WHILE it is so easy to condemn the statements rendered by neurologist Dr. Rustico Jimenez and forensic expert Dr. Raquel Fortun, both of whom recently opined that Manny Pacquiao may already be exhibiting early signs of brain damage, it cannot be denied that pro boxers are prime candidates for pugilistic dementia or punch drunk syndrome, a degenerative brain disease with symptoms that include memory loss, confusion, depression, and emotional outbursts. The condition is caused by repeated blows to the head, particularly those that exceed the threshold of force necessary, and is considered the kissing cousin of Parkinson’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder marked by muscular rigidity, tremors, speech and swallowing issues, balance and walking woes, and a plethora of other problems.
The statements of Dr. Jimenez and Dr. Fortun have been roundly criticized on the basis that they have not personally and thoroughly examined Pacquiao. Then again, overlooked is the fact that the two are experts in their respective fields. I know a doctor who can readily sense what is wrong with an individual by the mere sound of his cough. The fact remains that the opinions of people like Dr. Jimenez and Dr. Fortun cannot be dispensed with like dirty laundry.
Just take the case of American boxer "Terrible" Terry Norris, who fought for 12 years (1986-1998) as a pro and held the world super welterweight title (154 pounds) on several occasions. Norris is best remembered for beating the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, John Mugabi, and Meldrick Taylor. But ask Norris today about those great victories and he can't even remember the names of the stars he defeated. Heck, Norris cannot even remember the day he tied the knot with his wife Tanya, and that was just three years ago. Norris, only 45 years old, was recently diagnosed with pugilistic dementia, a grim consequence of the solid blows he repeatedly absorbed in the ring. And here's the rub: As early as 1999, a Las Vegas-based neurologist, Dr. Margaret Goodman, knew that something was wrong with Norris after she merely exchanged pleasantries with the fighter. "I said hello to him, and he couldn't enunciate the words," Dr. Goodman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Norris, of course, refused to recognize that something was wrong with him at the time. In 2000, he even applied for a license in Las Vegas with the end in view of lacing on the gloves again. Dr. Goodman was part of the Nevada Athletic Commission that turned down Norris' request for a license. "You didn't need a million-dollar study to tell you this young man didn't belong in a boxing ring anymore," she said.
Studies have shown that the punch-drunk syndrome, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy as it is now known, starts to manifest about 12 to 16 years after the start of a career in boxing. The condition becomes full-blown after a long period of time, in some cases decades after a boxer retires from the ring. The studies are not way off the mark. Dig this: Norris boxed a total of 310 rounds in a pro career that lasted 12 years. He started showing signs of the condition at the tail end of his career and it became full-blown a decade after he had archived the gloves. Pacquiao, 34, is already entering his 13th year in the sport and has thus far logged a total of 371 rounds. He is coming off a horrific sixth-round knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in December. Pacquiao is currently serving a mandatory 120-day suspension from the Nevada Boxing Commission as a result of the devastating knockout loss.
The punch-drunk syndrome usually affects around 15 percent to 20 percent of pro boxers. The percentage is low, but as Norris' case shows, anybody can succumb to it. Leon Spinks, who defeated Muhammad Ali (who now suffers from Parkinson's Syndrome) in 1978 for the world heavyweight title, claimed that he has been experiencing memory loss in recent years and recently visited the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas for treatment. "I never did think I had brain damage," Spinks told CBS News. "I don't want the kids to go through want I went through."
While Pacquiao's hangers-on are threatening Dr. Jimenez and Dr. Fortun with lawsuits, promoter Bob Arum is taking a more judicious approach. Arum is planning to convince Pacquiao to visit the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for extensive treatment before discussing plans for a return to the ring. Arum, who has been in the boxing business for over fifty years, knows only too well the risks involved. As the old adage goes: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.