KO’d: Jon Schwartz was a beloved Manhattan Beach chiropractor with a passion for boxing
Friends suspect his boxing led to him taking his life.
by Ivan G. Goldman
Dr. Jon Schwartz had a chiropractic office in Manhattan Beach for approximately three decades, and treated thousands of patients over the years. Few of them knew that for much of that time he was also living another life. In that one he was a skilled gym boxer who sparred with countless opponents, including professionals.
Schwartz took his own life this past Mother’s Day at age 62. His former partner in that office, Dr. Chris Ullman, believes he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease that’s afflicted so many athletes in contact sports, including the great San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest 10 years ago.
After studying Seau’s brain tissue, doctors confirmed the disease. Diagnosis can only be made after a person’s death. Schwartz, who also died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, reportedly was cremated without an autopsy. Acquaintances said his mental health had appeared to be slipping for some time.
“We can only speculate on why he took his own life,” said longtime friend Robert Iannucci. “But the illness was secondary. We need to celebrate his life. He was a damn good person. He needs to be recognized.”
Boston University’s CTE Research Center, which has led much of the research on CTE, says it’s caused by a history of repeated blows to the head, and tends to emerge months or years after the head injuries are sustained. Symptoms include confusion, memory loss, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Schwartz was a regular at the Boxing Works gym, starting back in the nineties, when it was in its original Hermosa Beach home in the 200 block of Pacific Coast Highway. But much of his sparring occurred in other places, in backyards (including his own), on rooftops, and elsewhere. He was part of a boxing subculture in the South Bay that existed for years, with little connection to organized sport.
I sparred with Schwartz innumerable times. We trusted each other not to go overboard. He was only loosely affiliated with Boxing Works. I never saw him participate in any of the classes. Instead he was part of the crew around Australian trainer Charlie Gergen. The well-traveled, loquacious Gergen made the gym his headquarters but never, as far as I could tell, taught classes there.
Schwartz “was proud of every blow he took to the head,” his cousin Carol Stansfield said. “He bragged to my husband about it.”
“I could hang with anybody. That was how he thought,” Iannuci said.
Ullman agreed that Jon was proud he could take a punch.
“They tell me I have a hard head,’ he told me.” Ullman retired several years ago. He said Schwartz closed the office in February 2020.
Stansfield said her cousin had been in a “gloom and doom” mindset for some time. “He was talking to so many people about it, as though the world were coming to an end. The economy and everything else. After COVID, things started to go downhill. I know he had guns in the house. A part of me knows he’s at peace now.”
She scoffs at the contention he had CTE, or that he shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied after death. “He didn’t want blood splattered all over the car,” she says.
Ullman feels certain Schwartz wanted an autopsy, and said he left several suicide notes in the house he shared with his wife Annie.
Ullman, Stansfield, and almost everyone I spoke to who was close to Schwartz said they had little or no contact with him over the last few years. “He knew,” said Ullman, “that he was responsible for the dissolution of so many relationships.”
Ullman said his ex-partner was a kind and “caring doctor, an excellent doctor. He helped so many people. He and I might be arguing over something, in the middle of a shitstorm. But Jon would walk out of that office into the treatment room, and act like he just came from a walk on the beach, and it was sincere. He had patients who just swore by him. He knew how to listen. He was the best chiropractor I ever knew.”
Schwartz and Gergen were close friends. When one of Schwartz’s mastiffs died, Gergen helped him bury it in the backyard. Gergen, an ex-featherweight, trained many pros, including junior middleweight Sammy Fuentes, a tough Puerto Rican fighter who became the WBO junior welterweight champ.
Rather than hold pads to absorb punches, Gergen wore boxing gloves when he trained people. He felt it was more realistic, a great aid to grooming speed, defense, and other elements of what’s often referred to as the sweet science. At the same time he was very much aware of the danger of contact. Too much of it over time was a danger, he said. He made sure certain guys were never paired with each other in the ring because he feared those particular matches would get too violent.
Gergen was in contact with boxing folks in L.A., Australia, Latin America, and elsewhere. Every once in a while they’d send him professionals, and would-be professionals to look over. Sometimes prospective trainees found Gergen on their own. He would often test them by putting them in the ring with Schwartz, or sometimes with the skilled Scott McColgan, Boxing Works’ original owner.
It can be dangerous to spar with people you don’t know, particularly when they’re eager to impress a trainer. As in any contact sport, there are occasional injuries. Broken ribs and noses are not uncommon within the sparring fraternity. But it’s well-known along the beach that non-contact sports such as surfing also pose their own particular dangers.
I used to train at another gym where a young man named Adolfo could no longer breathe through his nose. A doctor told him it could be fixed with minor surgery, but Adolfo was afraid to go under the knife. I also knew the man who ruined that nose with one perfect punch. A normally nice guy who sometimes lost control. I sparred with him once and subsequently put him on my danger list.
At the same gym I knew another young man, Efrain (a pro), who, after one sparring session in the Valley with an Olympic boxer, saw the world as blurred unless he tilted his head a certain way. It made him look like he was questioning everything. Eventually he had surgery, but we lost touch during the COVID shutdown and I never learned how it turned out.
One of my boxing friends suffered a torn retina and another a punctured eardrum. An instructor I knew later suffered from Parkinson’s that may or may not have been related to boxing.
Why do people (including the occasional woman) take such chances? One friend used to talk about the lure of an adrenaline fix, which can be comparable to the thrills experienced by hang-gliding enthusiasts and cliff divers.
But most members of boxing, and other fighting-sports gyms around the South Bay who go through the drills have little or no interest in sparring. They enjoy the workout and want to know how to defend themselves should the need arise.
Iannucci, who first befriended Schwartz at the University of Miami more than 40 years ago, also used to work out at Boxing Works. He quickly decided he’d abstain from sparring. “You should not be getting hit in the head after a certain age,” said Iannucci, who played football at Miami. He and Schwartz both grew up in New Jersey and moved to the South Bay after graduation.
Dr. Derek Levy, a longtime Hermosa Beach chiropractor who also had been Schwartz friend’s for many years, said around the time COVID hit, Schwartz decided to close his practice but was confused about what steps to take. “‘You can’t just bail,’ I told him. It was a conversation we had over and over again. I said you have to follow the rules. You have to let all your patients know. You can’t just leave them hanging.’ He said he’d refer all his patients to me, and I did get some of them.” But Schwartz, Levy said, never put the word out. He just shut down.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I see there was a pathology there,” Levy said. “The poor guy was struggling.” Levy and other friends of Schwartz pointed out the awful irony that although he was capable of helping others, in the end he couldn’t help himself.
Said Ullman, “A certain paranoia was always there. When 9/11 hit, we talked that morning and he said he wouldn’t be coming to the office. The next day we talked on the phone again, and he says, ‘You think we’re gonna be safe?’ To go to the office? I said? Why? Because terrorists are going to bomb a chiropractic office in Manhattan Beach?”
Schwartz saw 9/11 and COVID as horrifying harbingers of a world in freefall. As COVID spread he seemed to go deeper into a personal shell.
“He had a way of cutting people off,” said Ullman. That included his cousin Carol and his older brother Michael. Over the years I heard Schwartz mention a brother from time to time, but always in the context of growing up in southern New Jersey. Only after the suicide did I learn that his brother had also moved to California and lived nearby. No one I spoke with for this story knew how to contact Michael.
Among the folks whose connection to Schwartz was broken were a collection of Hollywood folks he used to treat at their homes. They included Benicio Del Torro, Arnold Schwarzenneger (before he was elected governor), Michael Ovitz, Marvin Davis, Ivan Reitman, and Jerry Perenchio.
Minutes after I left Schwartz’s wife Annie a message I received a call from his cousin Carol, who said Annie had made it clear she was opposed to the idea of this article. Also, she’s uncomfortable talking about the topic with other people, Stansfield said.
Ullman said Schwartz deeply loved his mother, who died when he was 13, and that it may have been no coincidence that he chose Mother’s Day to end his life.
Years ago McColgan sold Boxing Works to the formerly world-ranked Muay Thai kick boxer Bryan Popejoy. He now operates the gym on Artesia Boulevard near the Galleria. Some members from the old days are boxing instructors around South Bay gyms. For the last 10 years McColgan has owned and operated the King’s Cove Sports Bar at the Toyota sports performance center in El Segundo.
The hard-won world championship belt won by Gergen’s fighter Sammy Fuentes hangs on the wall of the El Segundo office of Dr. Mark Cornett, a chiropractor who also teaches boxing at Popejoy’s gym. Fuentes successfully defended his belt several times. When he finally lost it in Italy he went back to Puerto Rico. The belt is his for the taking, but we’ve been unable to find him.
More than a year ago I spoke with Gergen’s son Chris, who used to help him train fighters. Chris told me that after they returned to Sydney years ago Schwartz’s friend, coach Charlie, began suffering from mental illness. Physicians said it was caused by repeated blows to the head. He spent his last days in a rest home, mostly lying in bed and rarely speaking.
A memorial gathering for Dr. Jon Schwartz will be held at 10 a.m., Sunday August 21 at the Crest Sports Bar and Grill, 1625 Cabrillo Avenue, Torrance.
Goldman, a former columnist for The Ring and KO magazines, is the author of several novels, including The Barfighter (Permanent Press; 2009), which is centered in the boxing world. ER