Chicago boxing legend Johnny Lira wanted to donate his brain to science to aid in the study of head trauma, said his niece.
Denise Vincente, Lira’s 48-year-old niece and a resident of Algonquin, was handling burial preparations Monday and meeting with hospital officials to arrange the donation of Lira’s brain for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy at Boston University.
Lira – who passed away Saturday at the age of 61 – had a short career as an amateur boxer, including winning a novice Chicago Golden Gloves middleweight title.
He boxed 175 rounds as a professional fighter between 1976 and 1984.
Vincente said Lira’s death wasn’t a surprise. He passed away at Advocate Illinois Masonic surrounded by family and friends Saturday afternoon.
Cause of death, she said, was complications from a 2008 liver transplant.
"Uncle Johnny wanted to help out," Vincente said. "Donating his brain to be studied by scientists could make things better for other boxers."
Vincente, a nurse, said her uncle had been exhibiting symptoms for CTE, including forgetfulness and irritability – what boxers and fight fans for years have called being “punch drunk.”
Fond memories and tough love
“My uncle used to make me cry when I was a kid,” she said. “He wanted to toughen me up.”
Lira’s tough love lasted decades and included searching for a suitable gym where his niece, who has grown children, could take boxing lessons. Lira picked The School of Hard Knocks in Crystal Lake a few years ago after interviewing trainer Gary Dobry. Lira would on occasion drop by the Hard Knocks gym to check up on Vincente progress and show her a thing or two about the sweet science.
On one occasion, in a gruff manner, he told his niece to stay on her toes.
“He also told me to wrap my own hands,” she said. “But he caved in after a moment of being tough and wrapped my hands for me.”
Lira the boxer
Lira was a colorful Chicago sports figure. He got into a lot of trouble as a kid and used boxing to turn is life around.
He fought Ernesto Espana for the WBA World Lightweight Title in 1979. The bout was broadcast live on Wide World of Sports, with Howard Cossell doing ringside commentary.
Lira dropped Espana in round seven. But Espana rose from the canvas and broke Lira’s jaw, ending the fight in the ninth.
“He didn’t want to stop the fight,” Vincente said. “One of the ringside officials threw in the towel. Uncle Johnny wanted to keep going.”