LeDoux vows to go distance with ALS
"I'm not going to die from it," the ex-boxer and Anoka County commissioner said of the deadly disease.
Scott LeDoux: The fight of his life
Produced by Paul Levy and Karen Paurus | Last updated on Jan 25, 2009
Boxing legend Scott LeDoux talks about his life and his current fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
By PAUL LEVY, Star Tribune
Last update: January 25, 2009 - 10:23 PM
Scott LeDoux fought for boxing's world heavyweight championship and went toe to toe with Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson. But LeDoux now faces his greatest opponent -- and his ring is shrinking and there is no known defense.
"I'm living with ALS," LeDoux, 60, said recently, "but I'm not going to die from it. This is my real heavyweight championship fight."
An Anoka County commissioner and executive director of the state commission overseeing boxing and related sports, LeDoux once laced up his gloves against boxing's legends. Now, he can't lace his shoes.
The massive hands that knocked down former champion Ken Norton in 1979 have weakened so badly that LeDoux recently needed help opening a packet of sweetener. He presses on his once massive triceps -- arms that powered him to a draw in his 1977 bout with soon-to-be-crowned champion Leon Spinks -- and says he feels nothing but bone. His legs tire easily; a recently acquired walker looms prominently in his future, he said.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive, usually fatal neurodegenerative disease that plays havoc with nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurons, or cells, run from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the body's muscles. When the ALS kills the motor neurons, the body can no longer control muscles because impulses to muscle fibers are no longer being sent.
"The average survival after diagnosis is three years," said Dr. Eric Sorenson, a Mayo Clinic specialist. "There are people who will fight till their last breath, but the fatality rate is 95 percent."
He noted that Stephen Hawking, 67, the famed British theoretical physicist, was first diagnosed with ALS 40 years ago. "But," said Sorenson, "I don't know of another case like his."
LeDoux said he received the diagnosis in August, weeks after he filed for reelection as county commissioner.
"Yes, I thought about suicide," he said. But only briefly. He credits his wife, Carol, for his stability and readily admits that he takes antidepressant medicine. (At the time of his diagnosis, he was suffering from two bulging discs, which soured his mood and forced him to walk with a cane.)
Since then, he has spoken with Mary Hilgenberg, whose husband, Wally, the former Vikings linebacker, had ALS and died in September at age 66. LeDoux said he also discussed his illness with former Twins star Kent Hrbek, whose father, Ed, died from ALS in 1982.
LeDoux, a boxing historian who has studied all facets of the sweet science, has often wondered about the long-term effects of the physical trauma a fighter endures. In recent years, he says, he's considered Ali, whom he fought in a five-round 1977 exhibition while Ali was still champ.
"Did Ali's Parkinson's [disease] come from all the pounding he took all those years?" said LeDoux, who last visited with Ali a few years ago. "And what about Greg Page and Kenny Norton" and some of the other champions LeDoux fought -- boxers who had serious health problems after their careers?
No known link
Sorenson said it's not known whether physical punishment has a scientific connection to ALS. The disease is linked to Gehrig, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer who died of it in 1941. Other athletes who have died from it include Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter and 1949 heavyweight boxing champ Ezzard Charles.
"Some days, while I'm lying in bed, I ask, 'Why us, God?'" Carol LeDoux wondered aloud.
But nothing's guaranteed, said LeDoux, who through the school of hard knocks learned that a pocketful of mumbles ...well, such are promises.
"It's been a great life," said LeDoux, who plans to keep on living it. He informed Gov. Tim Pawlenty and selected Anoka County officials of his disease months ago and will continue working for the county and state.
Tough guy? LeDoux's face reads like a road map through boxing's final golden era of the 20th century. Foreman bloodied his nose and opened a 12-stitch gash above LeDoux's left cheek. Larry Holmes, who beat LeDoux in seven rounds in their 1980 title fight at the Met Center, jammed his thumb in LeDoux's left eye. Norton's uppercut to the chin lifted both of LeDoux's feet off the canvas. Tyson opened an eight-stitch gash above LeDoux's left eye. Ali verbally singed his ears.
"He's a tough guy who was involved in the most violent of sports, but he's really just a big softie," said Bob Dolan, the Minneapolis attorney whom LeDoux counts among his closest friends.
Tyson's sparring partner
LeDoux was either the bravest man on the planet or craziest when, at 53, he went in the ring while working as an ESPN analyst and sparred with champion Lennox Lewis.
And when Tyson hired LeDoux as a sparring partner, the Fighting Frenchman was 42. When Tyson first hit him in the face, LeDoux thought he'd been slugged by a cinderblock. He later learned that Tyson had removed all the stuffing from his gloves before taking on LeDoux. Yet, LeDoux climbed back in the ring with Tyson again.
His friends have begun to rally. Wishes & More, the local charity that grants wishes to terminally ill children, is planning a spring benefit roast of LeDoux, who has been a tireless worker for charitable events. Twins great Harmon Killebrew, ex-Viking Bob Lurtsema and former Gov. Jesse Ventura have agreed to participate. Foreman has been asked to emcee, said Wishes President Karla Blomberg. So the bell rings again for LeDoux. The Crosby native, who knocked off Howard Cosell's toupee after a nationally televised fight in 1977, is used to controversy. Recently, he was among boxing commissioners cited for accepting tickets to an event, in violation of state conflict-of-interest rules. But LeDoux said he didn't know he had violated ethics rules and was not reprimanded by the state auditor.
He's been sucker-punched by life before. Months before signing to fight Holmes for the title, LeDoux's first wife, Sandy, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, with no more than six months to live. She fooled the experts, living another 10 years.
LeDoux wears a "WBC Heavyweight Championship" ring that has inscribed: "LeDoux vs. Holmes, July 7, 1980." It also quotes Sandy.
"They can't take it away," says the inscription, "because we ran our own race."