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The First Lady of Boxing Won’t Let the Sport Ignore CTE

To ensure combat sports aren’t following the NFL’s very slow lead on head trauma, legendary manager Jackie Kallen is working on new technologies that will gauge the damage to boxers’ brains immediately after a fight

As “The First Lady of Boxing,” Jackie Kallen’s legacy in the sport has long been set. (She’s been a guiding force behind the careers of everyone from Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, to James “Lights Out” Toney, to Bronco McKart.) In fact, these days, she’s much more interested in the legacy of the sport itself than her place in it — particularly as to how it relates to protecting fighters from the debilitating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

To that end, she’s currently searching for corporate sponsors for Wavi, a health-tech company that’s developed a product capable of evaluating the brains of not only athletes, but of anyone who feels like their brain may be suffering from a debilitating condition and wants to track its condition in real time. 

She certainly pulled no punches when I recently spoke to her, explaining why she has no problem putting a boxer’s health over a good fight, how she dropped a fighter from her roster for not feeling the same and how she believes something like Wavi can be additive to combat sports, not a detriment.  

What was it that first piqued your interest in early detection techniques for CTE and other debilitating brain conditions?

A couple years ago, I was at a fight with my fighter Mykquan Williams, and another young fighter named Patrick Day had just died after being knocked out in a fight. It concerned me that these guys take a lot of hits to the head — not just in an actual fight — but in sparring to prepare for a fight. There could be hundreds of rounds sparred before each fight. That’s the bigger part of it. You could see a fighter during his fights, and he might be evasive and not get hit a lot, but you don’t know how many times he got whacked in training while he was preparing for those fights.

Brain damage is nothing to look casually at. It has to be looked at seriously in any contact sport — whether it’s boxing, MMA, football or hockey. I wondered what kind of protocols they had to test for and prevent brain damage, and I wondered if there was something on the market that you could put on a fighter after a fight to ice down their head so that it might prevent swelling of the brain, and to help it heal more quickly from a concussion.

How did you go about connecting with a company that performs CTE testing?

I called my cousin who has been in the medical field forever. His name is Skip Kaplan. I said, “Skip, is there anything on the market, like some sort of a headgear that has ice in it? Is there something we could make with a headgear by hollowing it out and providing a space to put ice in so that if a fighter is knocked out in a gym or during a fight, we could immediately ice it down?”

While we were looking at something like that, he found a company called Wavi. They have a system where they put a helmet on a person — it could be an athlete, or just someone who suffers from ADHD, or somebody who suffers from short-term memory loss or thinks they might be heading toward dementia or Alzheimer’s. This helmet has electrodes, and these electrodes connect to a computer. It gives a readout. There are different components that test different things, but at the end of this simple test, which you’re in and out of in 45 minutes, you get a printout of what your brain looks like, what the performance of your brain is, how it’s functioning, your reaction time and other readings that will let you know if your brain is functioning in the normal range, or if there are things you should have a neurologist check out further.

As someone who manages fighters — I’m presently managing three right now — if I could see that something is off and doesn’t look right, I would know not to put a fighter in the ring, or especially in a gym for sparring where he’s taking a lot of repeated blows to the head. 

Being able to see the health and deterioration of a fighter’s brain would have obviously shortened some careers. I’m thinking here of Muhammad Ali specifically. How do you think boxers and boxing fans will react to this sort of technology? 

I fear that some fighters and trainers may not want to know. They want the big fight or the big payday. There are a lot of boxing fans who want to see these guys until the bitter end, and squeeze every last fight out of them. Then there are guys like Gerald McClellan and Oba Carr who stayed in there too long or had a bad fight, and wound up with brain damage and ended up in wheelchairs and not able to live normal, functional lives. 

Am I going to prioritize my own fun or thrill of watching a good match over the long-term health of a fighter for my own pleasure? Never. After boxing, these people still have to make a living. They’re not going to box until they’re 60 or 70 years old. If they get out of it in their 30s or early 40s and they have brain damage, what are they going to do for the rest of their lives? For me to see one more great fight and then have that person basically disabled the rest of their lives… No. 

I don’t know if Ali’s Parkinson’s was directly caused by boxing, but it was certainly exacerbated and sped up by it. A brain can only be smashed against a skull so many times in anyone’s lifetime without swelling and developing concussions. 

Have you received pushback on this from some people involved with organized sports?

