Boxing, Concussion and Depression - Time To Open Our Eyes

By Terence Dooley

I once read an archetypal story/analogy/puzzle that always makes me think about the issue of concussion and depression in boxing.  It goes a little bit like this: a group of children are killing lice on a temple’s steps, when approached and asked what will happen to the rest of the lice, one of the children says: “We kill the ones we see, the ones we don’t see we take away with us”.

You can see a cut, muscle tears and broken bones can be x-rayed then the proof posted online—to be almost immediately discounted or scoffed at—and there are also lots of other physical effects of boxing that we can see with our own eyes.

Just like the lice mentioned above, though, concussion is something that fighters take away with them even in fights that they win.  It is the unseen and always present risk in a sport that relies and thrives on blunt force trauma.  Sometimes we bear witness to it—KOs happen and bleeding on the brain is a side effect of the nature of the sport—yet for the most part the mini-concussions and effects of blows to the head tend to remain undisclosed unless there is an in-ring accident that brings an injury to our attention.

When I was doing an article on depression in boxing a few years ago, I asked Robert Smith if the BBBoC had considered the link between concussion and depression, and how it can lead to other forms of mental illness.  Smith told me that he did not think there was a link, which is only natural as explicitly acknowledging it raises the hardest type of questions, the ones that we have to direct towards ourselves.

The link between concussion and depression in athletes, both amateur and professional, has been discussed widely for well over a decade now and has finally been publicly aired.  Indeed, Will Smith starred in a film—admittedly an Oscar-w*nking one—about the issue, one in which his crusading doctor fights to get people to acknowledge what is basically a truism: getting concussed in any way shape or form is bad for you.  So why did it take so long for it to become a real, much-discussed, issue?

Think about it, and across any sport, and the answer becomes clear: accepting the link means you also have to accept some culpability.  That applies to us fans, too, as we enjoy a form of entertainment that has huge risks, long-term health implications and has been linked to mental health issues since the classic article ‘Punch Drunk’ by Dr. Harrison Stanford Martland (Martland HS (1928), “Punch Drunk”, Journal of the American Medical Association, 91 (15): 1103–1107. doi:10.1001/jama.1928.02700150029009)

Don’t worry, this is not a hand-wringing ‘Road to Damascus’ style “I’m emoting here, I’m EMOTING here” piece about how I’ve seen the light and it has spotlighted the brutality of the sport.  I’m not about to wonder aloud or online if I should feel guilty for following it, and never will.  In truth, writers only tend to do that on the night or the morning after a tragedy; days when you have to emote, and, crucially, be seen to be emoting harder than anyone else and more eloquently before inevitably accepting that you will continue to watch fights—although while feeling darned well guilty about the whole shebang.


This approach is insulting to the boxers themselves.  They have an urge or desire to fight, they do it professionally and enter into it knowing the risks better than anyone else.  It isn’t fair on them to muse about walking away from boxing just because someone got hurt in a fist fight.  It is time for a dose of reality: fighters get hurt all the time, even when they win, and are breaking themselves down in training week in and week out—don’t even get them started on dieting.

I don’t feel the need to feign disgust at media savvy moments, I feel it all the time, especially as I get older and see the impact boxing has had on the people who I watched live throughout their careers.  I feel ashamed, but not embarrassed or regretful, when I look at what boxing has done to some of the fighters I’ve covered.  Boxing is an unusual sport, the people involved even more so, and we find it hard to criticise certain aspects of it because so many people hate it and want to see it banned.  We close ranks yet we can no longer deny what the rest of the world now knows: depression and concussion are linked.

Why am I saying this?  Well, it is something that is on my mind a lot, especially as lineal heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury is in the process of attempting a comeback after battling depression, the UKAD, and saw two mooted rematches with former holder Wladimir Klitschko fall by the wayside following his November 2015 decision win over the former Champion. 

You can see the argument from both sides.  For too long we have shirked the issue of mental illness, and still do—because you cannot see it, it lives through its effects, and they are not always the same for everyone—so when someone, particularly a man, says they are depressed the go-to advice is ‘Be a man’ or ‘Man up’, two phrases that have probably caused too many people to suffer in silence.  In fact, “Be a man” must be one of the biggest ruination of many men, silence can be a killer when it comes to this particular illness.

The flip-side of this situation is that Fury has talked about being from fighting stock and castigated David Haye when he twice withdrew from a fight.  Therefore some have pointed out that he has acted hypocritically and even argued that his depression is a ruse stemming from the controversy surrounding the UKAD situation.

The whole sound and fury of this on-off affair left many jaded, declaring that they have no sympathy for the 29-year-old and even less interest in his mooted comeback, which has been pencilled in for this year.  That is fine, if you think that way it is your prerogative to do so, what I would say is that Fury does not need our sympathy, however nice it is to receive it—what he really needs is our understanding.

We have to understand that depression can cause erratic behaviour, which Fury has displayed in spades for years now.  It cannot be pinpointed by an x-ray and impacts in different ways.  Fury went to watch a fight at the weekend, so he can’t be depressed, right?  People who are depressed don’t go to a fights, surely?  Of course they do, they also work, socialise and do the things “normal” people do, in many cases year in and year out, but they do these things in almost a glib fashion.

