Frank Gore fought Deron Williams despite 'questionable brain MRI'

Frank Gore, the third-leading rusher in NFL history, had multiple white spots on the MRI of his brain he was required to take by the Florida Athletic Commission as part of his request to box ex-NBA player Deron Williams on Dec. 18 in Florida, Mike Mazzulli, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, told Yahoo Sports.

The bout was changed from a pro bout to an exhibition on Dec. 17 at the weigh-in, though no one from either fighter’s camp nor the state of Florida has revealed why. Florida does not regulate exhibition bouts. But Gore, 38, was required to take two MRIs by the state, which Gore told Yahoo Sports he passed.

“It has come to the attention of the Association of Boxing Commissions that Frank Gore had a questionable brain MRI,” Mazzulli said. “The ABC stands always for fighter safety. We have a medical committee ready to assist states, and this is the kind of a case where we want them to know we are available to help.”

Yahoo Sports reached out to executive director of the Florida Athletic Commission Patrick Cunningham, who told a third party that he is not permitted to speak to the media.

Gore fought without incident and lost a split decision to Williams.

Dr. Michael Schwartz, an internal medicine physician from Connecticut and a ringside physician for 31 years, said that occasionally spots on a brain MRI — which can indicate lesions on the brain — are “overread and are called ‘unidentified brain objects.’ There’s a lot of very non-specific stuff we find that turns out to be very benign in nature. But it could be far worse. ... In a case like that, it’s imperative that a person not be hit in the head.”

A subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain, is the most common cause of death in boxers.

Gore and his agent, Malki Kawa, vehemently denied any issues with Gore's health. Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports about the spots on the MRI, but Kawa and Gore said they went above and beyond to prove Gore was fit to fight.

Gore was not required to get an MRI, according to Florida’s rules; only fighters 40 or over in Florida are automatically required to get an MRI. But the commission asked Gore to get one anyway and he complied, saying, “I’m glad they asked me because I know my brain is healthy now. A lot of guys I played with can’t say that.”

Kawa said neurologists in Miami and Tampa, Florida, cleared Gore to fight.

Schwartz said if he were involved and were told the commission couldn’t regulate the fight, he would have shut down the show. Schwartz, who founded the Association of Ringside Physicians, has long been a fighter safety advocate.

“Florida might be saying that they can’t regulate an exhibition, but they can, in essence,” Schwartz told Yahoo Sports. “They can just shut down the whole show. If I were involved, I’d have taken the doctors off the card. At that point, it’s a violation of federal law to have a fight card without doctors present.”

TAMPA, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18:  Deron Williams during a fight against Frank Gore on December 18, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Deron Williams during a fight against Frank Gore on Dec. 18, 2021, in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Though the fight was changed to an exhibition, Kawa said he didn’t know why. The only change from when it was scheduled to be a pro bout was going from 10-ounce gloves to 12-ounce gloves.

The bout was scheduled to be a four-rounder at a maximum weight of 215 pounds, with the fighters slated to wear the standard 10-ounce gloves that professional heavyweights wear.

Fights are not considered safer for boxers with 12-ounce gloves. The larger gloves would protect the hands more and would be less likely to cut a boxer, but don’t decrease the likelihood of neurological damage.

Kawa is the godfather of one of Gore’s five children and said the two have been friends since 2000. He only recently became Gore’s agent. He said he’s so close to Gore he never would have allowed him to fight if he felt there were any undue medical risk.

Gore made a purse of $300,000 and Kawa was entitled to 10%. Kawa also represents Tyron Woodley, who fought Jake Paul in the main event of the show.

“This was not about money because this guy is my friend,” Kawa said. “The $30,000 or whatever I would have made, I don’t care about that. I had Woodley [in the main event] and my cut of his purse was more than Frank’s entire purse. I would have never let Frank fight if he wasn’t cleared. Never. The guy is my friend. Do you not understand that?”

Gore said he spoke with two neurologists and two radiologists and said all of them said he was fit to fight. He said he took a mental acuity test on an iPad and passed.

Gore said he would not have fought had his health been at risk.

“I played 16 years in the league [NFL] and I’m rich, man,” Gore said. “I don’t want to say $300,000 is nothing, because where I am from, it’s a very, very poor place and that is life-changing money. But I’m rich and to me, it’s nothing. I didn’t care what I was getting. I fought because I wanted to, not because I needed money.

“I was passed and I talked to the doctors. They all told me there was nothing wrong with me. I have five kids and I want to be there for them. I’m not crazy. Why would I risk my health and watching my kids grow up for $300,000? It’s crazy. My brain is healthy. If it were not, I wouldn’t have fought, period.”

'The state of Florida played Pontius Pilate here'

The medical requirements to box in the U.S. are vastly different depending upon the state. California, which regulates more combat sports matches than any other, requires a neurologic exam every 15 months and an MRI of the brain every five years.

Florida, though, has no standing requirement for either a radiologic or neurologic examination for a fighter seeking a license to compete.

It’s why it’s been so common for boxers who have been denied a license in states with strict health and safety standards like California and New York to wind up fighting in states like Florida or Oklahoma, where the standards for licensure are far more lax.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield stepped in on short notice at 57 years old in September to face ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort in a boxing match. Holyfield was replacing former six-division boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya, who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The fight was scheduled for Los Angeles, but Andy Foster, the executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, would not approve Holyfield to fight. As a result, the fight was moved to Florida and turned into an exhibition, where Belfort won by first-round knockout.

Though the fight became an exhibition, it did not make it any safer for Holyfield. He was still knocked out and nothing was different than it would have been had it been sanctioned as a regular professional bout.

The recent trend of athletes in other sports boxing on a more regular basis has complicated the business for regulators seeking to ensure fighters are fit to fight.

“What they are doing by changing a fight’s legal status from a professional boxing match to an exhibition in order to exploit a technicality and relieve the state from liability with no regard for fighter health and safety is going to get someone killed,” said promoter Lou DiBella, who has been an outspoken advocate for fighter safety going back to his days as an executive at HBO. “When that person is not even a professional prizefighter, the ramifications will be extraordinary. There needs to be responsible self-regulation by the people involved in running the event.

“In effect, the state of Florida played Pontius Pilate here and attempted to wash its hands of potential liability. It’s hard to argue you care about fighters when you are willingly engaging in these kinds of shenanigans.”