As Paul Gallen prepares to fight two men in one night, the NRL star turned boxer has revealed why he is ending his boxing career.
Paul Gallen can see the end – and he can’t wait.
After 21 years of putting his body through the punishment of the NRL and top boxing, Gallen admits for the first time that he’s starting to worry about his mind and the potential risk of sustaining brain damage.
On Thursday, Gallen will take a huge risk fighting two men on the same night when he takes on former Queensland rivals Justin Hodges and Ben Hannant at the Nissan Arena in Brisbane.
The Sharks legend is expected to hit both, despite the complexity of an hour-long break between fights. If he wins, Gallen will embark on one more fight in December, possibly against Eels hulk Junior Paulo, before drawing the curtain back on one of the most notable careers in Australian sport.
But amid the successes, his 2016 premiership ring in Cronulla, a slew of NSW Origin and Australian riders, 348 NRL matches – and his courageous transition into the world of boxing – Gallen is suddenly a man faced with his mortality.
Call it old age – Gallen turned 41 last month – but the Sharks’ iron man no longer feels as invincible as he once did.
At a time when the sports and medical worlds are more aware of traumatic brain injury following the discovery of CTE, Gallen wants to hang up the gloves before he suffers any lasting damage.
“I have to stop this sport before I suffer major brain damage,” says Gallen.
“I have no doubt that I have damage, but I hope that I will not take it too much.
“It’s funny, I never thought about brain damage until the last six months. I never worried about it. I never thought of that. But suddenly it hit me.
“I watch my children and I want to be there a long time to be a good father for them.
“We don’t know if you have CTE until you die, but I know a lot of boxers in their 40s and 50s – they’re a bit slower mentally and physically and I can’t be that person with the media roles. I have (commenting for Channel 9).
“There are always athletes who fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease and CTE, but people who have never played contact sports in their life can also have the same problems.
“The reality is what I’ve been doing for 20 years, cutting the punches I have in football and boxing, could make me more susceptible to brain damage or CTE.
“It’s time to stop.”
If Hodges and Hannant are reading this, suddenly sniffling an upset, Gallen says think again. The competitor in him refuses to give in. He punished himself by sprinting down the unforgiving sandy hills of Wanda.
Bookies think Gallen will be too fit and cunning to lose to Hannant or Hodges, but the football star turned pugilist admits he’s had enough of certain aspects of the fighting game.
“I’m more sparring,” he said.
“I’m really ready for the end to be honest. I’ll be relieved when it’s all over in a few months.
“I really like the fitness work and the weights, but I don’t want to train anymore. I don’t want a mess.
“I’ve been told that any impact strong enough to crack an egg can damage your brain.
“Think of the number of times you’ve been punched in the head in a training session, in the boxing ring, or the hard knocks you’ve landed on a football pitch.
“I’ve never had any worries about brain damage until now. I guess it’s a sign of getting older, maturing and thinking you’re not invincible.
“My brain function is something I have to watch out for. I speak for a living in the media and on the radio. What happens in five years if I start stuttering and not remembering certain things?
“It’s something I have to be a bit careful about.
“Usually as you get older in boxing you get discovered by a younger guy like Justis Huni, but luckily Ben Hannant and Justin Hodges are as old as me.
“It would be embarrassing to lose to two guys who can’t fight, so I’ll make sure I’m fit and ready, but I won’t miss the fight.”
Ironically, the fighting game made Gallen a figure of admiration.
As a league player he was arguably the most reviled man in the NRL, a reputation that was not helped by the explosive Cronulla doping scandal in 2011 when Gallen was accused of being a drug cheater.
But his gutsy performances against Australian heavyweight champions Justis Huni and Kris Terzievski over the past 15 months have earned Gallen the respect of even his most brutal critics.
Typically, Gallen is combative until the end.
“To be honest, I don’t care about the legacy,” says Gallen.
“I appreciate people respecting me, but I don’t care what people remember me.
“People talk about legacy in sport and I think that word is so overrated and out of place.
“Think of the number of great Australian athletes or boxers and what are most of them doing now?
“Some might have brain damage.
“Legacy doesn’t pay the bills. I don’t care about inheritance. I said from day one as a boxer that I am here to make money and a boxer wanting to build my family to give them the life I never had and that has always been my goal.
“I don’t know exactly how much I earned with boxing, but it would be more than what I earned with rugby league. It would be safe to say.
“I’ve pushed myself to the absolute limit of my sporting career, so I can’t wait to hang up the gloves and get on with my life.”
Originally published as Admission of brain damage to Paul Gallen before fights with Ben Hannant and Justin Hodges