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Tokyo Olympic bantam-weight boxer Brian Packer from Rochester in battle with dementia


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It's 57 years since boxing champ Brian Packer stepped into the ring to represent his country in the Olympics in Tokyo.

And, for the first time since then, Brian has sported his specially-issued blazer at his Rochester home which was handed out to the 1964 GB team and still fits him like a glove.

Boxer Brian Packer in his Olympics Tokyo 1964 blazer
Boxer Brian Packer in his Olympics Tokyo 1964 blazer

Tragically, the dad-of-four is now battling dementia, a condition his family firmly believe was brought on after decades of suffering blows to the head as a bantam-weight fighter.

They say the sport, which the grandad took up as an 11-year-old school boy growing up in Northfleet, has taken its toll on him both physically and mentally.

His well-being and health further deteriorated after the former Chatham Dockyard apprentice was struck down by a freak work accident which shattered his boxing career ambitions and curtailed his ability to work.

His tight-knit family want to see urgent changes in the way the sport is regulated, like those under review in football and rugby as more top sporting personalities have been linked to contracting the disease through their sport.

They are planning a sponsored walk to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society, and to support his devoted wife June whom they say has kept them together through difficult times.

Brian Packer, bantam-weight champ
Brian Packer, bantam-weight champ

The Olympics is a particularly emotive time for them.

While the family are filled with pride that he was an Olympian, Brian himself never really recovered emotionally from missing out on a medal when a split-decision in his first bout went the way of Japanese boxer Takao Sakurai who went on to get the gold.

June said the loss "devastated" him and initially made him think twice about carrying on.

Brian was diagnosed with dementia 13 years ago, but had suffered ill health including mental health issues and has undergone a quadruple heart bypass.

His boxing world came to an abrupt end in 1972 when he was working as a pipeline welder and fell into a trench, shattering his knee. He won £8,500 damages but, despite valiant efforts, was unable to recover well enough to compete again.

Teenage sweethearts June and Brian Packer
Teenage sweethearts June and Brian Packer

His counsel, speaking at the High Court, told the judge that Brian was well on the the way to realising his dream of winning the European Bantam-weight title at the time. He had been preparing for two international fights when the accident happened on a North Sea Gas Pipe in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Brian had worked late and was anxious to get to London to train at the famous Thomas 'A Becket pub and gym in the Old Kent Road when the accident happened.

This final career-ending injury was one of several Brian incurred over the years.

On his wedding day, Brian's suit had to be altered to accommodate a left arm in a cast and the honeymoon was cut short to undergo another operation.

Daughter Jane, 47, a mum of three daughters, is convinced her father's dementia and long-term illnesses have been brought on as a result of his boxing.

Olympian boxer Brian Packer with daughter Jane
Olympian boxer Brian Packer with daughter Jane

For the first time in 30 years, men competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics did not wear headgear after the International Boxing Association said studies revealed that there were fewer concussions without. Women and girls are still required to do so as research is incomplete.

Jane said: "Let's hope the Olympic committee of 2020 look after their athletes and they are never forgotten as dad has been.

"For over 40 years, dad has suffered terribly from brain injuries he sustained during his career and the mental strain that being a boxer for team GB caused. They should offer long-term-support, especially to those in high-risk groups, like my dad."

Jane has contacted the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) to express concerns, but it's a contentious issue.

She said: "Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and repeated blows to the head.

Granddad Brian on his 70th birthday with granddaughters Charlotte (left) and Florence
Granddad Brian on his 70th birthday with granddaughters Charlotte (left) and Florence

"It is associated with the development of dementia, but you can't prove someone has it until a post-mortem is performed.

"We need to fund research to ensure earlier diagnosis to help athletes."
Jane would like to see lighter gloves, improved headgear and a better awareness taught to youngsters taking up the sport.

She added: "If I had my way, blows to the head would not be permitted."

June rarely went to see her husband fight, preferring to stay at home managing the housekeeping accounts.

Devoted couple Brian and June Packer
Devoted couple Brian and June Packer

She now devotes her time to looking after Brian at the family home, but still finds time to do charity work, making sheets for premature babies, compiling care packages for international aid organisations and raising money for the Dementia Society.

She said: "Yes, we have some wonderful memories, but what good are they if we can't share them together? It's heartbreaking, sometimes he doesn't know who I am."

Brian always hoped one of his children or grandchildren would step into an Olympic arena.

The closest they came was when he nominated granddaughter Beth Baxter, 24, to carry the Olympic torch on a stretch in the run-up to the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Beth, who lived on St Mary's Island where Brian trained in his youth, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour on her kidneys when she was three.

Brian with granddaughter Beth, as her chemotherapy started
Brian with granddaughter Beth, as her chemotherapy started

Brian nominated Beth for the role because he believed her to be more courageous than he had been in the ring.

Beth is the team leader for the fundraising 5k Memory Walk on Sunday, September 12 at Mote Park, Maidstone. She has rallied relatives and friends to take part.

Beth, one of 11 grandchildren, said: "My nan does so much. She continues to play a huge part in all of our lives while looking after my grandad.

"We are all now of an age where we can fully appreciate her and we are keen to demonstrate that appreciation."

At the age of 21, Brian went professional on his return from Japan and continued to clinch a string of successful bouts.

Brian and June packing for Tokyo Olympics 1964
Brian and June packing for Tokyo Olympics 1964

Before that, he had also seen victory in both the European and Commonwealth Games, plus tournaments nationwide.

Brian joined Dartford Amateur Boxing Club when he was 12, under the wing of Dick Wemban, who was June's uncle.

The couple's first "date" was at a match at Milton Barracks, Gravesend, when June was 14 and Brian was 16. The teenage sweethearts fell in love, married five years later at Christ Church, Gravesend, and brought up three sons and a daughter at their home in Cliffe.

In the early days, Brian was up at 4.30am for a five mile run, cycled to his job as a welder in the dockyard, going on another run in his lunch break on now what is now known as St Mary's Island and squeezed in a night-time factory job in Rainham.

And all to bring in cash to raise his young family and pursue his dreams to be the best boxer in the world.

Granddaughter Beth Baxter with June and Brian
Granddaughter Beth Baxter with June and Brian

June, 75, recalled: "At one time I was working as a hairdresser earning £2 a week and he was picking up £6. During holidays, we would go hop-picking and were over the moon to pick up £13 between us in a week.

"In those days there wasn't prize money, so he would be asked what gift he would like. He would say a canteen of cutlery because he knew he could raffle that at the dockyard."

One of his first major breaks was to win a place at the European Games in Moscow 1960, but his bosses at the yard questioned whether it would clash with his City and Guilds exam.

He was eventually granted permission, but only after signing the Official Secrets Act after the Russians learned he may be working on nuclear submarines at the former naval base.

June said he had not flown before, loathed unfamiliar food and did not like drinking tea without milk.

But he overcame his lack of wordly experience and went to represent the nation.

Notably, while he was in Moscow, it was June, his then fiancee, who picked up a trophy on his behalf from heavyweight legend Henry Cooper.

One thing's for sure, when the 25-strong team set off on their charity trek, they will be spurred on by Brian's remarkable courage and sporting achievement.

To donate go to https://www.justgiving.com/team/TeamPacker

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