By Terence Dooley
‘[O]nce the fighting time comes, the boxer will get wounded and will cause wounds.’
— (Philostratus, Gymnastics, 11)
James Toney’s inclusion in tonight’s Prizefighter: The Heavyweights led to a bout of British boxing’s bimonthly soul searching and moralising over the dark, exploitative side of the sport. A murky, portentous underbelly that is constantly out there, but is made explicit every once in a while, usually accompanied by ample purple prose — for example when a fat, past-his-best and seemingly punchy former middleweight is entered into a three-threes tournament format against a group of opponents who are a level or two below some of his recent foes.
Outsiders would probably cry “Freak show” if they could muster up enough concern for Toney, but they won’t and can’t as he’s not a big name on these shores. Fans and insiders wring their hands, gnash their teeth and lament the fact that a 45-year-old who has seen better days and speaks slightly differently than he used to — although Toney always had a lazy drawl — while still making lucid points is running the risk of furthering damaging his brain, his legacy and, God forbid, adding a moral edge to our enjoyment of tonight’s action.
Toney, though, has been cleared to fight by the BBBoC, one of the best licensing bodies in the world when it comes to medical care. His recent fights have seen him go the distance with Denis Lebedev and Lucas Browne — with wins over Bobby Gunn and Kenny Lemos thrown in — without taking an avalanche of clean shots and while managing to stay on his feet.
Indeed, the Lebedev fight saw Toney, 75-8-3 (45), sustain a leg injury that restricted his mobility and rendered him a sitting duck against a fighter who was in form, can whack and was facing a man who had dropped 57lbs since his last fight.
Is it really feasible that Toney, the master of avoiding follow up shots, is going to pick up equivalent damage in these three-round contests against men operating at a lower level than the one he has been used to? It is unlikely, so what is the main concern here?
Toney’s deep into his forties, he’s had over 80 fights, countless gruelling rounds in the gym and has reached the point where his career pattern is the usual sprinkling of defeats amidst the wins. Does this alone, plus his changing speech pattern, mean that tonight’s appearance is at best a bit of vaudeville and at worst a dangerous step towards a possible ring injury and further damage?
Well, the damage has already been done throughout his career; he picked up punishment in his formative years, in his mid-2000s Indian Summer and every time he stepped into the sparring ring. If the concern is that he will exacerbate this damage — and if it is genuinely felt concern for someone you have never met, rather than being seen to be concerned — then the cat’s out the bag already. Any damage picked up tonight will pale into insignificance compared to the risks he ran when twice meeting Sam Peter, decision defeats in 2006 and 2007 — those fights were far more worrying than his appearance in Prizefighter.
The real issue is that there’s a lot ageism in boxing and this is coupled with a tendency to use fighters and their careers as a means — to enjoyment, winning online debates and more — rather than an end. In the case of fighters such as Toney, once they have outlived what we perceive to be their shelf life we want to turn out the lights on their career and focus our attention on the new generation. Where does this leave the likes of “Lights Out” and other fighters who we, as fans, decide to push out to sea on an ice float?
It leaves them destitute, in many cases, bitter, unfulfilled, punchy and without a purpose in life, which is when the problems really start. By wanting to deny Toney the right to fight, a right that’s been passed down by the BBBoC, who are in a better position to judge, we’re casting him to one side. We are thanking him for the pain, hurt and abuse that he gave and took for our entertainment and depositing him on the scrapheap lest we see him suffer a knockout loss.
It is easier to deny that each and every punch and bout causes damage and only focus our attention on the cases in which a fighter has hit the deck or taken a prolonged beating, which, Lebedev aside, has never been an issue for Toney.
Sure, Toney’s older, slower and fatter than he once was, we all are, certainly those of us who have followed him from the beginning. This part of his career is a mirror in which we can see our own youth slipping from us: we’re all older, slower and carry a bit more timber than we used to. Seeing Toney fall into the “vale of years”, and the discomfort this causes us, might be the real motive behind the outrage directed towards Eddie Hearn, Sky and Toney.
However, those who genuinely fear for his health have a point and a right to make their point, even if it is undermined by the fact that, on this night, Toney is fighting under stringent medical conditions. I would much rather see him fight under the BBBoC than one of the chitlin and gravy organisations over in the U.S. The brutal truth is that someone like Toney will always pick up a licence of some sort, so it’s a case of the better the devil we know rather than refusing him the right to ply his trade in a U.K. ring, which would only serve to expedite a permanent slide into what used to be dubbed the Strongman circuit.
Still, if you’re not convinced that Toney’s appearance is acceptable, and believe the likes of Matt Legg et al present more of a threat than other heavies, or simply feel that he shouldn’t be fighting anyone at any level, then we should consider the science.
Boxers hit each other in the head until someone is either unconscious, too far behind on points to continue or is deemed to have won on points — that’s the long and short of it. When someone gets stopped or knocked out we get to see a physical symptom of that inner damage, as speech deteriorates, and it invariably does, we get an audible indication of the damage, and this makes us uncomfortable.
However, with every fight, blow and rattle of the skull the boxers are giving and taking damage — it’s a necessary by-product of their drive and our enjoyment — and the thought of this only tends to flash across our minds when there is a KO, a bad beating or an old man decides to fight on. For the rest of the time we sit back and enjoy a spectacle that has a potentially crippling slow drip effect on the fighters involved.
The most damage comes after a KO or any kind of concussion, including ones that, although quite bad, do not result in a bad KO. This applies to other sports as well, the NFL in particular, and there are an estimated 300,000 sports concussions in the U.S. each year (S. R. Weeks and J. W. Tsao, Sports Concussion, 2012).
