TURLEY ON TUESDAY: Dementia Pugilistica – is it all in the genes?

Was Canada's George Chuvalo genetically predisposed to absorb punishment?

“I was always an A-grade student. I would have loved to go to college, maybe become a baseball player. My father made me a fighter… And boxing is a cruel and vicious sport, a one-on-one confrontation with your life that you can’t win.”

– Jerry Quarry


Contrary to outside images and stereotypes, boxers are a pretty eclectic bunch. Yes, in some ways they are men of violence, but they all have their reasons for wanting to punch and get punched in the head. Not all of these reasons are noble, of course – alongside those with dreams of glory and an overwhelming passion to better and prove themselves are others who do it for money, or simply to vent violent urges that would otherwise be suppressed. Each is different.

Yet whatever their individual motivations for climbing between the ropes and adopting the spartan lifestyle that comes with that, boxers are generally united by one overriding fear. This is not something much spoken about in gyms and training camps for obvious reasons. The sport’s gruelling demands require an affirmative mentality at all times. Negativity is a short-cut to failure. In their quiet moments however, away from gym mates, trainers and fans, most fighters will have worried about the chance of brain damage.

Like terrible visions of possible futures, punchy ex-pros can be seen in many gyms countrywide – half-smiling, half-talking shufflers earning pity money, sweeping up, carrying towels. ‘That’s so-and-so’, lads will whisper behind his back. ‘He was a great fighter in his day. Boxed for the British title, unlucky not to win it, so tough, a real battler’ and then, with a shake of the head – ‘he’s shot to pieces now though’.

When asked directly about the likelihood of such an outcome for themselves, most dodge the question, or live in denial. ‘I know how to look after myself. I don’t take a lot of shots. I won’t go on too long. It won’t happen to me.’ Those prepared to engage with the subject are in a minority.

“I have one major worry every year and that’s my brain scan” Kristian Laight, the UK’s most prolific journeyman, a veteran of 216 fights, once told me. “The blood tests aren’t a big deal, but that scares the crap out of me.”

Dementia Pugilistica is as old as boxing itself. Its earliest stages are shown in slurred speech, unsteady hands, paranoia and unpredictable behaviour. In its later, more developed state, it affects motor and cognitive functions, stripping away co-ordination, memory, speech and eventually, even life.

All this is graphically exemplified in many, many cases but recently by former light middleweight world champion, Denny Moyer, pictured below in his Sugar-Ray-Robinson beating prime. After all the acclaim and adulation of his ring years, Moyer died ingloriously in a nursing home in 2010 at the age of 71. He had resided there for the last two decades of his life with his older brother Phil, also a former pro boxer.


The Moyer brothers, considered to have movie star looks as well as fighting heart in their youth, are often held up as the archetypal boxing tragedy. Brought into the game as children by their ex-pro father, they boxed all the way from junior amateur through long paid careers. Soon after retirement, both began to develop serious problems, degenerating so rapidly that by middle age they needed full-time care.

The same father who had first taught them the sport as kids, would visit his grown-up boys and spoon feed them their dinners, mopping the mush from their lips like babies. Half the time they didn’t know who he was. One can only imagine the conflict and guilt in his nonagenarian mind, as he saw what his sons had been reduced to by his passion and encouragement.

Until Denny’s death, the Moyer brothers could often be seen shuffling, holding hands, with blank stares and awful, lop-sided expressions, wearing plastic helmets to prevent them banging heads. Eventually the unrelenting degeneration ended Denny. Phil still lingers on, officially alive, but dead to the world.

This is what boxing can do.

What awful luck, people say, that such horrific misfortune could strike two brothers. How terrible for the family! But what if it wasn’t luck? What if something in the Moyer brothers’ shared genetics contributed to their demise? What could that mean for boxing as a sport?

The perceived wisdom regarding Dementia Puglistica, also known as punch drunkenness or chronic encephalopathy is that it is simply caused by cumulative blows to the head. In other words, if you take enough shots, it’s likely to happen. For this reason it is usually expected that those with longer careers or who fight with an open style are most at risk.

But this simplistic approach fails to account for wide discrepancies. The reality is that while some boxers start showing symptoms in their twenties after a handful of fights, others endure prolonged beatings over many fierce battles and seem to retain their faculties forever. Could there be something driving that?

A vivid illustration of this point can be found in the careers and outcomes of two nearly-great Heavyweights from the 60s and 70s. The period was a golden era among golden eras for the big men and while Canada’s George Chuvalo and Californian Jerry Quarry never quite captured the richest prize in sport, they had enough about them to stay at the top end of the division for many years, going in with some of the greatest and hardest-hitting fighters of all time.

