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Can You Still Take a Punch to the Face at 60 Like You Could at 25?

With Mike Tyson headed back into the ring, let’s see just how good an idea it is for a man of advancing years to take a wallop

Mike Tyson, not a young man, says he’s going to fight again. Iron Mike has been offered $20 million by the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship to get in the ring, and he’s been posting videos of himself in the gym, claiming both that he’s back and that people should purchase Bad Boys for Life on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Tyson is currently 53. He’ll be 54 in July, with a grey beard framing the world’s most famous face tattoo. How good an idea is it for a guy in his sixth decade to step into a situation where a punch in the chops is all but inevitable? He’s still Mike Tyson, of course, so some of the rules of mere mortals don’t apply, but still — there’s something upsetting about the thought of an old man being hit in the face (although less so when you consider his conviction for raping an 18-year-old woman in 1992).

Mark “The Burf” Burford is the head professional boxing coach at The Ring, London’s oldest professional boxing club, and a big fan of Tyson. “He’s had an amazing life and overcome horrific challenges, and he’s an incredible personality you can’t help but feel empathy for,” he explains.

Overall, Burford thinks taking a punch is the least of Tyson’s worries. “Where he’s going to have a problem is in the training,” he says. “He can fight — of course, he can fight — but he’ll have a day where he walks into the gym and realizes that he’s been playing at it for the last 10 years. He’s got a cannabis brand, he’s a big media personality and he’s been playing around with boxing. It’s not necessarily about the actual fight, but the stresses and strains that he’s gonna put his body through so that, with the ego he has, he can achieve a level of performance that he thinks suits the name. The Mike Tyson brand isn’t about growing flowers.”

“He’ll have a flashback to how he used to train, and he’ll have to do that. Everything about his identity, his self-worth, his personal relationship with himself, is about being a great fighter. A boxing match, at any level, is a highly stressful situation. When you’ve been at the absolute top of the tree, then spent 20 years out of it surrounded by people telling you how brilliant you are and how you’re the greatest ever, turning around and saying, ‘I’m gonna do it again,’ is a hell of a mountain to climb. I’m not saying he shouldn’t do it — he’s an adult — but I’m saying, I hope they’re filming his training because I want to watch that documentary.”

Boxing is, generally, a young man’s game. Tyson began in his teens and became heavyweight champion at just 20. Before he went to prison at 26, he had fought 42 professional fights and won 41 of them. His post-prison career, from 29 to 38 — nine wins, five losses, two no-contests — was less impressive. In 1981, writing in the New York Times, Fernando “Ferdie” Pacheco — personal physician to Muhammad Ali and known as “the Fight Doctor” — described the toll of the sport on an older body in fairly stark terms: “A boxer who fights after age 30 is helping nature along on its downhill course. A boxer who fights after 35 is pushing on the gas pedal, accelerating toward an early demise and making his trip there uncomfortable.”

Burford has spent his life in the ring, and knows the effects of the passage of time. “I’m 52, and I’m confident I could be placed in front of anyone from the ages of 35 to 55 and keep up with them in terms of speed, agility and movement,” he says. “But there’s just a demarcation line between youth and middle age. There’s nothing you can do about it. I said to my son, ‘I’ll have a spar with you,’ and I literally couldn’t hit him. I could see what he was doing, but couldn’t do anything about it. For the last 15 years, I’ve been living in a world where my body thinks it can do things that it can’t really do when confronted with youth or a higher physical challenge.”

Burford reckons Iron Mike will have changed his fighting style as a result of living in much the same world, even if he’s done so subconsciously. “You evolve,” he says. “When I’m sparring, I’m much more head-defense oriented than I used to be. I used to have my hands lower and be more fluid in my movements, but now I’m much more elbows in, chin down, hands up, locked in position, trying to marginalize the other guy’s attack — rather than risking taking 100 percent of his shot, I’ll definitely take 20 percent. It’s less flamboyant, more conservative boxing. I’d imagine [Tyson] would have evolved his boxing into something it didn’t look like before. If people think they’re going to see the Mike Tyson Show circa 1986, that’s not going to happen.”

Physiologically, however, The Burf doesn’t think there’s a big difference between taking a hit as a younger man and an older one, saying, “I think, if you get knocked out, you get knocked out.” The problem comes not in taking a punch, but in (a) taking a lot of them and (b) healing.

When it comes to taking lots of them, the bare-knuckle nature of Tyson’s proposed fight might be to his advantage. The BKFC has 10 one-minute rounds, as opposed to the 12 three-minute rounds of conventional boxing, resulting in a fraction of the contact time. “Bare-knuckle fighting looks terrible, because the guys get cut, but they don’t get hurt as much as the guys doing it with gloves on, because the fights get stopped quicker,” says Burford. “It’s the continued, repeated barrage of shots, combined with dehydration, that does the damage to your brain.” 

Then there’s healing, or rather, the struggle to heal. Leaving the ring could just be the beginning, as the effects of a punch can last a long time. As the body ages, so does the brain, and neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to adapt, whether through learning or repair — decreases over time. Older adults heal from concussion significantly slower than younger adults, and are more likely to suffer serious consequences from head trauma due to various factors. The dura — the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord — is less securely attached to the skull in an older body. Plus, cerebrovascular atherosclerosis, in which plaque builds up in the blood vessels of the brain, becomes much more likely with age, and the bridging veins, which connect the brain to the skull, become thinner, fragile and more susceptible to damage

Obviously, boxing is really bad for your brain — up to a fifth of boxers develop persistent neuropsychiatric impairments, and just routine sparring can affect their memory. There is even a specific condition unique to the sport, boxer’s dementia (dementia pugilistica), which is neurobiologically similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Head injuries in general increase your risk of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and are thought to have contributed to Muhammad Ali’s illness. (Although Parkinson’s sufferers who take up boxing training — but, crucially, don’t do the fighting part — are increasingly using it as a way to increase neuroplasticity.) 

All of which is to say, at any stage in life, if you have the choice between taking a punch to the face or not, the healthiest thing to do is to avoid it. But the older you get, the truer this becomes — because long after you’ve dusted yourself off, mopped up your blood and let your fat lip heal, the real damage is still going on.