Not too long ago, I walked into a gym here in San Diego. It wasn’t a regular gym, filled with bros flexing in the mirror. No, this was an MMA gym, populated by people smashing into bags, focus mitts and, in the ring just to the right of the entrance, each other. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of being there, but I did know one thing: I wanted to learn how to box.
It all started when I was running a few days before and found myself sorting out my schedule, working through various problems and just generally engaging my default-mode network. In other words, I wasn’t engaged. It makes sense in retrospect: I’ve been running since I was 15, and at this point it’s an automatic process. My form isn’t a concern, nor is my breathing. It’s just something I do now, another piece of my daily routine like eating or putting on a pair of pants.
While I do still enjoy running, I knew that there had to be a more cerebral way to exercise than mindlessly moving my legs back and forth for a few miles. It had become a relaxing activity, free from any kind of concrete feedback or conscious input.
Boxing was something that, from an outside perspective, checked all of those boxes: physically demanding, mentally challenging and filled with feedback. Becoming complacent during a boxing match would have serious consequences, including getting knocked out.
At the time, I also thought that it might be a useful martial art. Although I don’t think that martial arts in general are well-geared towards self-defense (more on that later), knowing how to throw and avoid punches could potentially come in handy in a small number of situations. The conditioning fighters put themselves through can act as a great blueprint for overall fitness as well.
My boxing knowledge before walking into the gym was floating somewhere near zero. I did know who Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were, but that was about the extent of what I knew about the sport. To illustrate how green I was when I first showed up, I’ll share with you the rough outline of a conversation I had with the owner when I first came in:
Owner: You’re going to need some gloves and wraps for your first class. You can buy or borrow gloves, but you’ll need to buy wraps.
Me: What are wraps?
Owner: (blank stare)…They protect your hands.
Note: if you’ve never boxed or cared about boxing before, wraps are tape/cloth/whatever that is wrapped around the hands before putting on gloves in order to stabilize the wrist and protect the knuckles. Their job is to help you avoid hand and wrist injuries. They look like this:
My first class was mostly a series of incorrect, rigid movements while the instructor patiently walked me through why everything I was doing was wrong. It was challenging, visceral and slightly embarassing. I was hooked almost immediately and bought my first pair of gloves and a set of wraps the very next day. I’ve been going to the gym regularly ever since.
Everyone who knows me was shocked that I started down this path. It was especially odd to the people closest to me, who understand how much I care about keeping my brain in top shape. All I can say in response is that I didn’t have a clear idea about “why” (aside from a change in my exercise routine) until after I’d already started.
But I’m not here to walk you through my progress as a boxer. That’s not particularly interesting and frankly I think it would be a waste of your time. What will not be a waste of your time is what I’ve conceptually pulled out of the whole experience, as I think it’s relevant to anyone who likes to explore their own physical and mental boundaries. It’s also highly relevant to you if you care about the physical health of your brain.
The results of this experience have been profound, and it even opened up a new area of neuroscience research that I was only vaguely aware of. It’s completely altered how I view confrontation, cultural norms about violence and the role of contact sports in American culture. None of these were expected side effects of boxing. I just wanted a new workout routine.
Physical and Mental Challenges
Boxing doesn’t look like a difficult sport to the casual observer. As one co-worker expressed to me many years ago, quite a few people see it as “a couple of idiots hitting each other.” While there is some truth to this description (it does revolve around two people hitting each other), the idea that it’s a sport for morons doesn’t match with the realities of the sport.
The easy part about boxing is punching. There aren’t that many punches, and learning each one in ideal circumstances doesn’t take very long. You can stand in front of a bag with even a half-competent boxer and figure out how to correctly throw jabs, uppercuts and hooks without expending too much cognitive horsepower.
Where boxing starts to get interesting is all the little nuances that, while related to punching, aren’t directly about punching at all. For example, when you’re throwing a cross, you need to be aware of the fact that one side of your face is wide open, and that throwing a cross (which is thrown from your dominant hand and is closer to your face) takes more time to reach its target. So when you throw that punch, you need to consider what your vulnerabilities are (open face), how your opponent might react to said vulnerabilities (in this case, probably throw a left hook), and figure out how to reduce your own risk as much as possible.
