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Boxing no longer has any excuse, it’s American football injuries on steroids

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Just two and a half years after his last professional fight, Muhammad Ali was a guest on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. Dapper in a white suit, he still cut a rather pathetic figure, a diminished version of his famously ebullient self.

That trademark scattergun delivery suddenly slow and ponderous, a record being jarringly played at 33rpm instead of 45. The most bombastic voice in sport almost too faint for microphones to pick up for much of the excruciating 10 minutes he was onscreen.

Sure, there were occasional glimpses of his old charm and wit but, the mouth that roared now mumbled and the glaring symptoms of his precipitous decline shocked America. Within weeks, the 42 year-old checked into Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York for tests on his brain and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome, an umbrella term covering a slew of neurological difficulties that cause slurred speech, tremors and problems with gait and posture. Ailments that had all been bothering Ali since the latter stages of his fistic career.

“It was kind of always my one regret because the one fighter who had the notoriety and could have brought a lot of attention to this was Ali,” said Frankie Pryor, talking about how the sport leaves so many of its finest exponents in a parlous state. “And then they went off on the Parkinson’s thing and that really kind of, in boxing . . . that pissed off a lot of people in boxing, that Ali’s family chose to say, ‘Oh, he has Parkinson’s, it has nothing to do with boxing.’ It has everything to do with boxing.”

Frankie Pryor watched her husband, Aaron, one of the great light-welterweights of all time, battle dementia for years before dying at 60. His cautionary tale is told in Tris Dixon’s fascinating new book, “Damage – The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing”. Everybody knows fighters put themselves in harm’s way every time they lace them up but the picture painted by the veteran boxing scribe is grim, compelling and essential, a forensic accounting of the harrowing toll the sport has taken on generations through the decades.

They said I got hit and all the blood vessels have exploded and all that type of stuff. It’s a depression

Equal parts prosecutorial argument, sporting reportage and damning scientific evidence, Dixon begins his trawl through the wreckage in the psychiatric ward of a North London hospital. That is where he finds Herol “Bomber” Graham billeted, after a succession of failed suicide attempts and long-term mental health struggles. For the one-time Sheffield protégé of Dubliner Brendan Ingle, these are the consequences of a pro docket that yielded 48 wins, six defeats and enough blows to the head to wreak havoc on the middleweight contender’s brain.

“That fight in itself triggered it,” said Graham about the night Julian Jackson knocked him out in the fourth round of a world title fight in Spain. “The one shot I got there was like all the shots I got in boxing combined, adding up to the big one. It’s because of the trauma to my brain. They said I got hit and all the blood vessels have exploded and all that type of stuff. It’s a depression. Since then I’ve been in a depression. It’s going to make me cry.”

When he dies, Mickey Ward’s brain will be donated to scientists to analyse the true extent of the damage done. File photograph: Getty Images
When he dies, Mickey Ward’s brain will be donated to scientists to analyse the true extent of the damage done. File photograph: Getty Images

If Graham is a name that evokes the heyday of midweek televised boxing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the ghost of Galway-born Bartley Madden looms from farther back, one of 23 fistic casualties featured in “Punch-Drunk”, a 1928 academic paper by Dr Harrison Martland published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Once described by Gene Tunney as the gamest heavyweight he ever met, Madden incurred savage punishment in many of his later bouts, once leaving the ring with both his head and torso swaddled in towels to disguise the bloody extent of his injuries.

List of names

Journeying through the sport, past and present, Dixon encounters a dilemma that in itself indicts the fight game. So many people offer him directions to retired combatants now struggling to speak, to remember or to even function, that he realises at one point in his research it will be impossible to feature them all or the book would be merely a list of names of men who are suffering with classic symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). After all, as one person says to him, “Boxing is American football injuries on steroids.”

Cleverly, he hones in on select stories to make the overwhelming case that boxing, like the NFL was eventually forced to, needs to have a reckoning with the impact of concussion, brain injuries and an intrinsic culture of excess bravery on its denizens. Freddie Roach, a decent pro boxer turned Hall of Fame trainer, told Dixon the story of his latter-day battle with Parkinson’s and so much more. There were five Roach brothers. The three who boxed have neurological problems of some sort today. The two who didn’t have no issues.

Mickey Ward, whose trilogy of epic bouts with Arturo Gatti are part of the sport’s lore, explained his difficulties with short-term memory and anger management and other tell-tale signs of CTE, and how when he dies, his brain will be donated to scientists to analyse the true extent of the damage done.

“I hope it helps the next generation of fighters,” said Ward, “not only in boxing but contact sports in general, and it helps them to better understand the effects of concussion.”

Dixon’s disturbing book ensures boxing no longer has any excuse.

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‘Deviance and morality’: The history of the same-sex marriage movement in Switzerland

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The 56-year-old historian still recalls his run-ins with “suspicious” real estate agents in Switzerland, where police in some places were still keeping registers of homosexuals.

Three decades later, in a referendum on Sunday, the wealthy Alpine nation looks set to allow same-sex couples to marry, and grant them the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.

“It is a huge step forward,” said Delessert, an expert on the history of homosexuality in Switzerland at Lausanne University.

READ MORE: Broad support for same-sex marriage ahead of referendum

The country decriminalised homosexuality in 1942, but numerous local and regional police forces continued to keep “gay registers”, some into the early 1990s.

