While many focus on brain damage concerning football, other sports endure similar if not greater risks. Some of the most egregious examples involve boxing and other fighting sports. From Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson, many boxers experience conditions linked with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
Two superstar fighters, George Foreman and Manny Pacquiao, somehow seemed to avoid this type of brain damage. So is it fair to link some fighters’ health issues to the blows they endure? Let’s look at the facts.
Boxing and the human body
A job requiring thousands of blows to the head can have long-lasting effects on one’s brain, as Brainline reports. The extent of the issues, however, often go unconfirmed. CTE can have a wide range of symptoms; without adequate testing for potential cases before death, people are left to speculate.
An example of this speculation involves Ali, who famously lived the last decades of his life with Parkinson’s disease. The late boxer went from the large, loud, and in-charge face of boxing to a shell of his former self as the disease took over his mind and body.
Many theorized that his later fights, which involved many blows to his head, played a part in his final state. Claims like this can often be confused with fact, as Dr. Abraham Lieberman of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center explained to BBC Radio in 2014.
“People ask me about this and I tell them: Look at George Foreman,” Lieberman said, according to The Roar. “He boxed longer than Muhammad did, took many more blows to the head and he’s on television selling his cookware … I think [Ali] has typical Parkinson’s Disease. Did the boxing contribute? I don’t know. It may have.”
From Mike Tyson’s bipolar mood swings to Conor McGregor’s purported brain damage after his boxing match with the legendary Floyd Mayweather, boxers sustain a beating that progresses outside of the ring, reports Reuters. So how have two all-time greats seem to have avoided CTE altogether?
George Foreman and Manny Pacquiao on brain damage
As Lieberman points out, Foreman had a longer career than Ali, even though he took off a decade in the middle. Big George’s career lasted nearly three decades from beginning to end, and he seems to have all of his functions two decades after his final fight. While this does not mean Foreman avoided any lingering trauma, it does raise a question about theories regarding Ali’s condition.
A more contemporary example, Pacquiao has sparred with several of the biggest names in boxing for over two decades. Despite being 40 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. “Pacman” has long dismissed any notions that he might suffer from brain damage, as the South China Morning Post highlights. In a sport where several fighters show early signs of CTE, this might be true.
In the cases of Foreman and Pacquiao, however, their apparent health does not necessarily absolve the sport they love. They may not have lingering symptoms from their long careers, but several others do. To this day, fighters die in the ring and are forced to retire due to brain damage. Foreman and Pacquiao offer hope that it might not happen to everyone, but they do not make any promises.
What can fighters do?
Fighters are not forced into the ring, but as many get older, they put things into perspective. Mayweather, who retired again in November 2019, stated that his safety is a major reason why he does not want to continue fighting.
“I’ve got calls to get back into the ring, but my health is my wealth,” Mayweather said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald). “Boxing is a very, very brutal sport. In the last few years, a lot of fighters have died inside that squared circle.”
Violent sports come with lots of uncertainty. Fighters need to consider their health. If they are willing to risk it all for the sport they love, they may allowed to do so. But for every Pacquiao or Foreman, others have paid with their health or even their lives.
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