- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson staged a memorable series of heavyweight title fights that ended with one or the other being knocked kicking.

Now both are gone because of Alzheimer’s disease, Patterson in 2006 and Johansson last week at age 76. Thus, we are reminded indirectly just how brutal boxing is - if, in fact, we needed reminding.

There is no irrefutable proof that repeated blows to the head cause Alzheimer’s. What we do know, and have known for decades, is that such trauma can and often does produce dementia pugilistica, a condition that causes ex-fighters to slur their words, lurch about and behave erratically. It is thought to affect as much as 15 percent of retired fighters.

If you have more than a little gray in your hair, you might remember comedian Red Skelton’s routine about a punch-drunk boxer named Cauliflower McPugg who saw imaginary little birdies flying overhead.

Guess what? It isn’t funny anymore, if it ever was.

Patterson and Johansson are only two of the famous fighters who suffered some form of mental deterioration in later years. Sugar Ray Robinson, who endured an incredible 200 bouts and often is considered “pound for pound” the greatest boxer ever, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before his death in 1989 at 67. Joe Louis displayed signs of mental illness, although his death in 1981 was attributed to a heart attack.

Perhaps the most visible victim is Muhammad Ali, long since reduced to a shadow of his old graceful, garrulous self by Parkinson’s syndrome - another form of dementia pugilistica, aka chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When Ali bravely staggered into view to light the Olympic caldron at the Atlanta Games in 1996, the sight brought tears to untold pairs of eyes around the globe.

And if past masters like these are and were brain-damaged ex-fighters, what about the thousands of journeymen over more than a century who have absorbed repeated blows to the head?

I don’t want to think about it, and neither should you.

True, some legislators, most notably Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have pushed for measures to make boxing safer. But there’s a limit to how safe you can make a sport whose principal object is to render your opponent unconscious.

Football’s violence also causes multiple concussions and other brain injuries, a growing concern. But at least the participants are well protected, and the goal (at least theoretically) is not to injure the other guy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those wimps who blanch at the mere idea of fisticuffs. I grew up in the 1950s enjoying boxing on TV - particularly the “Greatest Fights of the Century” series that followed the Friday night bouts on NBC - and I’ve covered the sport as a working reporter. But the evidence seems clear nowadays that boxing has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any.

Traditionally, it has been home to all kinds of shady characters: managers who knowingly overmatched their pugs against superior opposition, promoters who fled with the gate receipts before paying the fighters, gamblers who ordered a boxer with a chance at a title shot to take a dive.

Damon Runyon, the famous author of “Guys and Dolls,” wrote about dozens of crooks like this - but he didn’t make them all up.

Cartoonist Al Capp created a crooked boxing manager named Evil-Eye Fleagle who would have cheated his own mother at the drop of a fedora. I once encountered a real, live version who called himself, for obvious reasons, “Sam the Mumbler.” When I began to understand Sam, I quit covering boxing.

The sport’s unluckiest people, of course, are the fighters themselves who, in most cases, end their careers with many more scars than dollars. Most boxers come from deprived backgrounds and fight because it’s the only way they know to make a decent (indecent?) living. I never heard one of them say, “I enjoy boxing.”

Memories of the best fighters and their deeds still endure: Ali, Robinson, Louis, Dempsey, Tunney, Armstrong. Marciano, et al. Now, however, there’s very little drama or meaning attached to the game.

Let’s see: Which alphabet-soup titles do the Klitschko brothers hold? And who are the No. 1 contenders?

In this day of presumably increased compassion and awareness, there is no room for a sporting pursuit that can wreck both mind and body - and so often does. There’s no reason for any doubt: It should be counted out as quickly as possible.

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