Australian boxing great Jeff Fenech has pledged his brain to scientific research into the effects of concussion after a series of worrying incidents that saw him forget things straight after being told and going places without realising.
Research into the brains of ex-athletes shows that repeated knocks to the head – like those experienced by boxers and football players – might be causing serious brain disease.
Recent events have left Fenech worried about the effects that a career in which he claimed world titles in three different divisions and won 29 of his 33 professional fights might have had on his body.
He said personal experiences, as well as seeing friends deteriorate to the point where they could no longer speak, prompted him to make the extraordinary decision.
“I’ve done things where I’ve spoken to people and I’m supposed to meet them in 15 minutes and I’ve forgotten. I’ve been places and I’ve picked things up without even knowing,” Fenech told AM.
“Just recently I had all my tests, and they were all 100 per cent, so look, I’m not sure what it was. But look, I’m worried about it.”
Fenech, who had emergency heart surgery in Thailand in October after contracting an infection, also wants to challenge the way all sports, but particularly boxing, approach the growing body of research showing the lasting damage caused by multiple knocks to the head.
“In rugby league, if you get concussion, they take you off and they leave you there for 20 minutes and you go through a series of tests,” he said.
“In boxing we count to eight. If you’re not up by 10, the fight’s over. If you’re up by 10, we fight on.”
“Somebody needs to get up and speak the truth. If we’re going to have a protocol to look after people’s health, we need a protocol over all sports.”
The 55-year-old’s pledge is to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, a joint venture between the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney.
It already has more than 100 pledges from a variety of sportspeople from different codes, including former rugby league players Peter Sterling and Ian Roberts, former AFL players Sam Blease and Daniel Chick, and jockey Dale Spriggs.
A study published in 2017 on the impacts of American football found 110 of the 111 NFL players who donated their brains for research had suffered the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Neurologist Rowena Mobbs said Fenech’s brain would be studied for the same condition.
“Jeff has very bravely, I feel, put himself forward to try to explore this issue into whether multiple hits to the head can lead to lasting injury,” she said.
Dr Mobbs said the research was trying to establish the links between CTE and some of the symptoms.
“A person, for example, may have issues with their short-term memory in particular, their judgment, their vision and balance,” she said.
“There can be mood changes, such as irritability, depression or anxiety, that don’t always match up perfectly with changes in the brain on the technology we know of now.
“We really need further work in this field to understand what those culprit proteins are, that may contribute to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
Fenech said he hoped his donation would improve the understanding around CTE and make sure more was done to keep athletes safe in the future.
“I really don’t know what to say because I love boxing and without boxing, I’d be nobody,” he said.
“But I also think that life in general and helping people is more important than boxing,” he said.