You live your life, but it is a life lived with that feeling of creeping dread or sadness deep in your gut and dark thoughts rattling around your brain: ‘Am I going to be exposed? Will this sadness ever lift? I’ve just done something good and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but now I have to better it and I feel so sh*t I can barely even move'.  And so on.

Sleep becomes your only comfort.  In fact, people suffering from depression will often wake up and immediately think about going to bed later that night, the day just passes you by.  They will often self-medicate in a bid to aid sleep—insomnia is one of the worst things about depression—so people use drugs, prescription or otherwise, to obliterate themselves on a nightly basis.  Taking whatever it takes to fall into the relative happiness of sleep.  However, it is a false economy, as you cannot enjoy your sleep, and the drugs or drink mean that you do not sleep well—you are merely on pause until the next day.

Physical effects of depression include extreme lethargy, in fact there is literature out there on the difficulty of training when depressed.  Ironically, light exercise can help alleviate it due to the release of endorphins; however, training for a fight or major sporting event is hardly light work, and it can be mentally and physically gruelling.  No alleviation there, then.  Fighting whilst locked into a depression would also be very taxing, but many have done it or, in the infamous case of Oliver McCall, tried to.

Where does that leave us when it comes to Fury's comeback and career?  People have pointed out that he has courted controversy and claims not to care about what people think or say about him so is reaping what he has sowed.  I am not sure about that.  It makes me think of Sonny Liston.  A bad man, one of the original bad men of boxing: moody, surly and frightening.  Sonny, though, believed that lifting the world heavyweight title would change this perception.

Think about it, we had not had as many bad men in boxing back then, so Sonny was an original.  He thought that the world heavyweight Champion, ‘A Man’, the inscription on his gravestone, was universally loved, despite his past.  Upon winning the belt, he jetted home and expected to see a parade.  Tumbleweeds.  No one showed up.  Friends close to him said that something inside of him died that day, and something else hardened and grew cold.  “People don’t want me,” he said. “But they’ll have to swing along with me until another fella comes along.”

It is my belief that Liston wanted to draw a line under his old life, he wanted to be a distinguished Champion, only for the public to decide otherwise.  Sure, he defended the belt yet he looked a shadow of the fighter he once was.

You could blame age, no one knew how old he really was, including Liston, and the brilliance of Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, but it is my theory, and just that, that Liston was crushed by the lack of recognition he received.  He was open to being loved, but love did not come his way.

After his defeat, Liston trained hard for a comeback, his wife at the time said it was the fittest he had been for years, only for Ali to suffer a hernia.  Fight nixed.  New date added.  Liston did not have the same zeal for the postponed date.  What happened next went down in history, Ali clipped him and Liston went down and stayed down.  A comeback showed signs of promise only to end with defeat and suicide, or whatever to you think did for him in the end.

People tell me it was the second Ali fight was a fix, although that has never been conclusively proven, and other theories abound.  Mine is that Liston was a man out of time, a 1950s fighter in a changing world, and the turmoil around Ali—Islam, politics, death threats and the rest—was something he could never quite get to grips with.  It is my belief that he took a light shot, thought “F*ck this shit” and hit the deck to see out the count.  You probably disagree, the key word is “theory”.

It was never the same again for Liston—a fascinating character who I read about as a child and still read about as a man—and we all know how it worked out for the “Champion that no one wanted”.  Fury may also have expected the same love only for ill-judged pre-fight comments about homosexuality to emerge following that big win in Germany—that’s one for a column on religion and boxing—so it could be the case that the weight of public disapproval weighed heavily on him, despite his protests, and wore him down in the months following his title win.

Time will tell.  What I will say, again, is that we are all entitled to our opinions.  For the time being, though, maybe it is time to extend a little understanding to Fury ahead of his comeback and wait to see what comes next if he enters the ring again.  Mental illness is the most elusive opponent any of us will ever face.  If Fury is fighting that fight then he needs our understanding, which may also lead to sympathy, but that’s up to you.

Read Depression and Boxing—The Silent Blow here:

Please send news and views to @Terryboxing.

Tags: boxing image  
User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by Koba-Grozny on 02-12-2018

There doesn't actually seem to have been a great deal of study done on this specific matter.... while there has been a strong causal relationship established between trauma, PTSD and depression, the mechanism for this is still poorly understood as…

Comment by Johnny Rubber on 02-12-2018

[QUOTE=TheUntouchable;18478327]Being depressed or just generally ****ed up is cool right now. I get it. And until you can come up with scientific facts I'll dismiss every single of those claims as being in line with our modern victim society.[/QUOTE] Ignorance…

Comment by HeadBodyBodyBody on 02-12-2018

[QUOTE=Evil_Meat;18480416]You are trying to argue with someone who clearly has zero compassion for anyone with mental illness. He’s probably one of those “just get over it” idiots. It’s a waste of time.[/QUOTE] More misconstrual...

Comment by Evil_Meat on 02-12-2018

[QUOTE=Humean;18479388]This is terribly incoherent. You think that people with mental illness just need to accept responsibility (for their illness and mental weakness?) rather than complain and then the illness will go away? Or is it that you think there was…

Comment by TheUntouchable on 02-12-2018

[QUOTE=boxingenius002;18480237]Lol oh how naive you r.. the science is out do some research yourself for 15 min. Lol man didn’t realize the newly discovered cte isn’t facts[/QUOTE] What? I'm supposed to do "some research" aka I should try to find…

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