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“Irish” Micky Ward Pledges Brain to BU

Former boxing champ subject of Mark Wahlberg’s award-nominated biopic


The rough-and-tumble life of Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward has been turned into a film starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Ward has pledged his brain to BU for research on head trauma. 

The hard-knock tale of Lowell, Mass., welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward will play out on the big screen in theaters around the country tomorrow, thanks to producer and actor Mark Wahlberg, who portrays the scrappy, working-class hero in the Paramount Pictures film The Fighter.

But Ward’s story won’t end there. The former boxing champion, who still calls Lowell home, is teaming up with BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) by pledging his brain and spinal column after death and participating in a long-term behavioral and cognitive study while he is alive. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disease that eats away at memory and impulse control, spurs depression, and eventually leads to dementia. The disease is believed to be caused by repetitive brain trauma.

The 45-year-old Ward, whose ability to take bruising amounts of punishment in the ring became legendary, says he suffered numerous concussions during his career and has struggled with memory issues. “They say that when you get dazed, that’s a minor concussion. I used to get those all the time.”

Watch a highlight reel from Ward’s fighting days above. Images below courtesy of officialmickyward.com.

CTE is also known as dementia pugilistica, or punch drunk syndrome, because of the frequency with which former boxers exhibit symptoms. Although repetitive brain trauma, including concussive as well as subconcussive impacts, likely leads to CTE, it’s not clear what role other risk factors, such as genetics, play. CTE cannot yet be definitively diagnosed in living athletes.

During his 15 years in the ring, Ward posted a 38-11 record as a junior welterweight, with 27 wins by knockout. He gained fame for a trilogy of fights with the late Canadian boxer Arturo Gatti—his May 20, 2002, victory over Gatti was dubbed the “Fight of the Century” by boxing fans and writers. Ward, who has since worked as a trainer and is involved in charity work, was the subject of the 2007 book Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward (Lyons Press) and inspired the Dropkick Murphys song “Warrior’s Code,” with the boxer’s image gracing the cover of the Irish-American punk band’s album of the same name. The Fighter is directed by David O. Russell and stars Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Ward’s crack-addicted half-brother-turned trainer, Dicky Eklund. On December 14, the film was nominated for six Golden Globes, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Wahlberg), Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo and Amy Adams), and Best Supporting Actor (Bale).

Ward joins more than 300 current and former athletes who have agreed to donate their brains to CSTE, among them NFL players Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens and Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks, Pro Football Hall of Famers Mike Haynes and Joe DeLamielleure, soccer stars Taylor Twellman and Cindy Parlow Cone, NHL star Keith Primeau, and Olympic swimming gold medalist Jenny Thompson. The center’s team is also studying the brains of U.S. soldiers who are reporting problems because of battlefield trauma, such as the impact from bomb blasts. CSTE’s high-profile research over the past three years has helped lead to rule changes in the NFL regarding concussions and helmet-to-helmet contact.

“Micky Ward is doing a great service to athletes and soldiers by pledging to donate his brain,” says Christopher Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who retired early with post-concussion syndrome and who is one of CSTE’s four codirectors. “CTE is the only fully preventable cause of dementia. By studying large numbers of athletes throughout their lives, as well as examining brain tissue through our expanding CSTE brain bank, we will be able to determine the specific risk factors for CTE and potentially develop effective treatments. The research will foster education and allow meaningful guidelines to be implemented at all levels of athletic participation.”

The brain donation registry is overseen by Robert Stern, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and another CSTE codirector. The brain bank and pathology program is led by Ann McKee, a MED associate professor of neurology and pathology. McKee has studied the brains of more than 50 former athletes and found that 12 of 13 former NFL players and multiple boxers had CTE when they died.

“CTE in boxers is identical in many ways to CTE in other athletes,” says McKee, a CSTE codirector and also director of neuropathology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Bedford, Mass. “The disease may have a longer course in boxers—and as a result, the disease is generally more advanced pathologically at the time of death. Parkinsonian symptoms are more common in advanced stages of the disease, and CTE in boxers tends to be more severe at the time of death compared to other athletes, including football players.” McKee was the first to diagnose the disease in an NHL player, in a former college football player, and in an active college football player, who committed suicide at the age of 21.

Nowinski says that despite boxing’s inherently brutal nature, “there are always ways to make sports safer. One of Micky Ward’s key insights is that in light of our new knowledge of CTE and its connection to subconcussive blows, he would not have allowed as much head contact when he sparred.”

Ward admits he sparred aggressively in the gym, and in the ring, would have kept fighting “even if my head was going to fall off.” Today, he urges fighters to seek medical help more readily, something he acknowledges is incongruous with the culture of the sport.

“Basically, in boxing, you get in there and you’ve got to be macho, mano a mano,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is show weakness. So if you ever got injured, you’d never say, ‘Oh my head hurts.’ You always want to look strong and like nothing hurts you.”

Ward will join Nowinski and renowned concussion expert Robert Cantu, also a CSTE codirector, as well as a MED clinical professor of neurosurgery, on a speaking tour to support brain trauma education and research through CSTE partner the Sports Legacy Institute, the head injury organization Cantu and Nowinksi cofounded in 2006.

“I’m all for trying to protect younger fighters coming up, as far as head injuries, the cause, and what can happen,” Ward says. “I want to be one of those fighters that steps up and helps future fighters.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

Read more on head trauma and athletes.


5 Comments on “Irish” Micky Ward Pledges Brain to BU

  • Anonymous on 12.16.2010 at 9:53 am

    As some actors in movies on contraversial subjects do, does anyone know if Mark Wahlberg plans to do anything to promote education and awareness of CTE? I think it’s great that Mickey Ward is using this movie to spread the word and do outreach.

  • DogSitter on 12.16.2010 at 10:36 pm

    Hits to the head cause brain damage?

    I think it’s great that he’s now promoting awareness of CTE, but I don’t think it’s a big mystery to anyone that extensive hits to the head can cause brain damage. FYI – the way you prevent CTE is to put protective head gear on! I still really want to see the movie though.

    • Pausanias1223 on 12.06.2012 at 2:18 pm

      Unfortunately, even when proper head gear is worn the brain is still subject to damage (albeit less severe), as rapid acceleration and deceleration causes the brain to “slosh” around in the cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain within the skull. The inside of the skull is not smooth, but rather has lots of pointy bits that can shear off cells on the surface of the brain when the brain sloshes around inside the head. Although most of the CTE discussion today surrounds concussions as those produce measurable clinical symptoms, chronic blows to the head that do not produce clinical symptoms can be just as damaging over time. So while helmets and other head gear are protective, nothing can truly prevent damage except avoiding chronic hits altogether.

  • Tommy on 12.19.2010 at 11:41 pm

    Sportsmen shoud never put their lifes in jeopardy, rules have to protect them!

  • Anonymous on 02.21.2011 at 6:39 am

    I hope that Mickey Ward is getting some kind of financial compensation from this movie ‘The Fighter’ and that some of the proceeds would be used for research for CTE. I really had no idea that athletes were donating their brains and spinal columns for research; it’s very amazing and praiseworthy. Facing this would be a hardship definitely. It’s one movie I will see.

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