In other words, you need to know how to hit and not get hit. Let’s take it even further. Consider that you’ve accounted for all that information, but you have poor footwork and you lean too far forward when you throw said cross. Now you’re in trouble, because you’re too close to your target to maximize the power of any follow-on punches you want to deliver (since you need to extend your arm completely to deliver maximum power) and you’ll need to regain your balance before you can effectively get out of the way of any counters that your opponent throws at you. If the other person really knows their shit, they’ll figure out that you’re off balance and do something like hit you in the body specifically to make your balance problem even worse (making you an easier target).
If you want to see how an expert operates in the ring, watch the movement of Canelo Alvarez (on the left). He maneuvers away from Miguel Cotto’s right cross, sees Cotto’s exposed face, counters with an uppercut and then duck’s Cotto’s counter left hook. This is slowed down - it actually happened in the blink of an eye. (Source)
As you can see, one small mistake - leaning a little too far forward while throwing a punch - can lead to a chain reaction that ends with you on the mat. It’s also worth noting that psychological reactions to impact are very important as well. If the other guy is getting frustrated or shows noticeable discomfort every time you hit him or he misses, you know you’re dealing with someone you can toy with. Showing weakness in the ring is a gigantic mistake (unless it’s designed to lure an opponent in, of course).
Another example is the way that fighters engage in sophisticated pattern-finding behavior. Boxing is very much about probing your opponent for weaknesses, which takes a variety of forms. Usually this means throwing punches and carefully observing how the other person reacts to each one. If you throw a jab, how often does he dip to one side? Does he duck under your hooks? Should you expect him to lead with jabs whenever he sets up a combo? You need to be not only watching the patterns of the other person in the ring, but also be conscious of the patterns that you’re exhibiting as well. Once you become predictable in the ring, you’re toast.
It’s clear that there’s a lot to think about, and it’s difficult to do even when you’re completely fresh. What makes things exponentially difficult is doing all of this when you’re tired. And trust me, after a few rounds, you will be tired. Practicing while tired is, in many ways, a skill set unto itself. You could be a less skilled boxer than the other guy in the ring, but if he starts to lose his composure after reaching a certain level of fatigue and you don’t, you have the upper hand.
Tying into the previous point is the concept of energy conservation. Everything a boxer does in the ring is designed to maximize damage while conserving energy whenever possible. Each movement, whether it’s a punch, a slip or a change of angle, should be done only to the level the boxer absolutely needs it to be. That’s why you’ll often see boxers lean into each other - they’re conserving their own energy while forcing the other guy to expend his in getting him into range for an effective punch. Another example is Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope a dope” strategy, in which he would purposefully sit on the ropes of the ring and allow the other guy to punch away all of his energy. When he sensed that the other person’s gas tank was empty, he’d take advantage of the “rest” he’d just taken on the ropes and unleash a flurry on his now vulnerable opponent.
I could go on and on about all the subtle nuances about boxing that make it difficult, but hopefully my explanations up to this point have done the trick well enough. Yes, it is two people hitting each other, but it’s much more than that.
One thing that I do find disturbing about the boxing gym is that there are some people who go in specifically to feel like a tough guy (and yes, it’s been, in my experience, exclusively men who do this). They can be seen by their insistence on throwing nothing but haymakers (waste of energy), their shitty attitude (mental weakness) and complete lack of technique. They’re not even interested in learning how to box correctly, they’re just looking for ways to satisfy their desire to hurt other people.
Fortunately, guys like this don’t (in my short, anecdotal experience) last very long. But their presence does demonstrate a need to explore how combat sports like boxing relate to self-defense and real-life violence in general.
First, it’s important to understand that a boxing match isn’t that similar to a real fight. This is something I have a decent amount of personal experience with: in my younger (and stupider) days, I got into quite a few street fights. While knowing how to throw and avoid punches might have helped me in one or two of those situations, I think that boxing skills would mostly have been worthless. Why? Because real-life violence is chaotic and free of constraints, while boxing is a fair, rule-driven competition.
This is how most people who haven’t experienced violence think it happens… (Source)
An example of real-life violence that I personally experienced was on my 18th birthday. A friend and I had been out in the woods drinking and, after getting a phone call from a mutual friend, decided to head out to a party. We got there and it was a standard party for the most part. Underage kids drinking, shooting the shit and trying to hook up with girls. I was standing next to the front door, having a conversation with someone when BAM! the front door, without warning, collapsed onto me.
Someone had kicked the door in with what I can only guess was a Liu Kang-level flying kick and a group of low-life wannabe gangbangers rushed through the doorway. Even though I had no idea what was going on, I did see someone coming towards me, so I stepped forward and punched him in the face. This stunned him and, seeing that I was larger than him, he decided to dart off to bother someone else. Meanwhile, his pals were discovering how much of a mistake they’d made and were getting completely annihilated by some other partygoers. Fortunately, the losers saw they stood no chance of winning the battle and scrambled out. The whole thing was over in about a minute.
It was, from my perspective at least, completely random. There was some kind of “beef” going on between the people already at the party and the guys who kicked the door down onto my head, but I had zero knowledge of that at the time (and still don’t). Instead, I found myself caught up in a violent episode where there wasn’t any kind of warning and I had to defend myself without any chance for preparation. The fact that I just punched the guy coming towards me and then we both stopped is indicative of a pretty standard response to such situations (freezing up). Even though I did satisfy my goal of not getting injured by an attacker, I had no idea how he would have reacted. If he had been more aggressive or on drugs, he would have had an opening to take the fight to me and put me on the defensive.
This is typical when it comes to real violence. It’s usually initiated in such a way that the aggressor either already has the advantage, or can gain it quickly. There’s generally some level of shock and surprise from whoever is on the defensive. If the intruders had been half-way intelligent, armed, more aggressive or at least decent at fist fighting, it could have gotten much uglier. I was lucky that it was just a bunch of kids who didn’t have the slightest clue what they were doing.
At another party I attended in Chico a couple of years later, I witnessed (but by then had developed enough awareness to stay out of) a similar, but much nastier, scenario play out. Once again, I was at a party where there were tensions brewing between groups that I had no knowledge of, and it resulted in one of the groups showing up to make a statement. Unfortunately for the people throwing the party I was in, the aggressor group was a pack of human rhinos - in other words, a bunch of huge, angry dudes (they all looked to be at least six feet tall and 220 pounds). They flew into the party and started completely demolishing every guy they came across.
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The sound of the herd storming through the door and then delivering haymakers to faces left and right was beyond disturbing. In this case, my friends and I were lucky because we were in the back of the house and were far away enough from the action that the rhinos didn’t notice us. One of my friends (who happened to be the smallest of our group) was drunk and decided to start walking towards the massacre. He hadn’t been in many fights but was the kind of drunk who grew an inordinate amount of confidence whenever alcohol was in his system. Another friend and I grabbed him right as he reached the periphery and saved him from his imminent destruction. Once again, the whole episode was over very quickly (the rhinos left after every offending member of the rival group had been taken out), although this time there were casualties left on the ground.
…And this is what real violence often looks like. Nothing fair about that fight. (Source)
There are some patterns here that are worth thinking about. First, violence happens in places where young men gather. Young men are responsible for the vast majority of violence the world over, and the more time you spend around them the more likely you are to encounter violent situations. Second, violence generally comes about in unexpected ways that will thwart any efforts you’ve made to prepare for it. It’s very difficult to snap out of that surprise and shock you get you see violence coming towards you, and it’s often within that extremely small time frame that you must react or you will end up getting hurt. Third, there aren’t any rules in real violence. It might seem cowardly and unethical to surprise an enemy and beat the shit out of them before they have a chance to fight back, but that’s how most attackers operate. Even if you do successfully fight back, you have no idea if they have a gun or other weapon on their person that could put them back in control.
A boxing match, on the other hand, is comparatively ordered. It’s a well-coordinated, fair fight with a well-defined set of rules that both fighters are expected to follow. While there’s slightly more relevance to real-life violence in mixed martial arts (which allows kicking and grappling in addition to punches), any combat sport is going to restrict the conduct of its participants in such a way that there’s not much comparison to how real violence happens.
