The Current

Brain injuries are 'a natural consequence' of 'dangerous' boxing: George Chuvalo's son

After a boxing match in Quebec City left a fighter in an induced coma, questions are being asked about the sport's safety. Anna Maria Tremonti spoke to two medical professionals, and the son of a Canadian boxing legend.

Montreal boxer Adonis Stevenson in an induced coma after fight

George Chuvalo, left, with his son Mitchell. George has suffered 'cognitive decline' in recent years, which Mitchell attributes to the boxing legend's career. (Submitted by Mitchell Chuvalo)

Read Story Transcript

Even though legendary Canadian boxer George Chuvalo is "now in cognitive decline," he still perks up at the mention of his fights against Muhammad Ali, according to Chuvalo's son Mitchell.

"He has trouble now contextualizing things, knowing what day it is, knowing where he is, but that Ali reference always brings him back to some degree of being lucid," Mitchell Chuvalo told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Mitchell grew up ringside, watching his father's rise to prominence over a career of 97 professional fights, from 1956 to 1978.

While his father, 81, was never diagnosed with a concussion, Mitchell is sure his career in the ring contributed to his current condition.

"You think of the thousands of concussive hits my father suffered over a career … I know that that contributed to his cognitive decline," he said.

On Saturday, a boxing match in Quebec City left fighter Adonis Stevenson hospitalized in an induced coma. Stevenson, a 41-year-old Montreal-based fighter known to his fans as Superman, remained in intensive care in a Quebec City hospital, after a knockout by Oleksandr Gvozdyk of Ukraine.

Stevenson is in a medically-induced coma, after he was knocked out by Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk in the 11th round of the WBC light heavyweight title fight in Quebec City on Saturday night. 0:39

In an update Wednesday, the hospital said Stevenson "requires mechanical respiratory assistance, deep sedation and specialized neurological monitoring." 

"It is too early to comment on Mr. Stevenson's long-term prognosis," said Dr. Alexis Turgeon, an intensive-care specialist at the Hôpital de l'Enfant-Jésus. 

The incident has raised questions among medical professionals over whether they can support the sport, or even whether it should be banned.

Mitchell said he's "torn" on his own father's experience.

"I know that my father suffered brain damage due to boxing but I also know that his life in boxing established who he was as an individual, and he is still to this moment ... quite, quite proud of that."

However, he doesn't believe Stevenson's case should be discussed as an accident.

"I don't think it was an accident. I think it's a natural consequence of being involved in a very dangerous sport," he said.

"And I don't know what we can do about it."

Oleksandr Gvozdyk, of Ukraine, lands a knockout punch to Adonis Stevenson Saturday, December 1, 2018 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Your brain 'will not be the better' for boxing

Dr. Richard Wennberg, a neurologist with the University Health Network in Toronto, calls boxing "prototype of an unsafe sport for brain function."

A knockout is "by definition an acute brain damage," he said, adding that the most typical injury that can result from a knockout is a concussion.

In more severe cases, boxers can suffer an intracranial hemorrhage, where there is bleeding inside the brain or the lining surrounding it.

"Sometimes an artery gets severed from a skull fracture and the blood can build up," he added.

He pointed out that while what happened to Stevenson is rare, "there is no doubt but that if one chooses to go into boxing as a sport, and actually fights, your brain will not be the better for it."

For a lot of people it was the way out of the street ... and to find a role for themselves in life and a way to sustain themselves.- Dr. Jean Doré

Boxers undergo medical checks before a fight, including CAT scans and MRIs, but Dr. Jean Doré argued that those tests are "absolutely useless" when it comes to managing concussions.

"We should be doing other investigations, like a neuropsychological evaluation, which [give] much more information regarding the status of a brain," said Doré, a professor of kinesiology in the faculty of medicine at the University of Laval.

Doré was a back-up physician at the fight in Montreal on Saturday, and did not directly care for Stevenson.

Should boxing be banned?

Doré pointed out that boxing offers health benefits as a form of exercise, and serious injuries at the amateur level are not as common as in professional boxing.

For generations, the sport has helped people fight their way out of poverty, he said.

"For a lot of people it was the way out of the street and to get their things together, and to find a role for themselves in life and a way to sustain themselves," he said.

Mitchell Chuvalo said his father George, left, had given him the vehicle in life to avoid having to enter the ring. (Submitted by Mitchell Chuvalo)

Mitchell Chuvalo pointed out that banning the sport would just drive it underground.

But while he was always involved with the sport in a spectator's role, Mitchell is thankful he was never pushed to follow in his father's footsteps.

He remembers training in the boxing gym when he was younger, when an onlooker called out to his father and said: "Hey George ... he looks good, he's going to be a fighter?"

"And my father turned and said: 'No, this kid's going to go to school,' Mitchell remembered.

"He had to fight, perhaps. I didn't have to, and he acknowledged that.

"That was his great gift to me."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Cameron Perrier.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.