If you want an idea of just how much damage boxing can do to a brain, do a quick internet search for Denis Lebedev.
After his fight with Guillermo Jones in June of this year, Lebedev became a fleeting internet oddity – the boxer with the elephant man’s face, the skin around his eye socket swollen grotesquely and his eyelids squeezed shut by the puffy, purple flesh around them.
It looks horrifying, but it’s mostly just soft tissue damage.
The real problem lies behind that soft tissue, and behind the bones of the skull, and with the brain, which is floating free in a suspension of cerebro-spinal fluid.
Newton’s third law of motion tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which means that for every blow that hit with enough force to make Lebedev’s face react as it did, there was a similar force shunting the brain backwards and forwards against the inside of the walls of the skull.
Last month, Timothy Bradley described what it feels like when a boxer’s brain is treated like that. After his brutal fight with Ruslan Provodnikov – following which he was taken to hospital – he told boxing broadcaster HBO that “A few weeks after the fight I was still affected … my speech was a little bit off and I was slurring a bit. After about two months, I got my speech back.”
Those effects on the brain are greatly amplified when boxers are dehydrating to cut weight: and dehydration is far more common than you’d think.
In January 2012, sports broadcaster HBO ran a short documentary about boxer Brandon Rios and his struggles with dehydration before his December 2011 fight with a British boxer named John Murray. Rios had been contracted to fight at 135 pounds and failed on three separate occasions to make the weight on the day of the weigh-in. The documentary follows the pre-fight interview with the HBO commentary panel in which Rios, despite hiding his face behind large sunglasses and under a heavy hoodie, looks pale, drawn and very unhealthy. In the interview, Rios’s trainer Robert Garcia said, “Normally fighters gain eight, no more than ten, and that’s normal for a fighter that loses a lot of weight before the weigh-in. But Brandon gained 20 pounds … it’s not healthy, it’s dangerous.”
Rios was stripped of his title for failing to make the weight, but allowed to fight. The dehydration had left him physically spent and he took far longer to beat Murray, turning the fight into a gruelling, blood splattering duel that inflicted far more damage on the two men than needed to be. The shocking images of Rios’ haggard dehydrated face, followed by its swift expansion to its usual roundness, and the subsequent goriness of the fight were presented by HBO with no real commentary on the prevalence of dehydration or its dangers, other than Garcia’s candid admission that his fighter had been in real danger.
In June 2012, Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr stepped onto the scales for his fight against Andy Lee weighing 159 pounds and looking skeletal. He later complained that he developed leg cramps half way through the fight, which many attributed to his efforts to make weight through dehydration.
A month after that, in July 2012, Edinburgh’s Paul Appleby fought a fight he’d taken at six weeks’ notice and for which he had dehydrated severely to make the weight for. He lost the fight and felt so sick afterwards that he spent nearly a week in hospital before deciding to take a break from fighting (after which he decided to move up a weight division to avoid having to dehydrate so severely again).
Then in September, Rodel Mayol complained that he lost his IBF Super Flyweight challenge to Juan Carlos Sanchez because he had been dehydrating before the fight and suffered cramps before his ninth round knockout.
In December 2012, Manchester boxer Kieran Farrell nearly died after spending his training camp dangerously dehydrating before his fight with Anthony Crolla. After the fight, Farrell collapsed and was rushed to the hospital suffering from a serious bleed on his brain. He would later tell The Guardian that thirty per cent of his brain had been destroyed by the bleed, and he can never box again.
In May 2013, Hose Aguiniga pulled out of his fight with Francisco Vargas in Las Vegas when he collapsed, severely dehydrated.
These are just the cases that, briefly, broke into the public record. In truth, dehydration ahead of fights is now virtually universal in boxing. The advantages are obvious. A boxer who normally weighs, say, 180 pounds can train at that weight but fight at 168, with a potentially dangerous advantage over their opponent. All they have to do is strip out all their water weight the day before the weigh-in then try to pour it all back in before the fight. But it’s based on a flawed notion – that one can rehydrate as quickly as one can dehydrate. In reality, the body needs days more to fully replenish the stores of utterly vital water in the cells, muscles and organs. Multiple scientific studies in the past few years shows that a boxer who is dehydrated, even if he’s been drinking rehydration fluid for a fully day, cannot perform at the same level, and cannot defend himself properly.
No full record of boxers’ weights exists in the world but the unofficial reweighing done by HBO is a good sample – non-scientific but certainly sufficiently random – to highlight just how many boxers are now essentially cheating the scales. Nearly every boxer that agrees to be reweighed shows an increase in weight in the 24 hours between the official weigh-in and the day of the fight. The majority of boxers add on more than 10 pounds of weight in less than a day, all of which is in the form of vital hydration for the boxer’s body and brain.
The recent wave of recorded brain injuries in American football ought to serve as a parallel for boxing’s governing bodies to act upon. Various studies have shown that the majority of damage is caused by the kind of mild, repetitive and cumulative damage that is caused by repeated blows to the head. For a boxer who has been dehydrating, that damage is massively amplified but virtually invisible. It only raises its head intermittently in the likes of the cases above, and it’s often hard to prove unless the boxer himself admits to it. As with American footballers, the real results may only be seen when this generation of boxers gets much deeper into retirement.
All of the major sanctioning bodies have some form of prohibition on dehydration, so there’s an obvious acceptance that this is dangerous. Yet boxers continue to do it because it is not policed effectively.
The 24-hour weigh-in was designed to make boxing safe from a raft of dehydration related deaths and injuries in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a well-meaning but poorly executed rule which has only served to take that danger and spread it among an even wider number of boxers.
It’s time to dispense with the widespread fallacy that boxers can dehydrate safely and implement a set of rules that can stem the invisible tide.