I was too close.
My press credentials got me ringside. In among the celebrities. Close enough to chat with George Segal, who was smoking a long Nicaraguan cigar. Close enough that it was tough not to stare at Dustin Hoffman’s beautiful companion.
Close enough to dodge the drops of sweat and blood flying off Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor during what some ringside boxing experts called the hardest hitting boxing match they had ever seen.
Refrains of “Arguello! Arrrrgueeeelloooo!” cascaded down from the $20 seats. Despite the howling crowd, I could still hear that thump. It was like someone striking a melon when Pryor’s fist smashed into Arguello’s head.
It sounded like brain damage.
Before that November night in 1982, I had been a fight fan and would often buy tickets to watch closed circuit broadcasts of championship fights on murky big screens at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium or at one of South Florida's jai-alai frontons.
Being down front at the Arguello-Pryor fight, staged in the Orange Bowl, cured me of that. Ring Magazine called those savage 14 rounds the “fight of the decade.” Maybe it was. For me, it was the fight that ended an era. So close to the violence, I couldn’t escape the notion that these two exceptional athletes were sustaining neurological damage just to entertain me and 24,000 screaming fans.
Plenty of science has come along since to support that gut feeling. A study by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in 2009 found that 90 percent of boxers suffer some sort of brain injury, with varying degrees of speech difficulty, unsteadiness, memory loss and inappropriate behavior. Up to 40 percent suffer symptoms of chronic brain injury.
The Journal of Combative Sport counted 488 boxing-related deaths from 1960 to 2011, most from head, brain or neck injuries. An Italian study in 2005 found that 49 percent of amateur boxers suffered eye damage.
We also have dismal anecdotal evidence. Joe Louis suffered dementia symptoms late in life. Sugar Ray Robinson, who exchanged blows in 1,403 rounds in his boxing career, developed Alzheimer’s disease. Jerry Quarry, the heavyweight contender who fought Muhammad Ali twice, died at the age of 53 from dementia pugilistica, the same brain disease that killed his brother Mike, a light heavyweight, at 55. And, of course, we’ve all watched the decline of Ali from his own neurological disorder.
Nobody, at least nobody in the $500 seats that night in the Orange Bowl, needed a medical inquiry to know that those boxers were risking serious damage. You heard the melon thump. You knew.
By 1982, hardly anyone with means or some notion of parental responsibility would encourage their child to get his brains scrambled in a boxing ring. Lately, I’ve been wondering if football, with its own growing legacy of permanent brain injuries, might become another spectator sport we relegate to the children of the poor.
South Florida reconsidered the consequences of football brain injuries this week when Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino added his name to a concussion lawsuit against the National Football League. A day later, Marino withdrew his name but not because his allegations weren’t valid.
Marino’s withdrawal still left about 4,500 other former players (or their survivors) still interested in suing the NFL for ignoring head injury risks. Meanwhile, the league has had to contend with horror stories about former players suffering dementia, depression, irrational bursts of temper, memory loss and suicidal impulses and other symptoms of neurological problems. The tragic mental deterioration of Mike Webster and one-time Dolphin Junior Seau have given all-pro faces to the long-term consequences of concussions.
Other studies have found that the concussion risks in high school and younger leagues are even more acute. Parents are beginning to notice.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this year found that 40 percent of Americans would rather their own children didn't play the nation’s favorite sport. From 2010 to 2012, participation in the country’s biggest youth football program fell by 9.5 percent.
Some of that surely stems from a growing parental awareness of the alarming medical studies about the lasting effects of football head injuries.
But I wonder if a certain discomfort with the sport might have to do with new technology. Nowadays, we watch replay after replay of horrific leg injuries and head-wrenching collisions on 50-and-60-inch high definition televisions. Sideline microphones capture the sounds of bodies colliding at full speed, and we hear the impacts on multi-speaker surround-sound home entertainment systems. We now see and hear the violence with the clarity never so obvious on those old cathode ray tube TVs or watching live from high up in the stadium.
With the new technology the physical and neurological damage feels nearly intimate. Maybe too intimate. It’s like that night in the Orange Bowl, ringside, where the celebrities sat. The violence becomes impossible to ignore. It’s too close.