Boxing, American football, gymnastics, ice hockey and wrestling are the leaders in the great concussion sweepstake, with football prominent due to its stature Stateside (Cantu and Mueller, F. Catastrophic spine injury in football, 1990). We all know that boxing carries a huge risk of frequent concussions, after all inflicting them via KO is one of the chief goals of the sport, which puts boxing in the unique position of turning brain damage into an objective, rather than a side effect (A.J. Ryan. Intracranial injuries resulting from boxing: a review, 1987).
There has been more than one study of amateur boxing, often seen as relatively safe, in which memory, visual, spatial and motor ability changes were directly linked to the amount of bouts fought by the test subjects. The outcome, therefore, is that the longer you fight for the more chance you have of permanently rewiring your brain, and in a bad way (Stewart, Prospective study of central nervous system function in amateur boxers in the United States, 1994). That bodes badly for Toney, therefore, and my overall point.
Fortunately, most head injuries are mild concussions; in fact, a mild concussion is categorised as one in which there isn’t a ‘loss of consciousness’ (R.C. Cantu 1986 and 1991). The severe ones tend to occur when someone is left flat on their back, which has never happened to Toney, or staggering about the ring, in much the way Tim Bradley did when fighting Ruslan Provodnikov earlier this year. Bradley picked up a concussion in that one and showed the tell-tale, and worrying signs, of damage for a while, i.e. slurred speech and headaches.
No one called for Bradley to turn it in, he was deemed fit to fight again after a rest. We were happy to see him return to take on Juan Maneal Marquez in his very next fight. A whole host of fighters pick up minor concussions that, depending on the stringency of the licensing body under which they fight, and their medical provisions, could go undiagnosed for years and impact on them decades later.
The immediate effects of concussions: a vacant stare, verbal response delays, confusion, headaches, nausea, etc., are often seen within the sport, and some of them were exhibited by Bradley, so we see post-concussive syndrome (PCO) on a regular basis. This can last for up to six months, whilst also being suffered in one form or another throughout a fighter’s career, especially a long one.
In boxing, these little brain injuries tend to eventually add up to dementia pugilistica (first coined by Harrison Martland in 1928) and that’s what many are hoping to save Toney from by arguing that he should have been refused a licence by the Board or removed from the line up by Hearn, which, when you consider his long career and the blows he has taken already, is equivalent to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
A lot of the damage has been done, to Toney, and others, so it’s a case of either telling them that we’ve our fill and after years of adopting a Laissez-faire attitude towards their participation in the sport of boxing we’ve decided to veer into paternalism. Or we can shake our heads and come to grips with something that we acknowledge right at the start — that’s the decision to fight, and fight on, is theirs alone to make unless a governing body steps in.
As time ticks on, the symptoms of dementia will increase, speech and gait disturbance, memory loss, personality changes, and more (B. Jordan 1993 and 1998) will become more and more pronounced. That’s when the likes of the Board, the NYSAC and others will refuse licences. Often the damage has been done long before this point is reached. Jan Corsellis (The Aftermath of Boxing, 1973) examined the brains of 15 dead boxers — eight former champions, world and national — and discovered proof of dementia.
Unhelpfully, there wasn’t any indication of when the damage was picked up or the cut-off point, if there was one. In the best case scenario a fighter will see sense once they’ve reached their own personal cut-off point and retire, worst case scenario is that they’ll end up on the shadowy off-circuit scene. Ultimately, though, and as it was in the beginning, it is their choice, we can respond by choosing not to watch or follow them down to those depths.
So where does this leave us? What does the knowledge that all boxers, young and old, titlist and journeyman, are damaging themselves on a fight-by-fight basis mean to us? Many link their complaints to age, arguing that older fighters should retire at a point relative to their ability. However, you could argue that older fighters know how to handle themselves better and have fewer give-and-take wars, in fact Toney’s had very few of these throughout his career, and people also point to Bernard Hopkins as proof that not all older fighters should be sent to the knacker’s yard.
Conversely, a few studies have indicated that high school athletes take longer to recover full cognitive functioning after a concussion (A. Sim et al 2008, E.J. Pellman et al 2006 and more) when compared to their older college counterparts. Research is still on-going within this field, with links being made to their still-developing bodies, but it could also be the case that, if we bring this over to boxing, older fighters have developed harder heads during their careers and pick up enough tricks to avoid copping the huge shots that lead to bad concussions.
Although a lot of damage can be done in nine minutes, it is likely to be the case that Toney, with all his experience, not to mention his ability to do the championship distance against someone as big and aggressive as Browne, can safely navigate this format without doing any further damage to a brain that’s already been through the mill. We should save our ire for his next title fight, and one will come should he win tonight.
What, then, is the final outcome? Is it Toney’s inclusion a disgrace or is he in a better place than Audley Harrison, who had suffered three bad stoppages in his career, was when he entered Prizefighter for a second time?
We’ve done the moralising, we’ve done the, erm, medicalising, but it means nothing. Toney is over here, he’s cleared to box and box he will. If it makes you squirm in your chair a little then there’s only one thing for it, reach for the remote and switch Prizefighter off then turn your mind to the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios — that one could be a wiggity-war. If Rios ends up face down on the canvas we will give him six months to recover and then watch him again, he’s a young man after all — we don’t mind seeing the young ones giving and picking up damage, especially if it results in a fun fight and a concussion, or two.
As Galen said: ‘[W]hen the athletes grow old, they creep, wrinkle and squint due to the severe blows; their eyes fill with catarrhal liquids, their teeth fall, and their bones become porotic and break easily’. It’s the price of their fame, acclaim and ultimately our personal enjoyment.
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