Parkinson’s Disease and the Boxers’ Rebellion

by Arvid Adell

What do all ten of these men in the photo wearing boxing gloves have in common?

They all have Parkinson’s disease, aka PD. They are all male (women also get Parkinson’s, but men outnumber them 3 to 2). All of them are active members of the Core Combat Boxing group, which meets every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in the Core Sports Arena, near Rockford, Illinois.

Maybe most importantly, they are all extremely courageous and their objective in boxing is to fight as militantly as they can against the symptoms of PD. That’s why I refer to them as the members of the Boxers’ Rebellion.

What is Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder which expresses itself in all kinds of ways, both physical and mental. It’s a brain-nerve problem which appears in numerous symptoms. What causes it? A generalization I read recently may offer the best answer. “It’s a combination of environmental and hereditary factors which adversely affect a person’s neurological system.” Perhaps (and it’s a cautionary guess) it is pesticides or some form of trauma to the head. Or a DNA issue.

There is no “known” cure for PD. In a questionnaire in which I asked each Core Combat Boxer if he thought a cure would be found in his lifetime, only one wrote he definitely expected it to happen. It’s not a question of “if” but “when” and the sooner the better! Another said “I know that no one who has the disease has been completely cured but why shouldn’t I be the first one?”

In the meantime, the focus is on doing things that lessen the progression of the symptoms which attack one’s quality of life. Most of the persons who take part in the combat activity report some significant progress in dealing with their symptoms. It’s not a cure (yet), but hopefully it’s “only a matter of time.”

Presently, certain drugs may help, at least for a while. The most notable example of this is Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s over 27 years ago. Fox has spoken recently about finding a drug cocktail that has helped him control his symptoms and side effects well enough so he can play a character (a man who has PD, appropriately) on a primetime network T.V. show and also appear as a guest on Larry David’s HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and other notable television programs. So there is hope and optimism for the future. PD is not necessarily a life sentence.

My new profession: A part-time career

A few months ago, I received a telephone call from my brother-in-law, Dan Akerlund, asking if I would do him a favor. He needed someone to transport him to Core Combat Boxing on either Tuesday or Thursday. I replied that I would check my calendar and respond immediately (a mere pro forma act on my part. Ever since I retired from teaching in the MBA program at Millikin University in 2013 my schedule has been pretty much unencumbered by obligations of any kind). So for the last few months I’ve played the role of chauffeur, taking Dan from his picturesque lakeside home in the wilds of the wooded Caledonian farmland to the arena, a huge athletic facility which houses the boxing exercises.

At first I decided my role would be to drive Dan to the Core and as soon as the class began I would exit the scene, find a comfortable place to read/take a brief nap and return in time to complete the round trip.

However, it never happened that way. Why? For starters I was absolutely baffled that persons with PD would be advised to engage in boxing. The late Muhammad Ali, who died at the age of 74 and had advertised himself as the “greatest boxer of all time,” admitted that the trauma of blows to his head caused his Parkinson’s, which in his case became lethal. Concussions are anathema. Why would persons who have already been diagnosed as having some symptoms of PD risk making matters worse? I thought I should remain focused on these combat troops and maybe even offer a suggestion or two.

Of course, the coaches who supervised these “matches” were way ahead of me. The cardinal rule was that no boxer could ever hit another “Parkie.” Instead there were plenty of suspended punching bags more than willing to absorb the hardest blows anyone had to offer. In addition, the Core had an ample supply of portable bags, some shaped like humans, upon which the fighters were encouraged to sit and smash to their heart’s content. What a catharsis this hybrid “fight club” event must have provided for the PD-ers! When they were finished, all of them appeared to be totally exhausted.

In addition, there was still plenty of time for actual but harmless combat between these pugilists. They were paired, one being the aggressor with regular boxing gloves, and the other being the opponent who wore a huge glove, slightly larger in circumference than a baseball catcher’s mitt. The person wearing the mitt would continuously hold it out in various positions and the puncher would do his best to make contact. After a few enervating moments the twosome would change roles and keep up the same frenetic pace. Remember, no punches to the body!

Towards the end of an hour of rather intense exercising it was time for group therapy. Almost always the participants formed a line and passed a rather heavy black ball back and forth. I could never hear what they were saying but with each exchange someone made a hilarious (evidently) comment and, for the most part, the reaction was raucous laughter. Were they having fun?

