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15 NOVEMBER 2018


Cardiac Surgery, Boxing and The Art of The Dance

By Todd Chapman, MD, FACS

I can't dance and I can't box. My job is to saw open peoples' chests and tinker with their hearts. As a boxing fan since the 1976 Olympics, and a heart surgeon since the 1980s, I have come to appreciate similarities that may come as a surprise.

Boxers and heart surgeons are both slaves to the clock. The three minute rounds and one minute rests are unforgiving and immutable. In the same vein, when a fragile patient is anesthetized, and especially once we stop the heart, every tick of the clock increases the risk of death. The longer the heart is still, the greater the chance it will never start up again.

Heart surgeons thus develop a rhythm and flow to their procedures. Each maneuver sets up the next. Interactions with others at the table are smooth and balanced. I do not allow music in the operating room, but the proceedings take on the characteristics of an elaborate dance.

A good boxer does the same. He senses the speed and maneuverability of his opponent. He ducks and moves accordingly, punching and counter-punching in synchrony with the openings presented. The body shot sets up the uppercut. The jab sets up the hook. He notes the passage of time, stealing a round in the last ten seconds, or accelerating his pace late in the fight.

Heart surgeons develop economy of motion. A large or elaborate motion always takes more time than a small, unimpressive one. In an operation that is comprised of a thousand motions, the cumulative effect is substantial.

Consider the jab, that unspectacular staple of the good boxer. Defining the shortest distance between two points, sometimes defying the eye to catch it, the jab is economy of motion as delivered by the boxer.

We are also alone. Despite the corner, the referee and the crowd, the boxer is fundamentally a solitary performer. He must decide what he should and can do. He must respond to adversity and adjust his actions. There is no time to return to the gym and work on that right cross that isn't connecting.

The heart surgeon must also adapt on the fly. When that aorta won't hold sutures and the bleeding won't stop, you have to figure out something. There is no one to fix it but you. A mentor of mine used to say, "There you are at 50,000 feet. What are you going to do?"

Thus my admiration and respect for the boxer. I am sometimes asked how a physician can appreciate such a brutal sport. The familiar answers are not the real reason. Yes, it is the essence of sport, physical dominance, in its purest form. Yes, it's practitioners are the finest athletic specimens. Yes, it in fact is marred by fewer injuries and fatalities than many other, less criticized sports.

The real reason, however, is that subtle connection I feel with the brave young men and women in the ring. They are younger than I, and braver than I, but we share enough that I love the sport and them.


Dr. Chapman is a cardiac surgeon in Reno, Nevada. He did his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and was on the Mayo faculty in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 1989, he moved to Nevada as a founding partner of Reno Heart Surgeons. He began as a ringside physician with collegiate and Golden Gloves amateur boxing, then started working professional bouts for the Nevada Athletic Commission in 2001.


Dr. Todd Chapman is a Cardiac Surgeon and has been a resident of Reno, Nevada since 1989. He initially began as Ringside Physician with collegiate and Golden Gloves boxing. He became a Professional Ringside Physician with the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 2001. Although he is a boxing official for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, all of the views, opinions, and/or recommendations contained herein are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. All readers are strongly cautioned that the information contained herein is not intended to, and never should, substitute for the necessity of seeking the advice of a qualified medical, legal, or financial professional whenever a boxer or his/her representatives have specific questions regarding the best course of action that a boxer should take. Furthermore, since it is possible that general information herein may pertain only to a law, regulation, rule or acceptable standard of practice for a particular jurisdiction, a boxer or his/her representatives must always inquire with the appropriate licensing jurisdiction to determine the applicable laws, regulations, rules, and acceptable standards of practice for each jurisdiction.

All readers are advised that the information herein is intended solely as a general reference source, and to the fullest extent permitted by law, the information is provided “AS IS” without any warranties of any kind, whether express or implied, including without limitation, warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement. No one may rely on the accuracy, integrity, quality or completeness of the general information herein. Accordingly, neither the authors, editors nor anyone else affiliated with this website may be held liable for damages of any kind whatsoever allegedly caused or resulting from any such claimed reliance.

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