So how should you train for self-defense? The answer is that your best defense is going to be made up of two different components: situational awareness and Run-Fu.
Situational awareness means that you don’t put yourself in a position to be a victim whenever possible. My single biggest mistake in both of the above stories (and many others) is that I chose to be somewhere where violence was likely. Hanging out with a bunch of drunk young men is asking for trouble, especially if you hang out with the sort of crowds I was involved with on a regular basis. In a more general sense, it also means don’t do things like walk down a dark alley by yourself in the middle of the night. Don’t pull your smartphone or wallet out in a shady neighborhood. Keep your eyes open for anyone who’s eyeballing you suspiciously and get away from them if you can. Overall, just keep potential vulnerabilities in mind at all times.
Run-Fu is your next best option. It’s a very simple martial art that involves moving one foot after the other rapidly. Put distance between yourself and whatever trouble you find. If someone pulls a gun or a knife on you, your best chance of survival is not to try some crazy disarm tactic you learned in your Krav Maga class, it’s to turn and run as fast as you possibly can. This is especially true if someone pulls a gun on you, as the likelihood of someone hitting a moving target (especially if they’re hyped up and/or on drugs) is very small. Your chances of disarming them without getting yourself seriously hurt or killed, on the other hand, are also very small.
If you absolutely must fight - which should not be the case for the majority of situations - then you need to consider the legal consequences of your actions. What the tough guy douchebags that show up at the gym don’t understand is that, legally speaking, you can’t claim self-defense just because someone insulted you. If somebody calls you a name and doesn’t directly threaten you, then any attack you initiate will be viewed as an assault - a felony that you could do real time for. Even if you are justified in using force to protect yourself (again, this is a rare situation) then you need to use the minimum force necessary to defuse the situation. So if you somehow get cornered into fighting and knock your attacker down, you need to turn and run right there. If you decide to instead stomp his head in and give him permanent brain damage, you have become the criminal.
The only real self-defense benefits that come from training in a combat sport like boxing are fitness and escape routes. If you train properly, you will be in excellent shape and your Run-Fu will be equally top-notch. This means you can more easily slip out of bad spots before they even begin. Likewise, if you know how to throw a punch correctly and you can’t find a way out, you can use that training to stun (or even knock out) an attacker and give yourself an escape route. Any punches thrown should be done purely to give yourself a chance to get away from the situation, not to stand and exchange blows for the sake of masculinity.
This is a topic that every person who’s ever trained in a combat sport (or is considering training in one) needs to consider. If you want to get in better shape, compete and/or have some absolute last-resort skills in your back pocket, then you’re on the right track. If you’re doing it so you can be a bad ass out on the street, then you’re a damn fool and you’ll probably end up dead, severely injured or in prison.
I highly recommend you check out Rory Miller’s work, particularly Meditations on Violence. He goes into much greater detail on all of these issues and offers some valuable wisdom from hard-won experience with violence. His thoughts about “the Monkey Dance” and how it relates to social hierachies and dominance amongst males is especially valuable to young men. Marc “Animal” MacYoung is another great resource who is worth listening to on this topic, especially when it comes to martial arts training and how it relates to the real world.
Impacts to the Head
What really caught me off guard about my whole boxing experience was the way it lead me to the topic of traumatic brain injury. While I’d heard little bits and pieces about concussions through the years - particularly when I was playing football - it was a topic that I was decidedly ignorant about. As I started to gradually improve, I thought more and more about sparring, and maybe even competing. Given how much I enjoyed training, I thought it would be the ultimate rush to stand in the ring and trade blows with an actual opponent.
Like most people, I thought that the real risk came from full-blown concussions. It’s obvious to nearly everybody that getting knocked out is not good for your brain, and we like to believe that it’s only when we reach that threshold that brain damage occurs. This is a line of thinking that I heard several times in the early stages of my training and it’s a common refrain in basically every impact sport. For example, I watched a documentary about Muhammad Ali not too long ago where the narrator stated that many people believed his fall into Parkinson’s was due to the beating he took in his rematch with Joe Frazier in 1971 (the so-called “Fight of the Century”). Being highly skeptical of any anecdotal conclusions I come across and possessing a deep fascination with the mechanisms of the brain, I decided to dig up some answers for myself.