Blonde-haired, sunny-natured Quarry turned pro in 1965 and boxed on through several ill-advised comebacks until 1992, accumulating 66 contests. (Between 1977 and 1992 he only boxed 4 times). During that period he went in with nearly all of them: Ali (twice), Ken Norton, Joe Frazier (twice), Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Ellis, and Floyd Patterson (twice). A decent, all-round boxer with a jarring left hook, his main attribute was said to be his durability. Joe Frazier said of him “Quarry was a very tough man. He could have been world champion, but he cut too easily.” The Bellflower Bomber, as he was known, spent several chunks of his career as the official number one contender and there can be little doubt that in the modern era of four titles, he would have captured one at some stage.

Outside the ring, Quarry was a truly engaging personality in a time when the sport was full of them. Funny, quick witted, a great talker, he was named the most popular boxer in the world by Sports Illustrated for four years running. My personal favourite Quarry moment is this video of him doing an impersonation of Muhammed Ali prior to commentating on a fight in Rome for American TV.

Sadly his years in the ring took a heavy toll. Even prior to his last comeback bouts in the eighties and nineties he was showing clear signs of deterioration and once his ring career was left behind the descent into darkness was rapid. The video below was filmed in 1995, when he was 50, only 3 years after his last fight. Quarry was inducted into the international boxing hall of fame, but had no real idea what was happening around him. At one point he had to be helped to sign his own name on a glove for a fan. “Just do a Q, you know, put a circle with a line through it” his brother says.

‘Irish Jerry’ died in 1998, aged only 53. Like the Moyer brothers, towards the end he was unable to do anything for himself and had to be assisted to eat meals and go to the toilet.

Tenacity and pride ensured that during Quarry’s long and largely distinguished career, he only lost inside the distance six times. Most of those occasions were caused by cuts around the eyes but in 1969 he was squarely counted out against the similarly hard-boiled Canadian, George Chuvalo.

Also trumpeted at various times as ‘the great white hope’, prior to his retirement in 1978, Chuvalo boxed more bouts than Quarry, finishing with a 73-18-2 record (total 93). He also fought Ali (twice), Ellis, Frazier and Patterson as well as mixing it with the fearsome George Foreman. Astoundingly, considering the company he mixed in, he was stopped on his feet several times, but never once knocked down.

Like Quarry, Chuvalo was lionised for his fighting heart and ability to absorb punishment. After beating him on points in 1966, Muhammed Ali famously said “he’s the toughest guy I ever fought”.

Yet despite repeated beatings at the fists of the same men who sent Quarry to an early grave, Chuvalo is relatively unaffected by his years in the ring. He remains an engaging and intense personality who has endured enormous personal turmoil in his private life. As recently as one year ago, at the age of 77 on a Canadian chat-show, he spoke lucidly for ten minutes of his experiences inside and outside the ropes, showing no signs of mental deterioration.

So what is it that causes one man’s mind to disintegrate and another’s to hold firm? Recent medical research has suggested that rather than fighting style or even luck, it may, in fact, be genetic.

Repeated blows to the head, sustained through fighting and sparring – what are known as concussive and sub-concussive traumas, can eventually lead to an event called cavum septi pullicidi which essentially means a separation between the two spheres of the brain. Scans of famous fighters with serious neurological damage, like Quarry and his two-time conqueror Muhammed Ali, show this clearly. The condition bears a firm link to the onset of dementia pugilistica.

Intriguingly, recent studies have shown that those who carry an allele known as APOE4 in their genetic code are far more likely both to develop cavum septi pullicidi and to suffer pugilistica dementia. Outside of boxing, it is strongly linked with the development of Alzheimers. Tests showed that the Moyer brothers carried this gene, as have many others.

It is instructive to note that Jerry Quarry has two brothers, Robert and Mike, both of whom were pro fighters and are now also enduring major neurological problems. Like the Moyers, all the fighting members of one generation of the Quarry family succumbed to punch drunkenness. One wonders if they carry this allele too, while George Chuvalo, for example, does not.

If further research was conducted and proved to be conclusive, it would surely have a dramatic effect on the regulation of pro boxing. Young fighters who could be tested and shown to carry APOE4 would perhaps have to be disallowed from having more than ten fights, or even prevented from fighting at all. On the other hand those who did not could perhaps resist calls for retirement and box into middle age, if that was what they wanted to do. Perhaps then it would be possible to prevent further repeats of the Denny Moyer or Jerry Quarry story in the future.

While young men the world over continue to roll dice with their long term health in gyms and in the ring, it is time for boxing promoters and authorities to investigate this matter to its fullest. ‘Safety is paramount’ is an empty mantra, too often repeated falsely by those who profit from treating youths like livestock. If the terrible, terrible effects of dementia pugilistica are predictable, avoidable and preventable then it needs to be thoroughly examined, as a matter of urgency.



For further viewing on this subject please watch the excellent documentary ‘After the Last Round’



My book ‘Journeymen, The Other Side of the Boxing Business” is available in kindle or hardback from bookshops and Amazon, now.

My next book, ‘Wiped Out? The Jerome Wilson Story’ is now available for pre-order