Dateline: January 17, 2015 (Muhammad Ali’s Birthday)
I was always told that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. I am about to tell a story here, or a series of stories really, and I am a little unsure how or where to begin, what the middle should be, how it should end, or even what it all means; so bear with me. In the absence of a better place, I shall begin here:
Muhammad Ali turned 73 years old today and seldom does a day go by without a media report on Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s and the general state of his health. Lately, the reporting has taken on a kind of morbid “death watch” quality that I personally find distasteful. Ali has struggled long and hard with Parkinson’s, a progressively degenerative neurological disease for which there is no cure. The very fact that Ali has waged this battle, every day, 24/7, for over 30 years elevates him, in my books, to the highest level of heroism to which any human can ascend, even without consideration of the multitude of other attributes and achievements for which he is rightly lauded as a true champion.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, he converted to Islam in the mid-1960s as “Cassius X” before becoming “Muhammad Ali”. As Cassius Clay, he won the 1959 National Golden Gloves Championship and the Rome 1960 Olympic Gold Medal Championship, Light Heavyweight Division. As Muhammad Ali, he won the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World an unprecedented and unequalled three times – arguably the greatest boxer of all time; a refreshing change of pace bringing poetry and pizzazz to secretive gyms previously the domain of stogie-smoking promoters and trainers smelling of liniment; an entertainer who understood the value (and place) of showmanship in boxing; a personality so unique that even though Parkinson’s has softened his voice, it cannot muffle its resonance; a man who promoted not only himself but boxing and his community; a devotedly religious man who stood for his principles and went to prison as a draft resister in the Vietnam era – a position only a few others of his stature considered doing; a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) who, along with his family, is committed to raising awareness and financial support for research to defeat this final and strongest of his many opponents; an athlete who has become a most cherished champion and hero for those of us living with Parkinson’s as we continue our own long march into an unsteady future with a disease which is degenerative, debilitating, and disabling. Parkinson’s disease has no cure and if we don’t die from it, we will most certainly die with it. The very fact that Muhammad Ali resists its finality fuels us in our own unique struggles with Parkinson’s.
Ali was famous for his bravado expressed through poetry, as is evidenced in this excerpt before he won the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire in 1974:
I’ve wrassled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I’ve handcuffed lightning,
And put thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
I have murdered a rock,
I injured a stone,
And I hospitalized a brick.
I’m so bad I make medicine sick.
For a video of Ali reciting this poem and other information see Muhammad Ali Biography
I have probably stated the obvious and you are saying, “so what, tell me something that is new.” While I have never been a big fan of boxing, the “sweet science” as it is called, it does seem to form part of the weft in the tapestry that is my life. This may seem inconsequential and maybe random, but I am not a believer in life being purely random. In previous posts I have talked about my life’s trajectory and whether I have had a conscious role in determining that path. The answer is “yes” sometimes and “no” other times, and I am often hard pressed to pin point the exact moment or moments when I have nudged the trajectory in either a positive or negative direction. So what the heck is it about boxing, a sport about which I profess no great understanding and certainly no skill, that is so important?
Perhaps the most simplistic and obvious point is that I share at least one common life experience with Muhammad Ali. We both have Parkinson’s disease. Ali, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 or thereabouts (diagnoses of Parkinson’s are notoriously difficult to pin down to an exact date) is 73 years old. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago and I am turning 66 this year. As I reflect on the many, many developments and changes in my body, brain, muscles, nerves, tendons, and psyche, I cannot fathom the sheer enormity of strength and determination of Ali’s body, mind and spirit upon which he must call to sustain himself in this bout with a seemingly never ending number of rounds. In many respects, it is nightmarish. In other respects, it is simply the highest testament that can be given to a man who knows, to the end, that his bravado, his showmanship, his celebrity, his strength, his deft footwork and stinging jabs, provide each of us with the determination to continue our own personal battle with Parkinson’s.
Boxing: The Big Boys
When I was growing up in southern Manitoba boxing was not a common sport among children. Parents of the day looked down on it and my generation rushed to embrace peace, love and the “flower power” of the sixties. However, I do know there was an era in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s when boxing had a surge in popularity and matches were promoted in many smaller communities where combatants competed for prize money of $8 for the win. Hardly stratospheric amounts of money – certainly not enough to attract most young men to get into the ring with someone who was determined to knock you out, or at least give you a good whuppin’.
