Saturday, 22 April 2017 04:00

CTE: Should Boxing Be Terrified?

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Is CTE prevalent in boxing?

Last year, former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler was found to have had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) after post-mortem tests were done on his brain.

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repetitive brain trauma.

Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which may appear years or many decades after the trauma. In the case of blast injury, a single exposure to a blast and the subsequent violent movement of the head in the blast wind can cause the condition.

The disease was previously called dementia pugilistica (DP), i.e. "punch-drunk", as it was initially found in those with a history of boxing.

Today, CTE is most commonly found in professional athletes participating in the NFL, NHL and pro wrestling.

What makes the Stabler revalation so riveting is quarterbacks, unlike linemen, running backs and defensive backs, typically don't engage in a lot of repetitive, high-speed helmet-to-helmet collisions.

Chris Benoit, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Gary Goodridge

In 2007, famed wresler Chris Benoit killed his wife and son before taking his own life. After tests were conducted on Benoit's brain, results showed it was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient." 

He was reported to have had an advanced form of dementia with caused extreme depression and made him a threat to himself and others. Hence, it was concluded that repeated concussions can lead to dementia, which can contribute to severe behavioral problems.

Former football stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson committed suicide with a self-inflicted gunshots in 2012 and 2011, respectively. And when the brains of both men were donated to science, studies showed Seau and Duerson suffered a neurodegenerative disorders.

In Seau's case, it was determined he suffered from CTE. Moreover, a host of living former NFL players, including Tony Dorsett, are believed to have CTE.

Will CTE threaten boxing?

Perhaps time will tell.  Sadly, based on his actions the past two years, Jermain Taylor might be a candidate. One could also make a case for Leon Spinks and still-active pro James Toney. However, aside from them, we haven't seen many active and former high-profile fighters develop seemingly unnatural debilitating punch-related illnesses while still in their 40s, 50s or 60s, or at any age.

Sure, boxers have suffered from dementia in their 70s and 80s but it's a mainstream condition and its onset is usually diagnosed in that age range.

Muhammad Ali has Parkinson's Syndrome which is also a mainstream degenerative disease that impacts people who never played a contact sport a day in their lives.

As someone who participated in football (5th - 12th grade) and boxing (18-25), the shots to the head are different in both sports. In some ways, helmet-to-helmet contact hurt more yet was less likely to produce a knockout than a punch.

As a varsity linebacker, I'd always suffer nasty headaches due to head-to-head collisions during summer training camp but was never worried because they'd always seem to stop happening after a few weeks.

Perhaps I'd developed a tolerance to the pain which may have given me a false sense of security?

Aside from a concussion I suffered at 15, I don't remember getting light-headed or terribly woozy in football but vividly recall the stinging migraines that would last several days during the opening weeks of training.

I don't remember having many severe  headaches after sparring. The punches hurt and would make me dizzy sometimes, but I never had three-day migraines due to sparring.

In boxing, most of the head shots are taken in the face while in football, the hardest helmet-to-helmet shots are absorbed at the top and sides of the head, perhaps closer to the brain.

Also, the impact from a helmet-to-helmet collision covers more area of the head than that of a boxing glove which is much smaller (and softer) than a football helmet.

Perhaps those who participate in American football are, in fact, more likely to develop long term debilitating head injuries than boxers?

.... Time will tell.

Lee Cleveland

Lee is Managing Editor of, a student of the Sweet Science and longtime boxing fan.

A gym rat in the 1990s, Lee was trained by 1976 Olympic Silver Medalist Charles Mooney and several retired seasoned pros. He was also a sparring partner for former WBA Super Middleweight Champion Steve Little who upset Michael Nunn for the WBA Super Middleweight Title in '94.

Lee created to honor and preserve boxing's rich heritage, chronicle the achievements of top fighters, celebrate the legacy of big fights and provide a fun, educational experience for fight fans.