The final event was the coaches and players getting together in a huddle and with arms around each other everyone contributing to an exuberant, practically deafening cheer. Combat boxing was as much an emotional and social happening as a physical one. The camaraderie and the enormous compassion and love which each of these persons expressed for the others during this hour was palpable and compelling and even for a “spectator” like myself, it was energizing and time well spent.

Most of these two-day-a-week boxers also were spin masters, doing intense stationary biking three days a week.

The symptoms accompanying Parkinson’s are not only motor ones but cognitive, emotional and mental ones as well. Spiritual? Could be. This has not escaped the attention of these men, so in addition to their commitment to strenuous boxing and biking activities they engaged in social ones as well. On Mondays and again on Fridays of every week they celebrate their friendship by having lunch together at the Sophia’s and the Whiffletree restaurants. Their tripartite anthropology was inclusive: mind, body, and soul. Plato as well as the rest of us should be impressed by their perspicacity!

Eagles, wings, and spouses who are heroes

Bette Midler won a Grammy in the ‘90s for singing “The Wind Beneath my Wings.” The lyrics depict an anonymous person who has been crucial to Midler’s success while receiving no appreciable recognition. In the song, Midler offers this tribute to her.

“Did you ever know that you’re my hero? / And everything I would like to be? / I can fly higher than an eagle / For you are the wind beneath my wings”

In the context of the Core Combat Boxers this tribute belongs to the wives and significant others of all of these gentlemen. In fact, one could extrapolate and affirm that it belongs to all partners who sacrifice so much of themselves for those persons who have to live with the challenge of PD. They are indeed “the wind beneath the wings” who contribute to the quality of life so essential to all human beings. They deserve to be saluted.

Like Bette Midler’s song, this verse from the book of Isaiah focuses on “rising up on wings like eagles.”

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

This refers to the Jews who had been in exile in Babylonia from 597/586 until 538 BCE and had been set free to go back to their homeland. The long trip back to Judah would be arduous, dangerous, and enervating. Metaphorically, the Jews needed “wind beneath their wings” and the source will be none other than their God. Even though the Babylonians had destroyed both the house of Jehovah (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), as well as the wall around the city, they could not diminish the faith of the exiled Jews.

In the questionnaire that I sent to the boxers, I asked them to tell me if religion and God made any difference in dealing with PD. Their responses were many and varied: meditation, faith, deep breathing, reliance on divine assistance through health professionals, devotional readings – all seemed to contribute to ameliorating the symptoms they experience.

Larry Baker offered a testimony of a slightly different theological bent. “I was not diagnosed until I was 80, so I am older than most people with PD. I have had a good life, a supportive wife, and most of all my Lord who has promised He would never give me more than I could handle.”

In my inquiry to the participants I mentioned this personal observation: “It is not just exercise that brings you to the club on Tuesday and Thursday but the cultural and the interpersonal benefits as well. You all contribute to the healing process for everyone else, as well as yourself.”

John Zanocco gave me permission to relay his answer to my question about religion, faith and PD. It is in the form of a deeply moving narrative which I quote below:

“I was diagnosed [with Parkinson’s] January, 2015. My wife of 35 years [Joan] said to me, ‘John, you’ve exercised your whole life. The Doctors told you that exercise could slow the progression of this disease. I can see you prolonging this for many years. If you end up in a wheelchair 20 years from now, no big deal! I’ll just push you all around.’

“In March 2015 my wife was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors which originated in her right kidney. She went after it full force!! She had brain surgery, followed by radiation and then chemo. She passed away in June.

“I have to fight on for my kids. I cannot deteriorate quickly after what they went through, losing their mom.

I feel I have this disease for a reason. It may be God’s plan for me to help others learn about PD and if necessary work through it.”


“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”

My assessment is that the ten men of Core Combat will continue their rebellion with great faith, courage and effort. We should all be immensely proud of them.

The Parkinson’s Foundation reports that ‘more than 10 million people worldwide’ are living with Parkinson’s Disease and, based on a prevalence study, nearly

1 million people in the U.S. will be living with PD by 2020.

These ten boxers are my favorite.