One of my grandfather Bill’s workmates was a man named “Joe.” He had that distinctive broken nose face of a boxer. He was a rugged looking man who always treated me kindly, and who always appeared to be in great physical shape. I know that he fought on many boxing cards around southern Manitoba for little money. By the time I was growing up these boxing events had largely disappeared in rural communities but still continued in the larger centres such as Winnipeg and Brandon.
There is no question that my perception of boxing was forever altered on February 21, 1972 when a friend and I took in a card of four bouts at the Winnipeg Arena. Such a large venue was unusual but it was billed as the beginning of a new era of boxing in Winnipeg. The Canadian Light Heavyweight Championship was on the line in a bout featuring defending champion, Al Sparks, favourite and hometown hero, and the challenger, Toronto fighter Stewart Gray. Little did we know that this evening was to be both an evening to remember and one to forget. It unfolded this way:
In the first preliminary bout Jesse Fagin knocks out Muhamed Kamerick in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. This is Kamerick’s first and only fight … ever. He retires a perfect 1 – 0 – 0. I recall he was introduced as a former heavyweight champion from the Ukraine currently residing in Saskatchewan. In my brief search for biographical information on Kamerick, I was able to corroborate his unbeaten status and determine that he was not from Saskatchewan but from Winnipeg – age unknown, weight unknown, along with a host of other unknowns.
Kamerick looked decidedly out of shape and decidedly out of place – as if he had not seen the inside of a boxing gym or any other kind of gym for quite some time … if ever. His boxing acumen and skills were either very rusty or nonexistent. I rather think that it was the latter. His opponent, Jesse Fagin on the other hand, looked trim and fit and danced rings around Kamerick in the first round landing a few good punches, seemingly at will. Kamerick rarely connected, if at all. Thirty seconds into the second round Kamerick threw a wild roundhouse left hook, which might have appeared to connect with Fagin to fans somewhere in the Winnipeg arena but not from where I was sitting. Fagin went flying backward, arms out as if hit by a Ukrainian thunderbolt, landed on the canvas and was counted out by the referee.
The oddity about Jesse Fagin (5 – 3 – 0 before entering the ring with Kamerick) was that this was his first fight in ten years. His last bout was December 11, 1963 in Weirton, West Virginia where Bobby (Sweet Boy) Warthen (lifetime14 – 18 – 0) knocked him out in the third round of a scheduled eight rounder. And, not surprisingly, his last fight before that was five years earlier (November 1958) when unknown Alex Walker (lifetime 2-0-2) stopped him on a TKO in the first round. Even though Fagin did not have much of a boxing pedigree, it was a more believable pedigree than Kamerick’s, but just marginally so. This night at the fights did not have a very auspicious beginning as they say.
Surely, it would get better.
In the second bout, Nafiz Ahmed (a heavyweight) knocked out Sammy Poe (a middleweight) in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. Ahmed is listed in Boxing Records as hailing from Vancouver, B.C. with a lifetime record of 4 – 4 – 0. Is it coincidence that this would be Ahmed’s last ever bout and, at 41 years old, this would be Poe’s final professional fight? He would end his career with a dismal record of 2 – 5 – 1. Interestingly, Poe’s last fight before facing Ahmed was almost 10 years earlier when he lost on points to Jim Christopher on March 7, 1963. By the way, this is the same Jim Christopher scheduled to face George Chuvalo in the third bout of this Winnipeg card. As you may sense, the coincidences are becoming too frequent to be coincidental.
I recall that the crowd reacted with derision when Poe hit the canvas. It looked like he went down awfully easily. To tell the truth, it looked like he stayed down because he really was not all that interested in getting up. I am not convinced that the blow that felled Poe was a connecting blow. You might venture to say that he was blown over by the wind as the punch sailed by him, but that punch was never traveling fast enough to generate as much as a puff of breeze.
This brings us to the third bout of the evening – one to which we were quite looking forward. Living Canadian boxing legend and icon George Chuvalo would be fighting Jim Christopher. The recorded facts of the fight are that Chuvalo knocked out Christopher in the second round of a scheduled 10 rounder.
However, of much more interest is the back-story, the sidebar story, the behind the scenes story, the under the table story, or whatever this sordid story should be called. This would also be Jim Christopher’s final professional fight and he would retire with a lifetime record of 6 – 23 – 3, hardly an impressive career. Christopher had last fought on December 4, 1969 (over three years earlier) when he lost a unanimous decision to Bill Drover, a respectable fighter from Newfoundland and Labrador in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For whatever reason, Christopher was drawn back into the ring to fight the hard-hitting Chuvalo on February 21, 1972.