Note: Research into the effect of impacts to the head is still relatively young, and there are many unanswered questions. However, there is a growing body of evidence to support the concepts I’m about to lay out.
The first fact that needs to be put on the table is that the brain is a pretty fragile organ. On the one hand, it’s capable of remarkable amounts of adaptation. Damage to one area can often be largely compensated for by other areas (a process known as neuroplasticity), but when neurons die, they’re gone for good. So while you can deal with a certain amount of damage, there’s a threshold after which your brain can’t cope effectively.
While there are a variety of ways in which neurons can be destroyed, the simplest way to do it is to hit your head. If you really want to kill neurons, apply rotational force with the impact so that your brain spins around in your skull. When this type of rotation happens, it can cause what’s called diffuse axonal injury (DAI for short). DAI means that the axon of a neuron (the long tail used to transport signals) tears apart and the entire neuron dies. DAI is bad news.
In boxing, it’s widely understood that hitting someone on the chin with a hook is an effective way to cause a knockout. It’s true, and it’s true because it causes rotational forces to act on the brain. DTI is likely to occur with such knockouts, although it’s not guaranteed (nor is it impossible in other types of knockouts).
But what exactly is a knockout? In simple terms, a knockout is a concussion. A concussion is, in turn, a type of traumatic brain injury (it’s specifically considered a mild traumatic brain injury, although the term “mild” doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal). TBIs are caused by the brain sloshing around and hitting the skull. They are most often caused by direct impacts to the head, although it’s also possible to get a TBI from other forces. For example, there are lots of combat veterans who have suffered TBIs purely from the force of an IED blast.
There are serious problems with current “common knowledge” about concussions. It’s widely believed that concussions are easily diagnosed and, with some rest and recovery, a person who has suffered a concussion will return to 100% normal in a predictable amount of time. It’s also thought that safety equipment can prevent concussions.
The reality isn’t that simple:
Diagnosing concussions is notoriously difficult. A loss of consciousness is an obvious indicator of a concussion, but over 90% of atheltic concussions do not involve a loss of consciousness.
Concussion symptoms can be delayed. It can take days or even weeks for a concussion to make itself felt, which is a pretty dangerous situation because it isn’t like the damage hasn’t occurred by the time said symptoms show up.
Measuring the impact of individual concussions is extremely hard. Right now there isn’t much that can be done when it comes to figuring out the extent of damage done by a concussion. This is really the doozy of concussion research because it has a variety of side implications. For example, seeing structural damage via neuroimaging so far hasn’t correlated 100% with cognitive decline (as measured by psychometric tests). You could have damage in your brain from an impact and still function normally, at least from a psychological perspective. But because self-diagnosis of functionality is basically impossible, there could be damage that the concussion sufferer is unaware of. Complicating all of this is the fact that nobody can agree on the best way to measure cognitive baselines, which could provide clues about cognitive decline that occurs post-impact.
Your concussion threshold goes down each time you suffer a concussion. In simpler terms, your brain gets more fragile each time you injure it. You might have an “iron chin” now, but if you continue to take impacts to the head and suffer concussions, your ability to absorb blows and avoid concussions goes down - dramatically in some cases.
Helmets can’t stop concussions. What causes a concussion is momentum that drives the brain to move around in the skull. Helmets, like those worn in American football, can’t stop momentum. They are only there to prevent surface injuries and skull fractures. In boxing, headgear is only good for preventing brusies and cuts, not concussions. Some even argue that using headgear gives the illusion of safety and induces people to hit harder, creating more risk, not less.
