While debate on their sport rages, boxers continue to suffer serious brain damage

April 07, 1991|By Scott Fowler | Scott Fowler,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"When you get knocked out, you don't feel any pain. You jus blink your eyes and everything shuts off. Total blackness." -- Golden Gloves boxer Ricky Ray Taylor

"We have no other sport that deliberately destroys brain substance. Boxing should be banned, not only for pros but also for amateurs. The brain can't tell whether or not the fist hitting it is paid to do so." -- Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Jamey Carnell's brain is getting battered.

The blows from Carnell's opponent, Juan Rosales Jr., are brutal, systematic and entirely within the rules of our most savage sport. A right to the head sends Carnell's brain smashing into the right side of his skull. A left hook spins Carnell onto all fours and hurtles his brain the opposite direction, tearing several small blood vessels inside his skull.

Carnell shows no outward signs of bleeding, and none of the 525 fans can see the inner damage that may not be apparent for years. But the referee in this National Golden Gloves bout last year at Miami Arena has noticed Carnell's glazed look, and he stops the fight midway through the third round. Carnell, a 112-pound wisp of a teen-ager with features as fragile as a porcelain doll, leaves the ring, staggering slightly.

"At least I wasn't knocked out," he says. Carnell, 18, takes pride in the fact that in 80 amateur fights, 40 of which he has lost, he has never sunk into mental oblivion for more than five seconds. He has always struggled up.

"Sometimes when you're fighting and you get hit hard, though, ** you don't see nobody for a second," says the Jerome, Idaho, native. "You don't see a thing. You're trying to open your eyes, and they're already open. Then all of a sudden the guy is there, hitting you again."

Cornell Shinholster, 18, a 125-pound fighter from Cincinnati, has been knocked out once in 73 amateur bouts. Although it happened three years ago, he still remembers the bewilderment he felt. "You don't know where you are, or what's going on after it happens. I saw double for maybe an hour."

The possibility of long-term brain damage for boxers with as many fights as Carnell and Shinholster approaches 80 percent, according to published studies. Their chances of accomplishing fantasies of making millions of dollars as a professional -- "I'm in this because want to have lots of Rolls Royces and a big house like Sugar Ray Leonard," Shinholster says -- pale by comparison. Yet they repeatedly take the risk. Aren't they worried about brain damage?

"A little bit," Carnell says. "If it happens . . . oh well. It'd bother me, but I couldn't do anything about it by then anyway."


Picture a bowl of Jello, cut into cubes and glistening in the light.

One of the nation's leading neurologists says that is the best way to visualize the brain if you want to understand what happens when a boxer gets knocked out.

"OK, your skull is the bowl, and your brain is the Jello," says Dr. Nelson Richards, a former president of the American Academy of Neurology now in private practice in Richmond, Va. "The Jello has some very weak strings running through it, connecting it to the bowl. Now start shaking the bowl around a lot, slapping it all over. The Jello is going to slop out all over the place. It goes flying. All these delicate little connections are disrupted."

zTC If enough of them go, the brain shuts down. The boxer wobbles and falls. Even if his brain only switches off for several seconds, he technically has suffered a concussion.

Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs to mark their path. Boxers leave brain cells. "You lose a few brain cells somewhere every time you box," says Richards, whose organization followed the American Medical Association's lead in the mid-1980s by calling for the total abolition of boxing. "It's cruel. Boxing is not a sport. I can't believe you can fine somebody for cockfighting, and yet it's kosher to put a young kid in the ring."

Last year's Golden Gloves tournament at Miami Arena is not boxing at its bloodiest. Fights consist of three two-minute rounds, which is the primary reason that only 15 percent of the bouts in the first two days ended early. The fighters wear headgear (although some doctors say this doesn't help the brain a bit). Referees routinely stop fights like Carnell's just before the knockout blow, awarding technical knockouts instead.

"I like amateur boxing much better because it has the well-being of the boxers foremost in mind," says Armando Garcia, the chief of officials for Florida's Gold Coast and a frequent referee of both amateur and pro fights.

Yet Garcia, a front-row witness to boxing's fury, acknowledges that some of the critics should be listened to. He knows the face of terror a boxer flashes when he realizes that he has no control of his body.

"Sometimes you look in a fighter's eyes and he tells you, 'Help me. Help me,' " Garcia says. "You've got to stop it then."

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