For some, Palookaville is a place where former Comic Strip hero Joe Palooka reigned supreme; for others it’s a place for down-and-outers. For me, it’s far worse and often takes a long and agonizing journey to get there.
On May 8, 1974, ‘Irish Jerry” Quarry showed the first signs of something being wrong as he appeared bloated and his reflexes seemed off when he fought lightly regarded Joe Alexander (8-3). Alexander shockingly decked Jerry with a well- leveraged left hook shortly before the bell ending round one, Quarry literally bounced off the floor. An emboldened Alexander then raised his hands between rounds confident that he would soon close matters. But the Bomber from Bellflower turned things around with a solid right that decked Joe who barely made it up. Then Quarry, ever the savage closer, finished Alexander off with a right, left, right combo that had the crowd up and roaring.
However, this Quarry was not the same one who slaughtered Shavers just a few months previously. Something had changed. The feints were absent, the counterpunching was not as sharp, and the punches were wild. Something was amiss, but how could anyone know that the real battle—the deadly battle within– had just begun.
It wasn’t long before witnessed the not-so-slow and frightening slide of Jerry and then his younger brother Mike—as they joined Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis, the Moyer brothers, Bobo Olson, Bobby Chacon, Jimmy Young, Willie Pep and far too many others. Their early signs were the slurring of speech, blank stares, the nasal monotone, the shuffling gate. These tragedies stopped me in my tracks and gave me solemn pause. These warriors were reminders that there is a dark side– another horribly irreversible side of the risk-reward equation. And most boxers are leery of this darker side as well they should be. This is the one I call “Palookaville”—a place from which there is no return. A place where any possible feeling of invincibility is erased by the thousands of blows landed upon the skull in the gym.
Greg Page played with the risk-reward equation and lost. Jim Adams of the Louisville Courier-Journal put it this way, “It was a fight Greg Page never should have fought, in a broken-down nightclub somebody probably should have closed. The hot air stank. Blood smears stained the floor of the ring.”
The terrible damage suffered in plain sight by Magomed Abdusalamov against Mike Perez on November 2, 2013 ensured that his journey would have no stops along the way. He would never be the same.
“He’s living over there [in the nursing home], but really he’s dead…And nobody cares. Frankly, nobody ever will care. But I care.”—Denny Moyer’s wife Sandy Moyer
So here it is then. There is almost a sense of temporary, of “just passing through” that is unmistakable. Most inhabitants are locked in a clouded emotional prison punctuated with stares that see very little. They hear voices no one else hears, and they sometime wander at night. Some sit in wheelchairs, semi-paralyzed; others lie in bed unable to see, having to be fed and otherwise cared for. Some shuffle around without knowing their destination. Occasionally, a flash of glory is recalled, but soon the flashes cruelly evanescence and the blank stares return from eyes glazed over. Often confused, childlike, and uttering unintelligible sounds delivered by thick tongues, some have friends or relatives to help out. Eventually, they will need to be cared for like infants, for this terrible thing they have is degenerative and unforgiving and can move rapidly.
At the very end of the journey, the irreversible descent morphs into cerebral atrophy and the brain rapidly shrinks with dead cells dissolving into liquid. Finally and mercifully, the all-but-dead brain eventually begins to shut down, and a decision is made to remove life support, which in turn will result in cardiac arrest. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the Tau cells offer a somewhat different impact on the brain but the end result is pretty much the same.
And so that’s where it all finally ends. Here, there is neither denial nor hope. No more triumphs. No romanticizing. The bulb flickers, dims, and dies away.
All becomes dark.
“I was champion of the world and there are three things that go and that’s how a fighter knows that he’s all done. First, your legs go, but if you got reflexes, you can see the punches coming, and you can bob and weave. The second thing is that your reflexes go, and the third thing is that your friends go, and you know you’re all done when there’s nobody hangin’ ‘round no more.”—Willie Pep