Complicating all of this even further is a little something called second-impact syndrome (SIS). Just as the name implies, SIS is when a brain receives a secondary impact after an injury but before it has had a chance to recover. It’s fairly uncommon, but it’s very dangerous and can cause even more damage than the initial concussion. In fact, one of the most dangerous aspects of combat sports is that you can fight even after suffering a concussion. UFC rules allow a fighter to pounce on a downed opponent and punch until the ref stops the fight, and boxing has the 10 count, which means that a fighter can get back up after being knocked down by strikes to the head. Both situations are extremely dangerous for the concussed fighter’s brain.
The fact that concussions are bad news isn’t exactly groundbreaking to anyone at this point, although I think there’s a lack of awareness when it comes to their exact nature. However, what most people really don’t understand - most don’t even acknowledge or know about it - is what lots of small, subconcussive impacts can do as well.
Small Impacts, Big Impact
Back in 2005, a now-famous forensic pathologist named Bennett Omalu came up with a name for the disease that develops in the brain after an excessive number of impacts to the head. He called it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. People who suffer from it have symptoms very similar to Alzheimer’s disease and often find that they’re incapable of living normally. It’s an extremely nasty disease and you don’t want to get it. What’s worse is that it doesn’t usually appear quickly, and instead develops over the course of decades (even if the athlete stops engaging in the activities that caused the disease).
Dr. Omalu came up with this name after examining the brains of a dead NFL player who’d experienced a dramatic cognitive and psychological decline after his retirement from pro football. Since that first diagnosis, he’s examined a large number of other brains from deceased football players who also suffered from serious problems after retirement and every single one showed signs of CTE.
This is what CTE does to a brain. Source
A movie called Concussion was recently made about Dr. Omalu’s discovery and the ensuing (and ongoing) battle that started after he started questioning the safety of football, so I won’t spend much more time on this particular case. However, the conclusions that Dr. Omalu drew from his work apply to any impact sport, particularly boxing (which views head striking and knockouts as the primary goals).
He concluded that it was the accumulation of small impacts, not a few spectacular concussions, that caused CTE in the brains of the players he examined. Most fans of combat sports and football really, really don’t like to hear about this for a simple reason: if Dr. Omalu is right (and the evidence so far is on his side), then it isn’t possible to safely play any sport where regular head impacts occur.
It means that even players of said sports never experience a loss of consciousness, they might be damaging their brains permanently. After a large enough accumulation, plus some other yet-to-be-determined factors, it might also mean that they end with severe cognitive disabilities later in life. Someone who had an apparently stable level of cognitive ability throughout their career might develop cognitive problems so severe that they can’t take care of themselves.
There is still more work to be done to determine how diseases like CTE develop. For instance, there are plenty of retired NFL players who don’t exhibit symptoms of CTE. They almost certainly have some degree of brain damage, but it’s still not clear what determines who gets such diseases. Once we can figure out the risk factors we’ll have a much clearer picture of how to avoid the dangers of contact sports.
It’s also worth noting that CTE (and a variety of other brain diseases) can’t be diagnosed while someone is still alive. Like Alzheimer’s, certain symptoms are indicative of CTE but it isn’t possible to make a conclusive diagnosis until an autopsy is performed. Having a system for reliably determining who has CTE while they’re still alive would be a huge leap forward in the fight against it.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the science behind TBIs, I highly recommend the not-so-creatively-named Traumatic Brain Injury. Jason Thalken, a martial artists with a physics PhD, also wrote an excellent book called Fight Like a Physicist that has a section dedicated to what impacts can do to the brain.
The biggest problem I’ve come across while boxing is that, in order to get better at it, a boxer needs to box. There’s no way around it: you must spar to improve. Otherwise you’re just hitting bags and moving around. I’ve heard people classify doing drills as “just dancing” and I think that’s a fair assessment. You’re preparing to do something and then never actually doing it.
This is to be expected in any sport and can be carried over to any skill you might want to pick up. The best way to get better is to practice as close to reality as possible. You can practice shooting a basketball from the three-point line all day, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t deliver that shot in the middle of a game. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if you have a wicked left hook if you don’t know how and when to deliver it in the ring. The difference is that a basketball player can hone his craft in the most effective way possible without risking the health of his brain.