Our seats were near an entrance leading to the ring from underneath the stands. We were within earshot of the referees as they left the ring to return to the referees’ dressing room. And boy did we ever let the referee from each of the first two bouts know what we thought – that the whole affair was rigged; that we were cheated out of our money; and that we were disgusted with the way the fights had ended. I knew one of the referees from my hockey playing days where he had been a trainer, and I clearly recall shouting that I thought he was a sellout and that we expected better.
And we were confident that the better was going to start with this third fight – Chuvalo vs Christopher. From the instant that Chuvalo stepped through the ropes and into the ring, we knew we were witnessing one of the true great Canadian fighters. Oh, we also knew that Chuvalo was nearing the end of his great career and that his best days were behind him, but his punches were sharp and crisp, not lazy and round, and sizzled through the air ending with a sharp smack as they connected with their target. I recall trying to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of those sledgehammer body blows for which Chuvalo was famous. It hurts to even think about it.
This fight with Christopher was to be Chuvalo’s tune up for a May 1, 1972 rematch fight with Muhammad Ali in Vancouver, B.C. (For the record, Chuvalo would lose that rematch with Ali in a unanimous decision in 12 rounds.) But back to the Christopher fight. Some tune up. A few days later Christopher would publicly admit to throwing the fight in the second round claiming he had received a threat prior to the start of the fight. As far as I know, Chuvalo had no knowledge of this situation and was as surprised as the rest of us when Christopher lay down in the second. I have no reason to doubt Chuvalo – he was never going to be tested by a fighter of Christopher’s calibre. Still, it looked and felt unsavoury and dishonest, reeking of corruption, especially in light of the two previous bouts. And in retrospect, it still stinks.
Is it oddly coincidental that of the six fighters in the first three bouts, five of them would never fight again? On the basis of their demonstrated talents and boxing skills, the same five should not have even been in the ring on this particular night.
George Chuvalo’s career is legendary in Canada and we bought tickets partly because this would likely be our only opportunity to see him fight in person. He fought World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali for the title in March 1969. It was a fight that Ali was supposed to win, and he did with a unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Although Ali did outbox Chuvalo in almost every round, Ali never really stunned him. It was in this fight that Chuvalo, a boxer who was never dropped to the canvas in his professional career, solidified his reputation as a boxer who never stopped moving in on an opponent no matter how hard or how fast his opponent’s punches battered his usually puffy and often cut eyebrows and cheeks. In the March 1969 fight, Chuvalo moved like a slowly advancing tank to pound away on Ali’s body with heavy blows. But just as Chuvalo never flinched from Ali’s jabs or left-right combinations, Ali never showed as much as a grimace in acknowledgement that Chuvalo’s strategy was having any effect. Each combatant put on a clinic, highlighting two boxing styles that stood in sharp contrast to each other.
In the end, Ali’s superior boxing style and quick hands were too much for Chuvalo’s grittiness. To his credit, Chuvalo did make attempts in almost every round to mix up his barrage of body punches with some well timed combinations or left jabs to Ali’s head. Chuvalo’s hometown Toronto crowd roared each time in anticipation that their boy would connect and send Ali to the canvas. But Ali was too quick and escaped the barrage, dancing away, or recovered with well-placed jabs, hooks and crosses forcing Chuvalo to give ground. Ali danced and circled for 15 rounds and Chuvalo was not going to catch him this night.
Both fighters weighed in over their ideal fighting weights with Ali at 214.5 pounds and Chuvalo at 216 pounds. Announcers, Al McCann and football star Jim Brown wondered out loud if the stamina of each fighter would be negatively affected by the additional poundage. Each fighter stayed true to his game plan. Ali Danced and weaved. Chuvalo kept going straight ahead, looking to do damage to Ali on the inside. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the extra weight or the length of the fight.
The final scoring had Ali well ahead on points winning all but one or two rounds. In each round, just when Chuvalo seemed to be coming on strong, Ali would recover with a flurry of punches in the final 30 seconds as if to put an exclamation point on the round – emphasizing that the Champ was still in charge, was the aggressor and had won the round. In a few rounds, Ali did seem to toy with Chuvalo but it was not egregious unsportsmanlike behaviour, and certainly not out of character for Ali. Some accounts of the fight allege that the heavy pounding Ali took to the body left the Champ sore and urinating blood for days afterward. But at the conclusion of the fight, the Champ showed no evidence that Chuvalo’s blows hurt him much. It was only in later years that Ali would attest to the heaviness of Chuvalo’s punches.
Chuvalo fought all the best fighters of his time between 1956 and 1978 … and lost to all the best fighters of his time: Zora Folley, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Muhammad Ali (2), Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, Buster Mathis, George Foreman, and Jimmy Ellis. Chuvalo did have his share of wins finishing with a record of 73 wins, 18 losses and 2 draws. His biggest victories were knockouts over American Jerry Quarry and Canadian Yvon Durelle.
Yvon Durelle? Funny that his name should come up. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about Yvon Durelle. Durelle was one of the great Canadian boxers with a lifetime record of 88 wins, 24 losses and 2 draws. Nicknamed ”the Fighting Fisherman” or more popularly “doux” which is French for “soft” or “gentle” by his Acadian friends, he was primarily a middleweight but often fought above his weight class in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions as he did when he fought George Chuvalo.
But it was Durelle’s light heavyweight championship fight against Archie Moore on December 10, 1958 in Montreal that really made history and solidified Durelle as one of the greats – even though he lost! He was an underdog going into the fight but he knocked the Champion, Moore, down three times in the first round. Current boxing rules would have ended the fight at that point and declared Durelle the winner. Durelle failed to go to a neutral corner after the first knockdown and lost valuable seconds before the count on Moore began. Moore struggled to his feet at the count of nine. Durelle knocked Moore down again in the fifth round but Moore held on, making one of the most incredible comebacks of all time, knocking Durelle out in the 11th round. Durelle lost but his gritty performance, and near victory, elevated him to near cult status in Canada.
I recall hearing a description of the fight. I am unsure as to whether I heard a live blow-by-blow broadcast or whether it was an abridged taped version. In any case, it was extremely thrilling and my nine-year-old sports brain soaked it up.
Years later, a documentary on Durelle’s life indicated that he owed thousands of dollars in back taxes, was almost penniless and running a bar in Baie-Ste-Anne, New Brunswick, where he was charged with murder after shooting a trouble-maker. Defended by Frank McKenna, a young lawyer who was to later become the Premier of New Brunswick, Durelle was found not guilty. But clearly there was a lot of trouble in his life.
My father, who often times could be quite acerbic not to mention opinionated, remarked that this is what happens to boxers. They are exploited in a business where unsavoury characters manage your career, live off your prowess and bilk you of your prize money. He further opined that Durelle was “punch drunk,” and wandering the streets with diminished mental capacity. There is no question that Durelle took many hard right hands, left hooks and jabs to the head over the course of his career. And, undoubtedly, he fought in many unsanctioned matches not counted in his official professional record – perhaps twice as many. But I am not so sure he was “punch drunk.” He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later in his life. But was it “caused” by boxing?
There is a condition called dementia pugilistica (DP), a variant of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or chronic boxer’s encephalopathy, traumatic boxer’s encephalopathy, boxer’s dementia, chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing (CTBI-B), and punch drunk syndrome. In short, it is a neurodegenerative disease affecting boxers, wrestlers and other athletes who suffer concussions.
However, the literature is less than clear as to whether there is a direct relationship between DP/CTE and Parkinson’s. There certainly is considerable speculation that boxing is a “cause” of Parkinson’s (or Parkinsonism) given that boxers such as Ali and Durelle were afflicted with Parkinson’s. But I have seen no conclusive evidence that indicates that boxers are over-represented in the population of persons with Parkinson’s.
I had never heard that phrase, ”punch drunk,” before my father used it. It conjured up an image of a rough and tough looking boxer with that signature nose, broken one too many times, lurching uncontrollably through the streets. Today, I sometimes think of that image as I lurch through stores, along crowded sidewalks, through door jams, up and down stairs, past any and all obstacles in my way, with all the grace of a drunken hippopotamus. I have Parkinson’s disease. I am not “punch drunk.” At least I don’t think that I am.
But let’s return to February 21, 1972 at the Winnipeg Arena. The fourth and final bout of the evening was a scheduled 12 rounder for the Canadian light heavyweight title featuring reigning champion and hometown favourite, Al Sparks. Sparks finished his somewhat short career with a record of 23 – 13 – 1 but held the Canadian light heavyweight title several times and had contended for the British Commonwealth light heavyweight title in 1969 losing on points to Bob Dunlop of Australia in 15 rounds.
Sparks’ opponent is Stewart Gray, a mediocre fighter who finished with a lifetime record of 14 – 14 – 2. Gray’s main claim to fame was as older brother of Clyde Gray, a three-time contender for the world welterweight crown and holder of the Canadian and British Commonwealth welterweight titles at various times. Clyde’s lifetime record was a more than respectable 69 – 10 – 1.
Both Gray and Sparks approached this bout in workmanlike fashion but only Sparks was able to make good solid contact in the early rounds as Gray did not seem to be able to adapt to the southpaw’s style. It was clear that Sparks had done some damage in the sixth round and Gray’s corner, including his brother Clyde, worked feverishly to get Gray into shape to meet the bell in the seventh. Gray walked to the centre of the ring but just stood there with his hands hanging loosely at his sides. He looked confused. I remember the whole thing looked confusing and I didn’t know what I was witnessing exactly as it was so out of context. With the crowd screaming, Sparks approached Gray to engage but seemed puzzled when Gray did not appear to be willing to defend himself. Sparks backed off. The referee, Steven Trojack, made no motion to end the bout, so Sparks moved in with a left hook that put Gray to the canvas and down for the count. Officially, the bout goes into the record books as a knockout for Sparks 24 seconds into the seventh round.
Gray does not recover consciousness in the ring and is taken away by paramedics. Even though he does regain consciousness briefly in hospital, Stewart Gray undergoes emergency surgery and, tragically, dies from head injuries the following day, February 22, 1972.
There is an unproven assertion that Gray had suffered a head injury in a truck accident in advance of the fight and this may have contributed to his death. An investigation into the fight revealed that Gray had not undergone an electroencephalogram that may have detected such an injury and prevented Gray from fighting. But there was no requirement to do so.
What an evening of boxing! It was comedy, then farce, then tragedy.
The first two bouts appeared to have been fixed with knockouts executed in almost comedic fashion. Surely, even the most naïve of boxing fans could not be fooled by these antics. The third bout smelled pretty rotten as well but it was more difficult for fans to accept that there was any shadiness or underhandedness as it was the great George Chuvalo attacking an inferior opponent who had little chance of laying a finger on him. Still, the manner in which the conquered combatant, Jim Christopher, hit the floor strained one’s credulity. Later, Christopher alleged that he was approached by a stranger prior to the fight with a threat that led him to throw the fight with Chuvalo in the second round. There is no evidence that Chuvalo had any knowledge of this development.
Let’s recap. Amazingly, eight fighters went into the ring that night and only Chuvalo and Sparks emerged to ever fight again. Jesse Fagin, Muhamed Kamerick, Sammy Poe, Nafiz Ahmed and Jim Christopher ended their careers on February 21,1972 in the Winnipeg Arena under a shrouds of personal ignominy. Stewart Gray was to die the following day, most likely as a result of injuries sustained in that fight. Al Sparks fought only three more times after the tragic Stewart Gray fight, losing two of them by split decision, before ending his 21 – year career (23 – 13 – 1) with a unanimous decision victory over mediocre George Jerome on November 4, 1977. George Chuvalo fought in only eight more bouts over the next six years, finishing with a TKO victory over the same mediocre George Jerome (13 – 15 – 2 lifetime) for the Canadian heavyweight title on December 11, 1978. Still, Chuvalo chalked up an impressive record of 73 – 18 – 2 over a 20-year career and a reputation as never having been knocked to the canvas even by some of the greatest fighters of his generation.
The Manitoba Boxing and Wrestling Commission issued suspensions to all participants on the card. However, the Commissioners all resigned when they were asked to lift the suspensions while the Manitoba government conducted a judicial inquiry. A new Commission was appointed and the suspensions were lifted on March 1, 1972 in time for Chuvalo to sign a contract to fight Muhammad Ali in the second of their two fights in May 1972. However, Fagin, Kamerick, Poe and Christopher would all have their licenses suspended again after further investigation.
It is a very sad commentary indeed that the death of Stewart Gray provides me with the only evidence that this entire night of boxing was not fixed, rigged, contrived, stacked, set up, framed, thrown, or willfully predetermined to defraud boxing fans of not only their money but their faith that the “sweet science” would determine a victor based on skill, abilities, conditioning and mental as well as physical toughness. The best I can say is that the Sparks vs Gray fight was not fixed. It ended in death. I don’t believe either fighter would have agreed to that outcome.
