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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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Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube

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Are you resisting the urge to set fire to historic structures in downtown Moscow? Are you still stinging from your foray into the world of self-mutilation as protest?

You may be suffering from Poser Rip-Off Artistic Tourette’s (also known as PRAT). Fortunately, for sufferers of PRAT, there is help for your frustrated artistic urges. I’ve compiled a list of some great Russian-Language films available for viewing on the interwebz (with English subs) in their entirety. All of these films are excellent listening practice for those who are learning Russian, or for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in Russian culture and art offerings sans the need for antibiotics.

<figcaption>This one time at band camp...</figcaption>
This one time at band camp…

Enjoy!

Admiral (Адмиралъ)

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Downton Abbey what?

For those who like their foreign films with a side of war footage and people sobbing in corsets, I highly recommend Admiral. Taking place during World War I and the October Revolution, and based on real events, Admiral details the tragic love story between the married Aleksandr Kolchak, and the lovely and equally married Russian poet Anna Timiryova. Comparisons to Dr. Zhivago are not without merit, so if you are looking for a romantic movie set against the backdrop of Russian history, and you need a good cry, put this in your YouTube queue. The film stars Konstantin Khabensky as Aleksandr (Night Watch, Day Watch) and Elizaveta Boyarkskaya as Anna. Andrey Kravchuk directs.

Brest Fortress (Брестская крепость)

I have seen Saving Private Ryan. I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I’m pretty solid on my Hollywood World War II epics. Hands down, Brest Fortress is one of the best World War II movies I have ever seen. This gem hails from Belarus, and details the early days of Operation Barbarossa, as told through the eyes of the orphaned Sasha Akimov.

Sasha and his brother are living at Brest Fortress in Belarus SSR, under the care of the 33rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army. Sasha plays the euphonium in the regiment band, and nurses a crush on Anya Khizevatova, the daughter of the outpost leader Khizevatov. Sasha’s life centers around the fortress and its inhabitants, until one day in June of 1941, when the fortress comes under attack by the Wehrmacht and Lutfwaffe. The Nazi assault on the Soviet army and citizens is brutal and heart-wrenching, although the surviving Red Army forces manage to hold onto the fort for nine days. The resistance is led by Efim Moiseevich Fomin, who proudly declares to his German executioners that he is all the things they despise: a Red Army commissar, a Communist, and a Jew.

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“We are here to save you from the Bolsheviks and Jews. No, for real, you guys. You should totally surrender.&rdquo

Misfits/ Inadequate People (Неадекватные Люди)

Basically, this is a modern-day, less icky, comedic retelling of Lolita, and if anyone is entitled to do an update on Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic, it is his compatriots.  Misfits is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve included it here for those who might have an outdated view of modern-day Russia.

Ilya Lyubimov stars as Vitaly, a thirtysomething who moves from a rural part of Russia to Moscow after his girlfriend is killed in a car accident. In Moscow, he develops a close, if odd, relationship with his sassy 17-year-old neighbor, Kristina, while having to stave off the advances of his vampy new boss.

Misfits was shot on a budget of about $100,000, raised by writer/director Roman Karimov. It’s a really great piece of independent Russian cinema (Wait! I thought there was no independent media in Russia! I’m confused!)

Olympus Inferno (Олимпиус Инферно)

Every time someone watches this movie, Victoria Nuland has to clap her hands really hard so that Mikhail Sakashvili doesn’t fall down dead.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accused the film of “pushing the Kremlin’s line” on the Georgian conflict. By “pushing the Kremlin’s line,” they mean “what actually occurred.” Wired called it awesomely bad, but that’s only because Wired is used to made-for-TV movies that involve marine creature-themed weather events, or weird, inaccurate opi starring that one girl from Heroes.  

Of course, since Olympus Inferno aired on Russian television, it does take a sympathetic view of the Russian side of the conflict. However, if one does look into the actual facts behind the Georgian war, it is easy to see that, although there was tension mounting on both sides, Georgian forces were responsible for attacking South Ossetia.

The story follows Michael Orraya, an American entomologist who is studying butterflies, and a former classmate, a young Russian woman named Zhenya, who is working as a journalist. They develop a close relationship, but are caught up in the chaos of the Georgian war.

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“What can we do? The Georgian president only wants to live in gentrified neighborhoods, like Brooklyn.”

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег)

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I really like this movie. Granted, I am probably distracted by the fancy costumes.

A disembodied voice guides the viewer through the dream-like quality of Russian Ark. The narrator is in conversation with “the European,” symbolized by the Marquis de Custine, this super racist 18th century travel writer. His travelogue,  La Russie en 1839, decries the “backwardness” of the Russian Orthodox church, and the “Asian” overlay to the society and culture. (La Russie en 1839 was later published as an illustrated collection of bedtime stories for U.S. State Department employees.)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, we are taken on a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the “ark” of Russian culture, with cameo appearances by Catherine II and Peter the Great. Gorgeous cinematography and high production values certainly helped this 2002 film win a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Visions Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Russian Ark is also available on Netflix streaming, but for the poor unfortunates who do not have Netflix, and thus are also robbed of the Pussy Riot documentary, there is YouTube.