One trainer in particular, when we wanted to test the fighters, he said, “I don’t want to know if my kid has a problem. He has a fight coming up.”

I said, “Excuse me? You don’t care?” 

He said, “Not really. If he don’t care, I don’t care.”

I was so surprised by that. It’s so callous. They want to follow the money train and worry about that later, but it’s too late when it’s later. This test isn’t going to show you everything, but it’s going to show you if there’s an issue that you need to address.

It was important to me. I got testing done on my own brain. I want to know my blood pressure, I want to know how my heart is and I certainly want to know how my brain is. I could only hope that people are health-conscious enough to want to get tested and see if they need to avert a problem.

Do you have any concern that this level of testing will conclusively tell the story that it’s never a good idea to involve yourself in a concussive sport where you might get struck in the head, and this will ultimately bring about the downfall of boxing and other fighting sports?

That’s a very interesting question, because the boxing commissions do request some form of neurological testing along with the bloodwork, the physical and the exam. But it’s usually a tactile test where you count back from 100, or they give you three names and see if you can remember them. If something like this was mandated and everybody had to take it, would it change the sport? Possibly. Could there be fighters and athletes who’ve been in the sport for a few years with readings that aren’t so great? Yes, I believe that’s true. 

I’d like to think the majority of the athletes will come out good and would continue to play the game, and we’ll only weed out the ones that could be left with serious CTE. I don’t think it will be the death of professional sports, but it might prevent some permanent damage and save some lives.

If I lost a fighter, or if I had a fighter who was left in any way brain damaged, I’d be heartbroken. I have stopped fights because I saw my fighter absorbing too much damage. It caused a lot of problems afterwards, and the fighter thought he could have gone on. Maybe he could have, but maybe he could have gotten seriously hurt. If I manage a fighter, I’m responsible. I’m not responsible if they’re in the middle of a fight and they get knocked out, but if I can find out ahead of time that you have pre-existing damage, I feel it’s my responsibility to do so.

Can you provide an example of a fight you stopped that caused animosity with the fighter?

I managed a kid here in Detroit named Bernard Harris. A nice, bright prospect. A lightweight. He took a fight at that time with a guy named “Famous” Hernandez. Famous was an up-and-coming kid, and this was a tough fight. Bernard wanted to take it; I didn’t want him to take it. We argued about it. He felt he was ready, and he took the fight. In the 8th round, he had been taking too much damage and too many unanswered hits, and I told his trainer to throw the towel in. I didn’t want to see any more of it. He spent the night in the hospital, and I told him I didn’t think he should fight anymore and I gave him his release. He continued fighting, lost quite a few fights after that and was never quite the same. I didn’t want to watch a kid I adored getting punched senseless. He was very upset with me, but he thanks me now, 25 years later. It wasn’t a popular decision at that time, but in retrospect, I think he appreciates that I was looking out for him.

I’m not the bloodthirsty one that goes to the Indy 500 who wants to see a car get smashed up. At the same time, I understand people who go to a fight and want a knockout. It’s very boring if you have a 12-round title fight and there’s no knockdowns. I like the excitement of a knockout the same as anyone else. But to see a fighter lose round after round, there’s no enjoyment in it. Fighters always think they have a puncher’s chance, but if a fighter is really taking a beating, I don’t care about the one-punch chance. The odds of permanent damage are greater than the odds of getting in that one punch.

Is it safe to say that even if Wavi isn’t the vehicle for bringing about this change, you’d support a company with a similar technology that did bring it about?

One hundred percent. I’m 100 percent for whatever will save a life, or for whatever will prevent someone from ending up like Gerald McClellan, Oba Carr or Bobby Chacon. [Wavi] has a lot of good applications. It can be used in schools to test student athletes, so parents know ahead of time if there’s a problem with their kids. I’m trying to find ways we can get this out there, and to use it in schools, organized sports teams, nursing homes and clinics. If I had an opportunity to get with a corporate sponsor who would want to back some research, we could go into the city and test some kids for free. 

That’s my dream with this — it’s not so much to sell these units to doctors offices, but to get some corporate sponsorship to go out and test young athletes and hopefully save some lives along the way. We could compare the first test to subsequent tests and get a good picture of what’s going on. The money I make from the agreement isn’t going to change my life, but if one of them was to get hurt, that would 100 percent change my life for the worse.