doesn’t have a negative effect on my health in years to come.”

Anyone who has attended a gathering of ex-boxers or even just spent time with them will know how accurate the countless testimonies in this book are. They will have seen the confusion in many ex-boxers’ faces, the vacant eyes and the mouths hanging open for too long. To then watch boxing every week from ringside, to hear the thud of punches on skulls, to see boxers knocked out of consciousness or to witness furious sparring sessions, it’s never a stretch to envision problems in later years for these fighters. In recent weeks I sat at ringside and watched a veteran heavyweight go to work. It was the 14th time I’d been in that position watching this particular fighter. In truth I found it difficult, purely because I could remember him taking serious punishment several times in the last 11 years. The fear of what his future holds was almost too much to bear as he repositioned his hulking frame time and again after taking yet more blows to the head.

It would be tempting, particularly for those who don’t know Dixon or much about the sport, to pass this off as a 277-page document outlining exactly why boxing should be banned. That view is not lost on Dixon or anyone who has worked in boxing for any length of time. I’d suggest if you’re involved in boxing and you haven’t had at least one moment where you seriously struggle to justify your love for the sport then you shouldn’t be here. Those without consciences are the worst kind of people in our sport, no question. But Dixon is quite the opposite of that. What he has created, then, is not a book that should see the sport outlawed but a survival guide for all within it.

Admittedly, it took me a long time to pick up this book and start reading it. I was concerned by what I’d find. I didn’t want to face that old guilt about what I do for a living and what it does to those I care deeply about. But read this book we absolutely must.

At its best when talking to damaged fighters, like Micky Ward and Freddie Roach, and at its most heart-breaking when talking to their families, it is also deeply insightful as Dixon himself reveals the head trauma he suffered in a short amateur career. Though not quite a step-by-step on how to avoid brain damage it nonetheless delivers pertinent points and asks serious questions of the processes and habits of fighters and those around them. The hundreds and hundreds of rounds of sparring. The lackadaisical attitude towards concussion. The length of careers. The issue of alcohol and drug abuse. The duty of care. Our duty of care.

I have heard some champion this book while resigning themselves to the futility of its message. Boxers will always fight too much and damage will always occur, they say. I’d disagree with that, however. There is hope. In my six years as editor of BN I have seen a shift in attitudes and improvements in the procedures behind the scenes. Boxers, though they’ll always be inherent risk takers, are slowly becoming more aware than they’ve ever been about the potential harm they face. Consequently, we see them walking away from the game at younger ages and after shorter careers than even a decade ago. Damage – which is wonderfully written and contains some sumptuous storytelling – must be allowed to shout that message.

Dixon himself puts it best in the final sentence of Damage when he reaffirms the target audience of his work: “For those who have struggled, for those who are still fighting and for those who still have their futures ahead of them and can now make some informed decisions about boxing, training, sparring, and retirement.”

In short, this is a difficult read for anyone involved in boxing but is nonetheless essential; for fighters, trainers, promoters, commissioners, doctors, fans and the media. Collectively, and with the right attitude, the industry can learn so much from this book. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t read it yet.

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