These registers were aimed at “controlling deviance and morality”, Delessert explained, adding that they had dire impacts on the lives of those listed.

“If a supposed homosexual was convicted of theft, his homosexuality was submitted as additional proof of his immorality,” he said.

“If a homosexual applied to rent an apartment, he would not get it. If a homosexual wanted a job in the public sector, he would not get it.”

But the causes of the discrimination remained unsaid: the registers were never made public, and those listed there were never informed. 

‘Difficult to comprehend’ 

Only Zurich and Basel publicly announced that they were scrapping the registers, in 1979 and 1980, Delessert said, voicing frustration that all the other registers had simply vanished.

He said he had managed to find handwritten notes on police documents where officers requested the creation of “files” on homosexuals arrested after committing an offence.

Delessert said he had also found testimony from a commissioner mentioning that around 200 homosexuals were registered in Zurich each year.

Zurich’s official records division told AFP that these registers had been kept for internal police use, and had been destroyed.

An account by a whistleblower published in the Swiss media in April 1990 first alerted the public to the existence of one of these registers, in Bern, with the outcry pushing authorities to halt the practice.

When contacted by AFP, Bern cantonal police said they had searched internally, but “were unable to find information about this register, which apparently existed.”

“At an ethical level, it is difficult to comprehend today.” While such statements are welcome, Delessert highlighted that “the political authorities have never apologised” for the practice.

Zombies and crying babies

But he hailed the political turnaround in recent years. A referendum early last year opted to criminalise acts of homophobia, and towards the end of the year, parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

That law aimed to finally bring Switzerland in line with much of Europe on gay rights.

But opponents of the law demanded a referendum within the country’s direct democratic system, in a bid to block it.

READ MORE: Switzerland to hold same-sex marriage referendum

Recent polls however show that a large majority of Swiss voters back changing the law.

Same-sex couples can already register a civil partnership in Switzerland, but that status does not provide the same rights as marriage.

Allowing same-sex marriage would fix that, enabling foreign spouses in same-sex relationships to apply for citizenship through a simplified procedure, and allowing same-sex couples to jointly adopt children.

And it would controversially give lesbian couples access to sperm donation.

The opponents, mainly drawn from the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party, have plastered Swiss cities with stark posters decrying the commodification of children and warning the law will “kill the father”.

One of their posters shows a crying baby with its ear tagged like cattle, and the question: “Babies on demand?”

Another featuring a huge zombie-like head, meant to represent a dead father, was covered over by a nearby primary school in Wallis canton out of fear it would frighten the children.



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Simon Harris and wife welcome new baby boy

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Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has announced the birth of a baby son.

Posting on Instagram, the Minister said he and his wife Caoimhe had on Wednesday “welcomed Baby Cillian into the world”. Cillian is the couple’s second child, they also have a daughter Saoirse.

“Caoimhe and baby doing great and Saoirse delighted to be a big sister and looking forward to meeting him soon.”

Mr Harris thanked all of the staff at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin.

The Fine Gael TD said he will be taking paternity leave for a few weeks to “get to know this new little man”.

In a previous post he said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would be taking any of his department’s business to Government during the time while Minister of State Niall Collins would be carrying out his day-to-day work in the department and Labour leader Alan Kelly would be providing a pair for Dáil votes.

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Macron presses Biden for ‘clarifications’ over submarine snub

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Macron was left furious by Australia’s decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

After a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal made clear French anger had not abated with an unusually frank statement of Macron’s expectations from the scheduled conversation with 78-year-old Biden.

The exchange would be an opportunity to “clarify both the way in which this announcement was made and the way for an American re-engagement in its relationship with an ally,” Attal said.

Paris was particularly outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as “treachery” and a “stab in the back”.

French officials were notified about the loss of the contract just hours before Biden unveiled the new AUKUS security and defence partnership between the three English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO OPINION: France’s Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

Macron was expecting “clarifications about the American decision to keep a European ally outside of fundamental talks about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Attal added, without giving the schedule time for the exchange.

“We expect our allies to acknowledge that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question about confidence, which all of us need to draw conclusions about now.”

Showdown

The submarine row has plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts view as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris opposed.

After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat has also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January aiming to rebuild frazzled ties with Europe.

As the row drags on, observers and some of France’s European partners are wondering how and when the French leader will call an end to the face-off, which is playing out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.

British Prime Minister Johnson said it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ (get a grip)” in comments in Washington that mixed French and English.

“‘Donnez-moi un break’ because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he told Sky News.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country is staunchly pro-American, defended Biden as “very loyal” and warned against turning “challenges which will always exist between allies into something they should not be.”

Conditions

Attal said that France and the US needed to begin a process “to create the conditions for confidence to be restored”.

As well as an acknowledgement of French interests in the Pacific region, the process should include “full recognition by our American allies of the need to boost European sovereignty as well as the importance of the growing commitment by the Europeans to their own defence and security.”

This latter point is a source of tension between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.

The US, and some EU members including Denmark and Baltic countries, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued against the idea of France withdrawing from NATO command structures, which some politicians in France have suggested in the wake of the submarines snub.

“Is it worth slamming the door on NATO? I don’t think so,” she said, while adding that “political dialogue is non-existent in NATO.”

Australia’s decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China’s commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing.



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