Sparring also ends up being the most likely culprit when it comes to boxing-related brain damage. While the action in the actual bout certainly isn’t going to be good for a boxer’s brain, the real problem is the metric shit-ton of sparring rounds that they go through before the fight. If someone is prepping for a fight by sparring for 10 rounds 5 days a week for several months, they’re accumulating thousands of impacts in that time span. Yet it’s a crucial part of the competitive process, especially at the pro level.
Knowing all of this, I decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to compete. The risk isn’t worth it, especially for someone like me who would be starting so late in life. My chances of becoming a pro, even with serious concentrated effort, would be miniscule and my chances of developing brain problems later on would be substantial. Even if I were a world-class boxer, it still wouldn’t be worth it. What’s the use of a multi-million dollar fortune if you’re too brain damaged to enjoy it?
Playing football in high school and getting into a decent number of street fights leads me to believe that I probably have already experienced at least one concussion, and I don’t want to risk lowering my concussion threshold any further.I’ve sparred a little bit, and even though I felt like I was making decent progress, I got my bell rung by a professional MMA fighter and that scared me enough to tone it way down.
While I am grateful for the discipline, knowledge and fitness I’ve gained from boxing, it’s hard for me to recommend it as anything more than a hobby or a road to excellent fitness. Doing drills, learning the finer points of technique and conditioning are all challenging and enjoyable in their own ways. Even knowing what I know now about brain damage, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoy sparring. There is a sort of primal satisfaction that comes from stepping into the ring and testing yourself against the onslaught of an opponent. But the risk you absolutely must take in order to compete effectively just isn’t worth it.
This also brings up questions about how ethical it is to support professional sports where there is a known risk of long-term brain disease. For example, it’s very difficult for me to watch American football games now because every snap of the ball represents another small bit of damage to many, if not all, of the players on the field for that play. This is especially challenging because America is absolutely obsessed with football. People place a huge emphasis on their hometown teams and it’s an extremely common topic of conversation. The idea of not being a football fan in America is unfathomable to a large number of people here.
Likewise, even though I still box as a hobby, I have a hard time watching professional fights, especially UFC fights. I respect the discipline and physical will required to reach that level, yet I can’t help but see it as a waste of brain power in many respects. The guys who make it to the top rungs of the MMA game are often very sharp people, and they’re dulling themselves by participating in the sport they love. The situations that really make me wince are when fighters get knocked down and then get “hammer fists” to the face while they’re still dazed from a concussion. All I can think is “SIS! SIS! SIS! SIS!”
There have been efforts made over the last few decades to make fight sports, particularly boxing, safer. There have been rules changes such as fewer rounds and stricter medical guidelines put in place, yet I have to wonder what difference that will make in terms of long-term safety. If Dr. Omalu is correct and the accumulation of small impacts is truly what causes certain brain diseases like CTE, it would essentially mean that impact sports such as boxing and American football cannot be performed safely.
Unfortunately, there is a seemingly endless supply of young men and women who are willing to step into the ring for a shot at fame and fortune. Many of these people come from tough backgrounds, and it’s admittedly easy for me to say these things knowing that I have professional prospects outside of sports. If I had to choose a life of poverty or fighting, my views would get skewed pretty quickly.
The upside of all of this is that I am far more educated about how to physically protect my brain (and, if you made it this far, you are too). Even if you have never participated in a combat sport and have no plans to try in the future, the subject of traumatic brain injury is something you should care about. Why? Because most traumatic brain injuries don’t happen in sports. In fact, the number one cause of TBIs for people under the age of 55 is car accidents (for the over 55 demographic the number one cause is falls). Considering how often we all ride in cars, it’s probably a good idea to be aware of what might happen to your brain if you get into a non-fatal crash.
At the end of the day, how you treat your brain is up to you. We’re all going to get bonked on the head at one point or another, and I think when you consider how fragile the brain is, it’s probably safe to assume that everyone gets at least a small amount of damage after living long enough. However, there are absolutely steps you can take to reduce that risk and maximize your brain’s potential. In my own case, my plan is to continue to train for boxing purely as a hobby without much sparring for the fitness and discipline benefits, and start another martial art (such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu) where I can practice at full speed without risking my brain’s health.
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