The Elephant Named Brain Damage

The Herald-Sun newspaper dated March 2, 2012 featured an article about head trauma in sports, written by Andrew Rule. You can read it at:

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/opinion/how-brain-trauma-can-destroy-athletes/story-fnbkrbz6-1226286661029

Let’s face it; head injury is the big fucking elephant in the room at my house. One of the principal reasons I never turned full pro as a fighter is because I hated being hit in the head. I had some really nasty experiences of it; the worst prompted my retirement, a few months before I took up the offer to trial for the kickboxing and free-fighting team, Golden Glory.

I started training at a boxing gym in Blackburn, The Fighter’s Factory, in late 2007. It was a friendly gym, which is rare; often, serious fight gyms will beat you up when you arrive. They always looked after me at The Fighter’s Factory, and took an interest in me as a potential candidate for the pros.

Many people argue that boxing is the most brutal contact sport of all, and I am part of this camp. Kickboxing and MMA look more brutal to the casual observer, but anyone who has any experience knows that boxing, as a sport, is built around blunt-force trauma to the brain. The rules are calibrated – especially in the amateurs – for you and the other guy to punch one another in the head. Granted, it’s a short engagement, but for those three rounds of two minutes’ duration, you’re smacking one another in the head as much as you can. And you hit the body in order to hit the head more effectively.

Kickboxing requires a substantial proportion of strikes to be directed to the body, especially the legs (a solid leg kick is probably the most painful thing you’ll experience in the ring. Francois Botha, boxer-turned-kickboxer, once fought Mike Bernardo, the subject of a recent post. He famously said that every time Bernardo hit him in the head, Botha said, ‘Thank you, God’, and every time Bernardo kicked his legs, Botha thought, ‘Dear God – not again!’) MMA also involves a significant amount of activity outside of strikes to the head, and very often, if you get kicked in the head, that’s all she wrote.

I got knocked down (fell on my arse, as opposed to going to sleep) twice in the one week at The Fighter’s Factory. I was concussed the first time and probably didn’t realise it, and the second time was even worse. When I got home that night, it sounded as if my partner was in another room and was speaking to me through a door. Even more frightening was that my vocabulary didn’t work. It’s like a series of filing cabinets in my head and when I want a word, the drawer flies open, I put my hand out and there is the specific thing I want to say. I found that when I pulled the drawer after the knock-downs, the file had gone missing and I couldn’t find it.

I had a CAT scan and the doc told me there was no bruising in my brain, but said I should find another sport. I was resolved to take his advice. I just couldn’t give up fighting, however, and even after a debilitating injury to my ankle sustained after kicking a guy in the head 18 months ago, I’m still sparring occasionally. I had to pull out of a fight a some months’ ago and refuse another a few weeks’ gone. It would have been for a top-ten ranking.

That said, my memory appears to have deteriorated since I was in Europe. Some nights I’d come home from training in Breda and everything was fuzzy and out of focus, like streetlights passing over a rainy windshield while driving at night. My vocabulary has returned to normal, but my short-term memory has become a bit sketchy.

***

I have been training Alexei, the little boy in the picture (the one who doesn’t have a beard) for about five years. He is the most unusual of talented children in that he has never been made to come to training. He loves boxing like ducks love water. And he has become strikingly good at it. On a Saturday, we drive out to Airport West to visit my excellent friend, Joe Demicoli (bearded guy). Joe is a generous, selfless man, and just about the best person I have met in kickboxing; I would even go so far as to say that I trust him. He and I stand around the boxing ring with a foot up on the bottom rope and watch Alexei spar with Nick, Joe’s step-son. They are both fit and skilled, remarkably so.

It is very difficult to spar in a useful way that is any less than about 70% intensity, so while the boys aren’t hammering each other, they hit each other hard enough to become dizzy. I have never been comfortable with it, but Alexei loves fighting and improves at an exponential rate. Not just that, but I love it and always have.

Andrew Rule says that the elephant hanging around my house actually has a name; it is ‘CTE’: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The most famous case of CTE in recent times would be related to the NHL enforcer, Derek Boogaard, who died of an overdose at age 28.

“Dr. Ann McKee, director of neuropathology at the Bedford VA Medical Center and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, examined Boogaard’s brain and determined it showed signs of early CTE.

 “CTE shares features with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. When severe, it can lead to dementia, impulsivity and rage. In the two years before his death, Boogaard suffered from emotional instability, impulse control problems, short-term memory loss and disorientation. His death came months before the apparent suicides of two fellow NHL ‘enforcers’, 35-year-old Wade Belak of the Nashville Predators and 27-year-old Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets.”

Sourced from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/derek-boogaard-nhl-enforcer-brain-disease/story?id=15095450#.T2VOqphpwy4

I cut the Herald-Sun article out of the paper and gave it to Alexei’s mother, but she doesn’t seem too fazed. I am currently unsure of what I should do.

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One Response to “The Elephant Named Brain Damage”

  1. Its a good thing that you have highlighted the dangers to Alexei’s mother, and if you have told her of your own experience and what you struggle with now that would also be good. Unfortunately, this young boy’s mental and neuropsychological health is ultimately the responsibilty of his parents.

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