Addiction, Personal Demons, and the Darkside of Depression in Boxing
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January 31, 2017
Recently, the former Olympic gold medalist, boxing great, and East Los Angeles native, Oscar De La Hoya, suffered the biggest loss of his career. De La Hoya was arrested in Pasadena, California after allegedly having a few too many drinks at a local bar, and making the terrible decision to get behind the wheel. With two prior stints in rehab for cocaine use, many fans know Oscar isn't a stranger to addiction. Late last year, a story broke about former four division world champion, Adrien Broner. His close friends had been worried that he was contemplating suicide, and subsequently contacted police to check on the boxer after he went to social media and strongly implied taking his own life. Broner began posting and apologizing to his family, friends, and then posted a photo of a handgun inside of a vehicle.
Boxers with substance abuse issues, addiction and mental health issues such as depression, isn't anything new in the sport. These issues have, and continue to become a growing problem for boxers. Recently, heavyweight champion Tyson Fury opened up about his battle with depression, and his fight with substance abuse. For prizefighters, this isn't anything new: from Frank Bruno to Ricky Hatton, to Pernell Whitaker and Johnny Tapia, the list of boxers that have struggled with addictions and depression goes on and on. Boxers put their lives on the line every time they get into the ring. Their bodies and mental health are put at risk. Professional boxers hide their vulnerabilities and emotions from their opponent, and fans watch their every move not only in the ring, but also in their personal lives. Boxers have to be not only in top physical condition, but mentally prepared as well. For many fighters, boxing is all that they have. When depression hits -- it hits hard. For Ricky Hatton, he has stated all his accomplishments were for his fans. In a recent BBC interview, Hatton talked about how his depression led him to drugs and alcohol, and was also published in a British newspaper using cocaine in a hotel. He felt he had let everyone down and his only way out was to commit suicide. Many of the best boxers tend to slowly fade out of the public eye and everything they have worked their entire life for comes to a painful end. The natural high that prizefighting gave them ends up disappearing. This is where depression can slowly creep up on a person, without them ever noticing. Many people have asked how these fighters that are in great physical shape, and that have been mentally ready for war every time they get in the ring, fall into such a dark state of mind.
First off, boxing as we all know is a brutal sport. I've always wondered what the mentality of a person is, who wants to jump into a ring and get hit in the head to begin with. What is their upbringing, their education, family life, and income like? Are they from the streets, and literally fighting to survive? What is their emotional state before they ever enter the ring? Then there is the standard dementia process produced by repeated trauma to the head, and as part of the dementia spectrum there are mood swings and depression. These fighters go into the ring and many pride themselves on having a great chin and being able to withstand powerful blows while trading shots with their opponent. When a fighter is cut, has a broken bone or torn muscle, it's easily diagnosed by medical experts. When a fighter is knocked out, bleeding within the brain usually occurs. Yet, the effects of blows to the head tend to remain undisclosed unless there is a major accident that brings an injury to our attention. As far back as 1928, American pathologist Harrison Stanford Martland, wrote a paper entitled "Punch drunk" in which he showed that prize fighters were suffering from brain injuries caused by the rupture of blood vessels. The "punch drunk" condition, known more formally as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or as its variants, dementia pugilistica or boxer's dementia, is a neurodegenerative disease that can affect boxers and others who suffer knocks to the head. It can cause depression, aggression, impulsivity and memory loss and has been linked to suicide. When fighters suffer a brain injury, the body releases distress chemicals that trigger feelings of sadness, confusion, doubt and depression: basically, it’s a distress signal. The body is telling you there’s a problem. Athletes in contact sports are more prone to depression. Recently, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimated that 90 percent of boxers sustain a brain injury. The head injuries some boxers sustain contribute to depression. This sometimes leads to drug use such as cocaine, in what can only be categorized as failed attempts at feeling better.
So what's the answer? I believe it starts with education, training promotional companies and managers on what to look for when it comes to mental health issues with their fighters. Sanctioning and governing bodies, as well as state athletic commissions, must also do their part in the education process. Maybe even past fighters who have struggled with depression could speak to the current class and offer some words of advice. Another possible alternative could be a boxing hot line where a fighter could reach out to an expert in the mental health field. Fighters could also be forced to go through a series of mental health evaluations before they're allowed to fight. I personally don't have all of the answers, only ideas. But in today's world of technology and social media, it's truly sad to see that more of the major players in the boxing community are allowing so many current and former fighters to be stuck with these demons.
Anthony "Stacks" Saldaña is a contributing writer for FrontProofMedia.com. You can follow him on Twitter @StacksRingside
(Feature photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe)