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CTE: Worse in football than boxing?

By Lee Cleveland - December 20, 2022

Is CTE prevalent in boxing?

It was announced in 2017 that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was found in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains that had been donated to science, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA.

A progressive degenerative disease, CTE is often associated with people who have suffered brain trauma, whether via repetitive head blows or via a single collision.



It is believed that individuals with CTE show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression, which may appear years or many decades after the trauma.

Previously called dementia pugilistica (DP), i.e. “punch-drunk syndrome,” it was believed the condition only impacted boxers who stayed in the ring too long. Today, however, CTE is seemingly more commonly found in professional athletes participating in the NFL, NHL, and pro wrestling.

In 2016, former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler was found to have had CTE after post-mortem tests were done on his brain. What made that diagnosis so alarming is quarterbacks, unlike linemen and running backs, don’t engage in frequent head-on collisions.



In 2007, famed wrestler 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 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 from neurodegenerative disorders. And in Seau’s case, it was determined he suffered from CTE. Moreover, a host of living former NFL players, including Dallas Cowboys’ great Tony Dorsett, are believed to have CTE.

Will CTE threaten boxing?

Perhaps time will tell.

Based on his actions over the past five years, former middleweight boxing champ Jermain Taylor might be a candidate. One could also make a case for the late Leon Spinks and the recently-retired James Toney. However, aside from them, we haven’t seen many active and former high-profile fighters develop unnatural debilitating punch-related illnesses while still in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, or at any age.



Muhammad Ali had Parkinson’s Syndrome which is a mainstream degenerative disease that impacts people who never played a contact sport a day in their life. Perhaps he got it from the many decades of fighting or maybe he was predisposed to it. We don’t know for sure if he had CTE due to his acute Parkinson’s. More than likely, ‘The Greatest’ suffered at least some boxing-induced brain damage because you can’t fight elite-level monsters that long and absorb the punishment he received without some level of trauma.

And, sure, boxers have suffered from dementia in their late 70s,80s, and 90s but it’s a fairly common condition and its onset is usually diagnosed in that age range, regardless of whether someone competed in sports or suffered previously abnormal brain trauma.

So, can head injuries in boxing and football be compared? And, is a boxer more or less likely to get CTE than a football player?

Who knows?

But, as someone who participated in organized football (ages 10-17) and boxing (ages 18-25), the shots to the head are very different per activity. In some ways, violent 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 stop after the first two weeks in training camp.

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.

As a boxer, I never had headaches after sparring. The punches hurt and would make me dizzy sometimes, but I never experienced cognition issues or intracranial pain.

In boxing, most of the headshots 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 impacting more areas of the brain. Let’s not forget that a football helmet is larger and certainly harder than a boxing glove.

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

…. Time will tell.

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