Boxing: The Little Boys
Grain elevators are probably the most photographed and painted icons of the prairies. Each town, village and hamlet had at least two. The community where I grew up had three. Ogilvie’s was farthest west on the track and was the oldest. At the eastern end was the Federal Grain elevator. It was the newest of the three and I can remember it being built within my lifetime. In between stood the United Grain Growers, often called the “UGG” or more colloquially to us kids, the “United Grain Grabbers.” These elevators had to be maintained and periodically crews would be sent to carry out necessary repairs and paint maintenance.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I recall a crew of young men arriving in town to carry out repairs at Ogilvie’s. They most often checked into the local hotel but on this occasion the crew bunked into the office of the elevator for their short stay. As usual, we children were nosing around to see if we could find any interesting “distraction” from the boredom of small town life. For example, on another occasion when the “new” highway was being built, we would go out to the worksite where the Euclid earthmover operators would allow us to sit in a makeshift seat behind their chairs and we would bask in dust and diesel fumes while they scraped the earth from fields and ditches and deposited it to make the road bed. I am certain that our parents were none too pleased and it contravened every health and safety code I am sure, but we loved to do these things and, as children, we really didn’t know better. What an education I had as a child! And, I hasten to add; we were fortunate that no one was hurt!
I am not sure what we expected when we approached the elevator crew at Ogilvie’s early that summer evening. The men on the crew were young, physically fit and had energy to engage in sports after their workday was done. One young lad had two pairs of boxing gloves. I don’t remember what weight or brand they were but they seemed huge, bulky and strange, rendering our thumbs immobile. I was not the youngest present but I was not the oldest either. One of the crew suggested that we should go a few rounds with gloves on, for fun.
We were paired up roughly according to age and size. I was fairly tall and big for my age so I was paired against a boy who was not only older but who was more muscular from working on his parent’s farm. I confess that I was a little flabby, being a town kid and all. The younger boys were anxious to try out the gloves and they were slotted into hastily constructed preliminary bouts. They were, however, long on enthusiasm and short on boxing technique, prowess and style. They came together in the middle of the office floor (all desks and chairs had been pushed to the sides) and immediately began wind milling wildly, whaling on each other with such a flurry and fury that it bore no resemblance to the “sweet science“ of boxing. It was more akin to setting two demented monkeys loose to scream and fight for the last banana. Each match was over within seconds as the victor overpowered the loser through the sheer volume of wildly directed blows landing anywhere and everywhere.
When it came time for the featured main event, me against Ron, both anticipation and expectation ran high that this fight would be worth the price of admission which in this case was … well … nothing … but pride and natural male competitiveness do carry some value. There was no question that each of us would give it our best shot to win. One of the crew members became my handler and worked to lace my hands into the gloves in my “corner” on the far side of the door – giving me advice on boxing technique and strategy as he did so. One of the other young lads was doing the same for Ron in his ”corner” over near the far end of the windows. Each of us had seen some boxing on TV (actually on Orville’s TV as he had the only TV in the community) so we had some notion of the basic premise. The third member of the crew was the official judge and referee.
Gloves laced up and wiped clean, we danced in our corners as introductions were made. I was “Big Red” and Ron was “The Fighting Farmer.” We came together with the referee in the centre of the ring, received official instructions, touched gloves and the fight was on! In the first round we circled each other cautiously, tendering exploratory jabs along with a phantom feint or two. One of the crewmembers commented, “Now this is more like it” giving each of us a little more incentive to deliver a good fight. Neither of us landed any blows that were clear hits and the opening round likely would have been scored as even.
The second round began with each of us being a little more aggressive. Neither of us had great technique but we were able to fend off some fairly dangerous right crosses and left hooks. I think Ron was a little more aggressive than I was in this round and a judge likely would have scored it in his favour. Surprisingly, we were each growing a little weary at this point as neither of us was used to dancing and moving for any extended period of time. It is beyond me how the early bare-knuckle boxers used to go 70 or 80 rounds before finally knocking out their opponent, or succumbing to his blows.
Round three of the scheduled three rounder began. I recall seeing the punch coming but I didn’t expect the end result as Ron hit me with a straight right hand squarely on the chin and sent me flying back towards the door where I stumbled on the doorstep and slipped to one knee. Immediately, the referee jumped in and the fight was over. Ron was declared the winner by TKO at about 20 seconds of the third round. I, of course, like every fighter who has been knocked off his feet, protested that I could go on, and firmly believe to this day, that had I been allowed to continue, I would have vanquished my opponent. Nevertheless, the referee called the fight and my lifetime boxing record was established at 0 – 1 – 0 albeit in a non-sanctioned bout. I was never to lace up the gloves again.
