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Boxing's rising profile may blind fighters to the perils of pugilism

With the sport drawing more participants and attention, doctors worry that people don't understand the dangers

Sunday, October 24, 1999

By Noelle Crombie of The Oregonian staff
The gym was quiet except for the crisp slapping of leather gloves striking heavy bags. Chris Oehling felt much better now that his headaches had disappeared. He was ready to box again.

The 17-year-old Oehling and his opponent were the first to enter the sparring match at University Park Community Center in North Portland. They had gone two rounds when Oehling's head began to pound. His last memory was of collapsing into his father's arms.

The concussion he'd most likely gotten during a sparring match a couple of weeks earlier hadn't healed. Now the membrane that protects the brain was bleeding, and blood was pushing his brain into his skull.

Doctors told Oehling's parents he might not live. He was in a coma for four days, then underwent four surgeries, including one in which half of his skull was removed temporarily. After months of rehabilitation, Oehling has made a complete recovery and is now a student at Washington State University.

"It was a real miracle that I made a recovery like this," he said.

Oehling, according to longtime boxers, had done everything right. He was well-trained and wore protective equipment, including headgear. And he still got hurt. To some local doctors, it's a perfect example of boxing's dangers.

What worries them even more is the emergence of a new breed of fighter, inspired by the wildly popular movie "Fight Club," who isn't wearing protection and is engaging in a more brutal, unsupervised form of combat.

Oregon City teens recently attracted national attention after it was discovered they had been holding unsupervised boxing matches in a local park since earlier this year. Now that city officials have banned their matches, the teens have threatened to take their brand of boxing underground and fight in one another's back yards or other discreet locations.

There's anecdotal evidence that unregulated fighting may be gaining popularity. "Fight Club" author and Portland resident Chuck Palahniuk said he's heard from people in California and London who have started their own fight clubs. He's even heard about a new form of fighting called "extreme backyard fighting," in which willing couples brawl with each other.

That fighting appears to be becoming more socially acceptable has doctors worried that people don't understand the risk involved.

"I do not believe I should be standing in the way of people doing this, but they need to be fully informed," said Dr. Randall Chesnut, a neurosurgeon and director of neurotrauma and neurosurgical care at Oregon Health Sciences University. "If you are going to box, you need to realize you may be trading some of your intellect for boxing. Some people may be willing to make that trade."

Trained boxers say they don't want to be confused with street fighters. Boxing is about discipline, conditioning and knowing how not to get hit more than it is about throwing punches, they said. Even some of those who have been injured or know others who have continue to be avid supporters.

"Boxing is the only sport where anyone off the street can fight his way to fame and fortune," said Newberg resident James Quarry, whose brother Jerry fought Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson before developing a form of dementia related to years in the ring. Jerry Quarry suffered from a boxing-related disease called dementia pugilistica before dying this year, the same condition that afflicts another Quarry brother, Mike, who also boxed.

James Quarry started The Jerry Quarry Foundation for Dementia Pugilistica to educate the public about the condition and to lobby to have fighters tested to determine whether they are genetically predisposed to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Even after seeing what the sport did to his brothers, Quarry remains a supporter.

"All of the other sports you have to go through the ranks," Quarry said, "but just a bum can come off the streets and become the heavyweight champion of the world."

Just one punch can leave a fighter with a serious head injury, doctors said. At first, boxers may not even realize they are hurt. They may become forgetful or tired. They may have trouble concentrating for long periods.

At first, Lynne Oehling, Chris' mother, could explain her son's symptoms. He spent his spare time sleeping, but he had a busy schedule, working after school at a local kennel in Vancouver, studying and, of course, boxing. He complained of earaches, but he had them often as a kid.

For several weeks, it never dawned on Oehling or her ex-husband, Gary, that their son was seriously hurt.

Damage caused by a concussion usually heals in time, unless the injury is severe, or, as in Chris Oehling's case, another injury occurs before the original one has had time to heal. By boxing again so soon after his first injury, Oehling most likely ended up with what neurologists call "second-impact syndrome."

"You should not in any way have anything like that happen to you for weeks afterward because two and two equal five with brain injury," Chesnut said.

But for many boxers, these are acceptable risks that seem no greater than those associated with football or even driving down the highway.

At the Knott Street Boxing Club in the Matt Dishman Community Center, once the mecca for young fighters in Portland, pictures of Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad decorate the walls. Heavy bags hang from the ceiling and mirrors reflect the raised ring. Every weeknight, the place brims with a mix of people, some serious about boxing and others who come just to work out.

Rudy Garza and Reggie Davis coach boxers who range in age from 8 to 30. It's a controlled program in which they run three miles a day and work out before stepping into the ring. They wear headgear, mouthpieces and 14- to 16-ounce gloves for practice. They box on a shock-absorbing foam pad.

If Garza or Davis hear about any of the boxers using on the street what they learned in the ring, they're thrown out.

The ring at University Park Community Center in North Portland is gone now. It's just an empty space in the auditorium where senior citizens can come in the mornings for breakfast and company. Thick chains that once suspended heavy bags still hang from the ceiling.

After Chris Oehling's injury, the boxing program that had begun at least a decade earlier came to a screeching halt. Lee Vincent, the center's director and a close friend of the Oehling family, made the decision to stop the program. He said he will not start it again unless he can dedicate himself to it or find someone who will. As director of the center, Vincent said he doesn't have the time to be directly involved with a boxing program. For now, the center only offers a boxing conditioning program.

Vincent has been coaching boxers in Portland since 1973. He thought Oehling was making great strides as a young boxer.

"His whole personality changed," Vincent said. "He was starting to get a lot more confident in himself and his ability."

But Vincent, who says boxing gave him confidence as a young man, saw the sport's darker side when he realized how badly hurt Oehling was. Initially, doctors said that even if he survived, he might never fully recover.

"Chris was a very, very sick boy when he came in," said Dr. Oisin O'Neill, the neurosurgeon who treated Oehling at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. "Chris is extremely lucky. That's not hyperbole. He's one of the luckiest recoveries I have seen."

Now 18, Chris Oehling knows he's a lucky man. He won't box again, but he holds nothing against the sport. Still, he warns others, especially the teens in Oregon City who held matches on their own, about its dangers.

"Unless they have a knowledge of the sport of boxing and they have some real experienced people around them" while they are boxing, he said, "then they shouldn't be doing it at all."