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Dead boxer still fighting

Updated: January 16, 2014 6:53AM

It will come as no surprise to anybody who knew the late Chicago boxer Johnny Lira that researchers have found he took too many blows to the head during a long career in the ring that began at age 8.

Yet, even to Lira’s family members, only too familiar with his erratic “punch drunk” ways, a new finding that the boxer suffered from an advanced case of the neurodegenerative brain disease CTE has prompted a reassessment.

“This explains a lot,” said Lira’s daughter, Nina Lira-Santiago, after being briefed by doctors this week on the results of their post-mortem study of Lira’s brain and personal history.

An autopsy showed Lira had stage three CTE, same as the Bears’ Dave Duerson, with only stage four being more severe. The disease was confirmed by the buildup of an abnormal protein that had caused multiple areas of Lira’s brain to atrophy or shrink.

“This kind of vindicates him,” said his sister, Joanne O’Reilly, in reference to the impulsive, hot-headed behavior that clouded Lira’s otherwise affable nature and is common in CTE sufferers.

When the colorful Lira died a year ago at age 61, his family donated his brain to Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, figuring it was what he would have wanted.

These are the same researchers who have been much in the news lately because of their work with the effect of repetitive head trauma on football and hockey players.

Lawsuits by former players over concussion-related injuries led the NFL this summer to enter into a tentative $765 million settlement to compensate victims and underwrite research, while also prompting a wave of soul-searching by parents of younger players.

Somewhat lost in that furor is that CTE, short for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a condition first identified in a dead boxer and labeled “punch drunk” in a 1928 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It has gone by many other names. The loquacious Lira preferred the term “pugilistic dementia.”

Sadly, said Dr. Robert Stern, the BU neuropsychologist who conducted the clinical research on Lira, boxers have never received as much attention for the disease as other athletes are now getting, and science never really focused on them.

O’Reilly thinks part of the explanation lies in the fact football and hockey players have a union to help force the issue.

“Who does the boxer have?” O’Reilly asked rhetorically, knowing the answer because that was a question asked many times by her brother.

Lira campaigned throughout his life outside the ring to create a union and pension fund for boxers to better protect them during their careers and look out for them in retirement — with brain injuries among his concerns. Lira was never successful, but his family is now hoping to resurrect his efforts through a non-profit group he started, SPARTA, Sports Professional Athletes Striving to Achieve.

“I want people to know John was seriously impaired by this disease, and there was nobody out there to protect him, and there’s nobody out there to protect the boxers coming up,” O’Reilly said.

The irony is not lost on Lira’s family that the sport he credited with saving his life also eventually robbed him of his health.

Frequently in serious trouble with the law and sent to prison while growing up in the neighborhood near Grand and Ogden, Lira found self-discipline and redemption through boxing — not to suggest he ever entirely settled down.

Lira was the top-ranked contender in the world and the USBA lightweight champion in 1979 when he got a title shot against Ernesto Espana. Lira lost, but not before scoring a knockdown of the WBA champ.

His overall professional record was 29-6-1, but there’s no telling how many amateur bouts he fought. He started as a kid at the Union League Boys and Girls Club and became a Golden Gloves champion.

Lira’s sister said he told her he was knocked unconscious only once in his career, but Stern said even sparring bouts could have been a factor.

“In his case, this disease was likely there for a very long time and likely getting worse through his life,” Stern said, emphasizing that CTE is not an accumulation of brain injuries but a disease process like Alzheimer’s.

I knew Lira. Lots of reporters did. He was an original Chicago character: part palooka, part teddy bear.

In the boxing ring, Lira had a 69-inch reach, but outside it, his reach extended from the hotshots at the Board of Trade to the powerhouses of politics. He was friends with mob bosses and kids on the street.

I liked him. I also knew to be careful around him.

The street-smart Lira could talk your ear off on most any topic he chose. I always told him he should be a radio talk show host. It wouldn’t have worked for long, but I can promise you it would have made for entertaining radio while it lasted.

“Our ability to examine Mr. Lira’s brain was a huge honor for us as well as a huge step in the right direction,” the doctor told me.

Lira would have liked hearing that, but not nearly as much as he’d have liked to know that even in death, he’d done something to help his fellow boxers.

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