The Return (Возвращение)

Remember everyone in Hollywood falling all over themselves to praise Andrey Zvyagintsev for Leviathan because he bravely portrayed today’s Russia as a bleak and hopeless wasteland? Well, it actually turns out that bleak is sort of his oeuvre. Like Leviathan, The Return received widespread critical acclaim when it was released internationally in 2004. Although Hollywood acknowledged the film with a Golden Globe nomination, there was no obsequious praise for Zyvaginitsev’s earlier offering.

The plot centers on two boys, Andrei and Ivan, who are reunited with their father after his mysterious twelve-year absence. Their mother reluctantly allows the boys to go on a road trip with their father through the Russian wilderness, and the tension between Ivan and his father mounts to a tragic conclusion.

The Return is driven by the subtle, yet effective, performances by the film’s two young actors, Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan). Desolately beautiful Russian landscapes add to Zyvangintsev’s gray-blue palette and the overall meditative quality of the piece.

Of course, there are many Russian films available on YouTube that I have not listed here. These are a few that I have seen and enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy them as well.

Remember, If you or a loved one is experiencing PRAT, don’t suffer in silence. There is help.

Unless you are a pyromaniac exhibitionist. In that case, there is probably a selfie with Hillary Clinton in your future.

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Irish Times poll lays bare pandemic’s impact on political landscape

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Sinn Féin is on top again, with its highest-ever rating in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of support for the parties. Our latest such poll shows Sinn Féin on 31 per cent (up three points), ahead of Fine Gael, which has slipped three points to 27 per cent.

Fianna Fáil remains some way adrift of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, although it has closed the gap considerably in this June poll, jumping six points to 20 per cent. The Green Party (on 6 per cent) and Labour (on 3 per cent) are unchanged. Independents and smaller parties combined attract 13 per cent of the vote (down six points). Within this bloc are People Before Profit/Solidarity (on 2 per cent) and Social Democrats (on 2 per cent).

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Delta variant: Is Denmark heading for another Covid surge as seen in the UK?

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Cases involving the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant are cropping up in Denmark with growing frequency, with at least five pupils testing positive at Grønnevang School in Hillerød near Copenhagen on Monday, and a nearby kindergarten also closed after one of the children’s parents tested positive. 

The Hillerød outbreak comes after a similar school cluster in Risskov near Aarhus, which saw one school class and one kindergarten temporarily sent home after two cases were identified. 

The variant, which was first identified in India, now makes up to 90 percent of cases in the UK, forcing the country to delay the so-called “England’s Freedom Day” on June 21st, keeping restrictions in place for another four weeks? 

So, is there a risk of a UK-style outbreak? 

Tyra Grove Krause, acting academic director at the Statens Serum Institute on Tuesday said it was crucial that Denmark health authorities and local municipalities put as much effort as possible into containing any outbreaks. 

“This is a variant that we are concerned about and that we really want to keep it down for as long as we can,” she said. “This is because, according to English authorities, it is up to 50 percent more contagious and possibly more serious than other variants.” 

In a statement last week, her agency said the delta variant was “worrying”. 

The Danish Patient Safety Authority on Tuesday called for all residents in the areas surrounding the schools and kindergarten in Hillerød to get tested, and said that the authorities were increasing test capacity in the area, and also putting out “test ambassadors” on the streets.  

So how is it going in Denmark right now? 

Pretty well.

Despite the lifting of most restrictions, the number of cases registered daily remains low, even if the 353 reported on Wednesday is above the recent trend of under 200 cases a day, the share of positive tests is also slightly up at 0.37 percent. 

Just 93 people are now being treated in hospital for coronavirus, the lowest since September 23rd last year.

And how’s it going in the UK? 

Not so good, but not terrible either. Overall case numberS remain low, but they are starting to climb again despite the UK’s impressive vaccination rate.

The worry is the Delta variant – first discovered in India – which now makes up 90 percent of new cases in the UK and which experts agree is around 40 percent more transmissible than other variants.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty told a press conference on Monday that cases are rising across the country.

It is concerns over this variant that has lead the British government to delay the latest phase of lockdown easing – initially scheduled for June 21st – for another four weeks.

So will Denmark follow the UK’s trend? 

Probably. Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he believes it is inevitable that the Delta variant will eventually become dominant in Denmark too. 

“If it’s true that delta variant is 50 percent or 70 percent more contagious than the B117 (Alpha or UK variant), then I think, in the long run, we’ll see that it takes over because that’s what more contagious viruses do.,” he said. “I think that’s also what the health authorities assume it’s going to happen.” 

How much of a problem would that be? 

Not necessarily too much of a problem, according to Wejse.

For a start, he predicts that the end of the school term and the good summer weather should stop the virus spreading too rapidly for the next two months or so, meaning it will take longer to take over than the British variant did. 

B117 came at a time where the epidemic was rolling in Denmark at a very high level, back in December and January. Now the epidemic is growing much, much slower. That means it’s probably going to take more time,” he said. 

And by the time it does take over, in September perhaps, vaccination levels should be high enough to blunt its impact. 

“I seriously think and hope that, that when we get to the next fall, we’ll be in a different situation. There will be small outbreaks, but not really any big time spread, like we had last fall.” 

“At least with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, there’s data indicating the difference in terms of protection [from the delta variant] is quite small. So, there will be very good protective effects of the vaccines, so I’m certainly confident that it will be much less of a problem when we have a high vaccination coverage, which I assume we will have when we get into September.” 



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