At the time, I took some solace in the fact that I did give a decent account of myself against an older boy who had a clear physical advantage. And, of course, I knew that most other great fighters had lost at least one fight in their careers. Only the great Rocky Marciano went undefeated in the heavyweight division – a perfect 49 – 0 – 0. And I knew I was not the only fighter in town to have a winless record.
As I indicated earlier, the generations prior to mine engaged more formally in boxing as a sport with organized cards for adult “professionals” and school age amateurs alike in many communities, large and small. Now, there were two old geezers in my town, neighbours, who didn’t particularly get along. Names and some details are disguised in this account as rivalries and feuds often remain long in the ground of small communities, like anthrax waiting to infect another generation. I don’t want to be responsible for precipitating a renewed outbreak of hostilities between the families and, more importantly, I don’t want to be caught in any crossfire or become a common enemy upon whom they turn new found wrath. So, let’s call them Y and Ynot.
Y has somewhat effete mannerisms and no one would ever label him as being a man’s man. He worked all his life in an office environment and puttered about his yard, gardening with a delicate touch. When he goes about his business he fusses around a lot before actually getting down to business. Y has a son named Y2 who fancies himself to be a bit of boxer – likely because other children his age are merciless in their teasing about his father. However, Y2 is a string bean and not a very good boxer and I don’t believe he ever recorded a single win.
Ynot is, on the other hand, a self-styled man’s man – a successful farmer who retired to town in order that his son Ynot2 could take over the farm operation. He purchased a lot close to Y and built a new house. Y was not very happy to have a new neighbour and took every opportunity to complain about Ynot’s house and property. There developed a kind of mean low level bickering feud between the two men.
My friends and I were often hired by Ynot to do yardwork or other odd jobs and on those occasions Ynot never missed an opportunity to badmouth Y or any member of Y’s family. In fact, Ynot often cast aspersions on Y’s manhood by saying such things as, “Y only has one ball, ya’ know” or “Y was hiding behind the door when God handed out balls and he only got a leftover deformed ball.” Ynot laughed at Y and made fun of everything that Y did, often mimicking his mannerisms such as the way that Y always dusted off his chair with his handkerchief and placed the hanky delicately upon the seat before sitting just as delicately upon it; or the way Y drove his car without ever looking to the left or the right, or even behind when he backed out of his drive. Admittedly, it was rather frightening to observe Y behind the wheel. In the winter, we children would “bumper shine” or hang onto the bumpers of cars and slide along the snow and ice packed streets, letting go only when the car attained a speed that was too fast for us, or when it turned a corner and we were thrown into the ditch by centrifugal force. This “sport” was decidedly unsafe and I discourage anyone from doing it today. In fact, it was doubly unsafe when Y was driving because the weight of two or three of us bumper shining would cause Y’s car to slow or perhaps spin its tires, stopped on the snow and ice. If the car were close to stopped, Y would quickly hit the clutch and pop the car into reverse, backing up in search of greater traction. I am not sure if Y knew we were hanging on to his bumper and he just didn’t care if he ran over us, or if he was oblivious to our game. All of this just reinforced our perception that Y was not all there and that Ynot’s assertions held some truth.
The boxing story, as I heard it, happened one day in a neighboring community where Y2 was one of the combatants on an organized card. Y decided to attend to cheer on his son. Y arrives at the venue, finds a seat and spends considerable time with his back to the ring, preparing and dusting off both his seat and adjacent seats and then draws a second handkerchief from under his hat to be placed such that his ever broadening derriere can descend upon it, protected from any dust or irritants. But before his backside hits the cloth, there is a great roar from the crowd almost simultaneously with a thudding sound from the ring behind him. Y turns to see Y2 laying flat on his back on the canvas, knocked out cold by his opponent. Y2’s boxing career is over and Y never does see him box. Ynot dines out on this story for years, satisfied that neither Y nor Y2 belong to his club of “real men”.
As I reflect upon this series of events, I am not convinced that men have advanced much past this infantile behaviour. For many years, I thought this story was funny. But throughout those years it was rolling around in my head in ephemeral form and it is now being committed to paper with words that ensure its survival over time, in a form that is not malleable or easily changeable – and now upon re-reading it, I think it is just a sad commentary on human social relations. … Or maybe it is a little bit funny?
