Boxing is a sport that adds years to lives without extending them, that both glosses over and emphasizes the fact that getting punched in the head is bad for you. Admittedly, the study of brain trauma is a new and underdeveloped field, and it is still unclear whether the majority of the cognitive deficits that are associated with blunt head blows result from the physical trauma itself, or the brain responding to this trauma. Those deficits, however, are undeniable—even obvious—in boxing. Boxing can chuck a man out of his prime like a bouncer, dumping him on the curb, where balance, coordination, cognition and speech get lost in the gathering crowd. This is what is happening when a fighter gets old before our eyes. This is the ugly side of growing old in a bloodsport—the side that counts in dog years, that places asterisks next to ages and question marks on futures.
In some cases this drastic deterioration seems to happen overnight. Davey Moore was never the same after suffering eight rounds with Roberto Duran. Half blind from a swollen eye, Moore was beaten so savagely that his wife and mother reportedly passed out ringside. He lost four of his next ten fights before his premature death at age 28. At 27, Riddick Bowe was still kicking around the dilapidated outskirts of his prime when he was castrated by Andrew Golota. By the time Golota’s urge to self-sabotage got the best of him, he had scrambled Bowe permanently. Did these men get old overnight? No, there were other factors at play, especially with Bowe, whose appetite was rivaled by his ability to eat leather. But with both Moore and Bowe, a particularly violent fight seemed to push them beyond the threshold of recovery.
Have Tim Bradley and Manny Pacquiao also crossed that threshold? The June 2012 fight between the two—which Bradley won by disputed decision—was anything but savage. In fact, the dearth of telling blows was part of what made some rounds so hard to score. Bradley’s ankles fared worse than his face, and Pacquiao had nary a scratch on him. But in their next fights, both Bradley and Pacquiao would drive crowds into a frenzy the way only fighters can: by giving and taking a pounding.
Pacquiao ascended the gallows when he met suspiciously new-and-improved nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez for a fourth time last December. Marquez, who in thirty-eight prior rounds was unable to drop Pacquiao, scored a knockdown in the third before icing Pacquiao with a single right hand in the sixth. Several emotions follow such a chilling scene. How can one celebrate the sight of another person stretched lifelessly on the canvas? How can you not, knowing the Herculean feat required to plant him there? Pacquiao, wearing his infectious smile, walked out of the ring in Las Vegas that night, but the burning question is: Did any of him remain, like a chalk outline, on the MGM Grand canvas? And if so, how much was left behind?
The answers to these questions could be disturbing, especially considering Brandon Rios will be the first to ask them when he faces Pacquiao in Macao on November 23rd. Most comfortable in a rumble, Rios fights guided by the principle that if his opponent can touch him, then that opponent can be touched. Not a huge puncher, Rios has bruising, lingering power, the kind that pulverizes, and he has the chin to see the wrecking through. He will be gunning for Pacquiao from the opening bell, looking to smother not only Pacquiao’s offense, but his self-belief.
If the dervish that fought Marquez in December remains, Rios should prove too hittable, too stationary for a dynamo like Pacquiao. But if Pacquiao gave up some of his ghost when Marquez planked him, then Rios, a sturdy, unrelenting banger could give Pacquiao a painful bout of déjà vu. Just what Pacquiao has left is perhaps the most intriguing variable heading into Pacquiao-Rios.
Unlike Pacquiao, Tim Bradley heard the final bell in his last fight, though it may have been lost in the cacophonous ringing in his ears. After the fallout over his win against Pacquiao, Bradley went into the ring against Ruslan Provodnikov looking for catharsis. He got it, giving an extraordinary performance in winning a narrow decision. But he paid a frightening price. Going toe-to-toe against the heavy-handed Provodnikov, Bradley was out on his feet early in the fight, took his share of punishment in the middle rounds, and was dropped in the twelfth. Here is Bradley speaking about the experience on HBO’s “Faceoff: Bradley-Marquez”: “Went to the hospital that night, had a concussion. You know, a few weeks after the fight I was still affected by the damage that was done.” Just how was he affected, you ask? Bradley continues, “My speech was a little bit off, and you know, was slurring a little bit. After two months I get my speech back, and got my wits about me now.” Here the ugly side of aging in boxing rears its head again. But Bradley has no illusions about the reality of prizefighting. “Boxing is the hurt business,” he tells host Max Kellerman, “and I’ll deal with the consequences later.”
Is there a chance those consequences manifest sooner than Bradley expects? Perhaps on October 12th, when he faces Juan Manuel Marquez from the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas? If there is a fighter who will capitalize on any slippage, it is Marquez, whose counterpunching prowess is legendary. In brawling with Provodnikov, Bradley silenced his critics and, hopefully, learned a valuable lesson about his identity as a fighter: namely, that recklessness is his undoing. The question is whether Bradley, he of the two months of slurred speech, will ever be the same. Like Pacquiao, Bradley’s deterioration figures to determine his future. If he remains a quick, strong, and indefatigable fighter, he will give Marquez hell. But if his neurological stitching has come loose, Marquez will unravel him. In the hurt business there are no higher stakes.
It is because of what they have given audiences that Pacquiao and Bradley have such serious questions looming over their return. There is an element of conflicted complicity that gives these questions their gravity: we want both men to live long, healthy lives, and yet we want them to once more deliver the type of violent spectacle that prompts those uncomfortable questions. In this sense, the consequences Bradley speaks of are ours as well. This too, is a reality of the hurt business.