Ep. 8 - Counting Every Punch: Muhammad Ali’s Traumatic Brain Injury

Muhammad Ali’s brain scans show troubling signs to modern neurologists. But is there any way to look back and trace the damage itself? Author Jonathan Eig looks for answers and uncovers shocking statistics. The fatal effects of Ali’s commitment to his sport are told in this week’s episode.

Sophia Muhammad is the granddaughter of Elijah Muhammad and the daughter of Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s manager. Herbert ripped off Ali more than anyone else; and he loved Ali more than anyone else. Sophia tried to sell me Ali artifacts. She had Muhammad’s brain scans in her trunk from a time when her father took Muhammad to a hospital in Damascus because the doctors thought they could cure his Parkinson’s. Luckily, she let me borrow them.

I took the scans to a neurologist and the results were troubling, with signs of abnormalities associated with head injury. Although how could that be surprising, really?

The name of the game of boxing is to concuss your opponent, and sadly Muhammad Ali didn’t fight in an era where there was that kind of awareness. I wanted to learn more about the impact all of those blows to the head had on his health later in life. I approached CompuBox, a company who churns out boxing statistics, including the number of punches thrown, punches landed, percentage of punches landed, power shots, and jabs.

We set out to count every punch in Muhammad Ali’s book. We extrapolated the data to figure out how many times he was punched in his career, including amateur fights, exhibitions and sparring.

Source: SportsIllustrated.com

Source: SportsIllustrated.com

Before a fight, a fighter will spar for dozens of rounds. Maybe hundreds. Muhammad Ali believed he could build up resistance to punches. Like building resistance to spicy foods. He believed it would make him stronger against his opponents.

Guess how many punches they guessed he endured over the course of his career? 

The health implications for all of this were longterm and disastrous. Ali would take punches because he knew if he let his opponents hit him they would eventually get tired and then he could overpower them. It was a great formula as a boxer; disastrous formula as a human being.

When Ali was asked if it was worth it, he said he would do it all again. Even the Ali vs. Shavers fight—one that might have changed everything for him.

Learn more about Muhammad Ali's brain damage in my book. Preorder your copy through the link below. 

PodcastJonathan Eig