Boxing and Parkinson’s
As I mentioned at the outset, the obvious connection between boxing and Parkinson’s disease is through Muhammad Ali. And we discovered that Yvon Durelle, thought to be “punch drunk,” was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before he passed away on January 6, 2007. If we dig further we find that others in the boxing community also had or have Parkinson’s disease. Frederick “Freddie” Roach is a boxing trainer and a former professional boxer. Diagnosed in 2010 he owns the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles where his client list includes Amir Khan, Manny Pacquiao, Mark Wahlberg, and Georges St. Pierre.
It is becoming more and more evident that exercise and physical fitness are incredibly important to those of us who have Parkinson’s. Living with Parkinson’s means training the body and mind to overcome the barriers that Parkinson’s presents. Strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, concentration, cognition and confidence are all necessary if we are to delay the progress of this disease that robs us of natural abilities we take for granted e.g., walking in a straight line without staggering or falling; turning over in bed (yes, believe it;) or being able to play a musical instrument or ride a bicycle even though you suffer from the stereotypical tremor that haunts most PwP.
It is likely that physical fitness and mental toughness have enabled Muhammad Ali to look Parkinson’s squarely in the eye for all these years. Boxing, ballet, dance of all types, Pilates, cycling, walking, swimming, physical fitness programs, physiotherapy, balance and strength programs, etc. combined with additional cognitive exercises have given many PwP a new lease on life. I personaly find the LSVT BIG program to my liking. We train our bodies and our minds to develop new routines and neurological pathways, and reinforce old ones. So what if I have to relearn most of the choreography each time. It actually becomes easier to relearn it each time. So what if I will never be able to balance on one foot for 60 seconds without holding onto something. But I will, most likely, be able to recover if my balance does waver without falling completely over. So what if I quiver and shake when I am waiting to engage in an activity. Once the activity begins, I am engaged and the Parkinson’s slips to the background providing me with that much sought after feeling of freedom when one is in control of one’s own body. Will this last forever? Not likely. Parkinson’s is, in the end, a most cruel and unforgiving disease. But one thing I know for sure, I want that feeling of freedom and independence to last for as long as I can possibly make it last. And I want to enjoy the ride!
Boxing is one of those sports that keeps PwP moving physically and alert mentally. These folks will never enter a boxing ring to fight a round in earnest but they will find great psychological fulfillment and motivation in imagining that their punches are pummeling Parkinson’s into submission. “Punching Out Parkinson’s” is the rallying cry at Paulie Ayala’s boxing classes at a gym in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Ayala, a former bantamweight and featherweight world champion, trains 50 PwP from six neurologists during three classes a day, twice a week. Similarly, the Cummings Centre in Montreal provides boxing instruction for PwP as do the PD Gladiators with retired boxer Paul Delgado near Sandy Springs, Georgia. Boxing clubs such as the Rock Steady Boxing Club (Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s) have sprung up across North America catering to both early onset and mature onset Parkinson’s clients.
I have never participated in any formal boxing lessons but I do know that when I take a turn at the speed bag at my physiotherapy clinic, it is great fun, a very vigorous workout, and is enormously cathartic. We need avenues to release the stress and frustrations of Parkinson’s and boxing fits that bill perfectly, and at the same time it enables our bodies and brains to maintain and regenerate neurological pathways.
In a previous post, “In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ali, Michael J. and Me” (see archives December 2013) I fantasize about what it would be like if Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox were to visit me in the garden. Ali, tall and imposing, would be bobbing and weaving between the Jerusalem Artichoke and Joe Pye Weed, occasionally resorting to rope-a-dope tactics along the fence line, the crowd roaring. Michael J. would be riffing on the guitar at the front of the border, crowd roaring.
Yes, these are fantasies and not hallucinations, and they are essential to my mental well being – every bit as much as hammering the heavy bag or matching the rhythm of the speed bag or bobbing and weaving like a butterfly in a valiant attempt to strike the fatal stinging blow to the greatest of our opponents, Parkinson’s disease.
So how do I conclude this meander through my memory banks? I will resist the temptation to reiterate the obvious connections between boxing and Parkinson’s. Instead, based on the facts inscribed on the pages above, and if we accept that life is marked by a certain amount of confusion and disorder infused with measures of comedy and tragedy rendering it close to farce at times, and if we accept that sometimes heroic physical and mental toughness is critical to life, what I want to say can be summed up as follows:
- Life is often messy.
- Boxing can be messy.
- Gardens are never messy.
- Parkinson’s disease is always messy.
- Messiness can be obviated … mostly.
If you have made it this far, treat yourself – exercise your body and your mind. Fight messiness.