Wednesday, June 09, 1999

Pryor pays heavy price with memory




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Aaron Pryor had blown his money, he remained rich in memories. He had been the world's junior welterweight champion, and no collection agency could ever repossess that title.

        Boxing, however, is the gift that keeps on taking. First, it taxes the body. Then it muddles the mind. Nearly nine years since Pryor's last professional bout, Cincinnati's Hall of Fame fighter has been diagnosed with pugilistic dementia. This is the clinical term for “punch drunk.”

        “He's in the early stages,” said Ken Hawk, Pryor's longtime friend and adviser. “He's more forgetful than normal. In the old days, Aaron could remember anything about any fight at any time, and it's slipped away ... In his amateur and professional career, he had about 275 fights. The net result is it probably shortened his life.”

        Pryor, 43, is on medication designed to retard the progression of his disease, but there is no known cure. He continues to coach for Buddy LaRosa's Millvale Golden Gloves Boxing Club and plans to participate in this weekend's induction ceremonies at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.

        Beyond that, Pryor's future is as cloudy as his reminiscences. Former heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry, who died in January at age 53, spent the last years of his life in a fog, so enfeebled by pugilistic dementia that he was unable to comb his hair. Muhammad Ali's decline from Parkinson's syndrome has been painfully documented. Former champion Leon Spinks, Hawk said, “is like a 5-year-old boy.”

No known cure
        Some forms of dementia are treatable, such as those caused by drug intoxication, benign brain tumors and insulin shock. Pugilistic dementia, however, is considered as irreversible as Alzheimer's disease. The condition typically afflicts memory and judgment and often is accompanied by disorientation, stupor and what medical textbooks refer to as “disintegration of the personality.”

        It sounds so bad you'd think Pryor had been hit by one of his own uppercuts.

        “We're still in the process of getting the medical reports,” said Frankie Wagner, Pryor's girlfriend. “It's a condition that is extremely common. It would be hard to find any pro boxer who doesn't have it to some degree.”

        Wagner described Pryor's condition as “just a memory, visual-spatial (relationship) type thing,” and that new medications have enabled Pryor to maintain his routine. Still, modern medicine has yet to discover a drug that can undo the damage of severe pounding to the skull. Neurosurgeons have calculated that repeated blows to the head have roughly the same impact as a 10-pound hammer wielded at speeds up to 20 mph. Pryor inflicted more damage than he incurred — his career record was 39-1, with 35 knockouts — but his whirlwind style was based on a grim equation: that he would take two punches for the chance to deliver one. “His head,” Hawk said, “took a hammering.”

Part of the business Pryor continued to fight even after damage to his retina made it impossible for him to see the “E” on an eye chart. He fought in Wisconsin and in Oklahoma after failing to obtain a license in California, New Jersey, New York and Nevada. Having squandered his fortune through drug abuse and extravagance, Pryor fell back on his only marketable asset: his fists.
        “The government won't give me any disability (payments), because they say I'm healthy,” he explained in 1990. “But nobody wants me to box because they say that my eye is damaged. What am I supposed to do?. I've got to make a living somehow. Boxing is my job.”

        This self-destructive pattern has repeated itself so often in the ring that it has become a cliche. Boxing always has been a refuge for the uneducated, the unskilled and the desperate. Participants accept the risks in the hope of huge rewards.

        “Most fighters have some type of trauma,” James “Bonecrusher” Smith said upon being denied a license to fight in England. “Hey, we're in the traumatizing business.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE