Latest brain science exposes tragic reality behind youthful muay thai dreams
The boy in the ring, behind the high ropes on the grubby canvas, looks about 13 and already has the distinctive lean, muscular shape of a muay thai fighter, an attenuated version of the combat giants he no doubt dreams of replicating. His boxing trunks ar
He kicks the pad held by the trainer with lightning force, his expression focused and severe. In between the controlled explosions he smiles effulgently. He is what hard work and a burgeoning fight resumé made him, and he’s as at home in that wonderfully squalid setting as a bird soaring on a jet stream.
But I wonder what will become of him when he is finished with the sport, or the sport is finished with him; when the Bangkok gym he trains at and the crowds he entertains are no longer his world. I wonder if he will be riven by depression and be the bringer of domestic violence, the chaser of highs that beget even worse lows. I wonder if his loved ones will be bewildered by his transformation from the sanguine to the moribund, if he will die surrounded by family he doesn’t recognise, or kill himself.
He may end up in a club no one wants to join; whose membership is reserved for the countless left with degenerative brain disease by the sport they loved. And if that happens he would likely be another undocumented victim of this tragedy, another poor soul who didn’t rage against the dying of the light.
In the next ring struts the hardscrabble establishment’s alpha rooster, a 19-year-old with soap-star looks. They say he’s a champion; that he fights once a month for Bt150,000. A TV camera follows him. So does the young foreign woman sitting ringside. He’s prettier than her.
The gym owner is an elderly chain-smoker with a gregarious personality and very little interest in grooming and clothes. He talks about the champ like a proud father.
Apart from the somewhat unseemly sight of the champ being tipped over while grappling with his trainer, a troglodyte in comparison, he never seems fallible, never seems flustered or rushed. The air he breathes is reserved for winners.
But I wonder what will become of him in years from now when, I suspect, the TV camera and the foreign girlfriend will be long gone and the adulation replaced by don’t-I-know-you stares. I wonder if the graceful gait will become a sad shamble, his balance shot by a neurodegenerative disease with a three-pronged name and a mushrooming fear factor.
It’s called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and it is prevalent in people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries. This century we have learned a lot more about CTE, mainly through US research, and the findings are disturbing; the danger so real top athletes are retiring in their prime or before getting to it.
CTE was once thought to affect only fighters (punch-drunk syndrome), but we now know its reach is much more malign. Even Americans who played contact sport in high school and college but didn’t turn pro have fallen victim. The symptoms include depression and memory loss that often mimic dementia and Alzheimer’s but affect people in what should be their prime.
Junior Seau also breathed winners’ air, before choking on the miasma of life. The Hall of Fame American footballer put a gun to his chest at age 43 in 2012. He had experienced wild mood swings, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression. Tests following his death revealed he had CTE.
Drug and alcohol abuse, aggression and violence are also among the common symptoms. In many cases it causes the destruction of finances and relationships and then…
A 2009 analysis of 51 people with CTE found the average lifespan was 51.
Many contact sports are trying to better protect players against head knocks. But for the most physical ones, especially, it would appear little can be done without betraying the essence of what makes them what they are.
The National Football League is paying out an estimated US$1 billion (Bt35 billion) concussion settlement to retired players. While the settlement does not cover players with CTE, the NFL has finally admitted that American football and CTE are linked. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System found it in 88 of the 92 deceased former NFL players studied.
For the muay thai fraternity the findings illuminate the long-known grim reality associated with one of the world’s most brutal sports – one that exposes children to repeated concussions while their brains develop. They enter the ring as young children, often fighting more than one hundred times in their formative years and long after that.
What would a brain scan of our muay thai hero reveal? Given the stark facts it could serve as a crystal ball to a tragic future where great deeds are documented in TV footage, in newspaper articles, on the Internet and through the recollections of others but are cruelly ripped from him, the beauty and invincibility of youth replaced by the ugliness and inevitability of a wretched death.
How many fighters end up like that? And how many 13-year-old fighters dream of being the top cock, earning riches and bathing in cheers but already have brain damage?