New York

I-Team: Paralyzed Boxer Battles for Better Ringside Medicine

After a 2013 fight, Magomed Abdusalamov lost movement in half his body and most of his ability to talk due to a severe brain bleed. His lawyer blames ringside doctors for not taking action sooner

What to Know

  • Years after a former boxing champ suffered brain damage in a MSG bout, his family is close to new reforms that might protect future fighters
  • After a 2013 fight, Magomed Abdusalamov lost movement in half his body and most of his ability to talk due to a severe brain bleed
  • His lawyer says physicians didn't monitor the boxer long enough to notice neurological deterioration, including vomiting and woozy stumbling

Six years after a former boxing champion suffered catastrophic brain damage in a Madison Square Garden bout, his family is one step closer to new reforms that might protect future fighters.

In 2013, Magomed Abdusalamov developed a severe brain bleed after losing a 10-round heavyweight fight against Mike Perez. The bleeding caused the boxer to lose all movement on the right side of his body and most of his ability to talk.

During the bout, Abdusalamov suffered a fractured face and a laceration above his eye. But according to a civil lawsuit settled just last week, the ringside doctors cleared the injured boxer to leave the arena after just a short post-fight examination. Later that night Abdusalamov’s trainers hailed him a taxi to the hospital, but not before pressure on his brain was already causing irreparable harm.

“They discharged him within eighteen minutes of the fight ending,” said Paul Edelstein, Abdusalamov’s attorney. “It’s an outrage because it never could happen in an emergency room setting.”

After hearing Abdusalamov’s story, State Senator Liz Krueger (D–Upper East Side) said she plans to draft reform legislation to strengthen medical protocols during post-fight examinations.

“I absolutely can sponsor that bill,” said Krueger. “We, the government, have failed to assure even the most minimal standards of health and safety are being applied to those fights. There’s something wrong with that.”

The I-Team left voice and email messages with lawyers for the ringside doctors targeted by Abdusalamov’s lawsuit. The messages were not returned.

Edelstein said the legal settlement between those doctors and Abdusalamov included an undisclosed payment to the paralyzed boxer, but the physicians have admitted no negligence or fault. Prior to settling, they argued boxing comes with inherent risks and they witnessed no sign of head trauma or neurological injury in their examination of the boxer.

But Edelstein says the physicians failed to monitor Abdusalamov long enough to notice his post-fight deterioration. Surveillance video inside the Madison Square Garden hallway shows him suffer a woozy stumble as he exited the building. Outside the arena, he vomited on the sidewalk. Both of those signs are classic symptoms of a traumatic brain injury. But the symptoms occurred after doctors had already released the injured boxer — without a brain scan.

Currently, New York Athletic Commission’s Medical Standards for Combat Sports Professionals say:

“Any combatant rendered unconscious or suffering head trauma as determined by the attending physician shall be immediately examined by the attending commission physician and shall be required to undergo neurological and neuropsychological examinations by a neurologist including but not limited to a computed tomography or medically equivalent procedure.”

But since the above rule doesn’t define “head trauma,” ringside doctors are free to release fighters without hospitalization — even if the combatants have serious facial injuries.

“When we asked these physicians in this case — didn’t Mago, who had a fracture in his face, a laceration over his eye, and horrific swelling, didn’t he suffer head trauma? Their answers have been, no that’s face trauma,” Edelstein said.

Two years ago, the state of New York paid $22 million to settle Abdusalamov’s lawsuit against the NYS Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing. Like the ringside doctors, the state admitted no fault or negligence. Prior to that settlement, New York’s Inspector General issued a report alleging the Athletic Commission mishandled Abdusalamov’s care and had more general deficiencies in its approach to emergency medical protocols after professional fights.

The Athletic Commission declined the I-Team’s request for an interview, instead sending an emailed statement touting reforms that took effect after Abdusalamov’s paralysis.

“The New York State Athletic Commission has enacted significant reforms that lead the nation in preserving fighter health and safety,” wrote Lee Park, a spokesperson for the New York Department of State. “Additionally, the commission consistently reevaluates its protocols and practices to ensure that they are responsive to the latest developments in medical technology, neurological exams, and expert analysis.”

The Athletic Commission did not respond to questions about why fighters aren’t automatically assumed to have experienced head trauma – since they generally receive multiple blows to the head. The Commission also did not respond to questions about whether medical observation protocols for boxers and MMA fighters in New York should be improved to mirror the NFL’s concussion protocols.

“If boxing should be different from any other sport, there should be a higher standard for detecting brain injuries,” said Edelstein, “because brain injury is the very object of the event!”

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