The Controversies of Boxing
08.10.06 - By Michael Klimes: I cannot lie; I love boxing and love it immensely. My father, a pious anti-boxing cleric cannot reconcile my passion for poetry and the gloved fist. He sees it as vulgar, violent and states that his main opposition to it is that, ‘It is a sport where the deliberate objective is to harm the other person.’ I cannot agree with his first point but the second hinge of his argument is partially true and the concluding part of his Holy Trinity is more concrete then I would like to admit.
Article posted on 09.10.2006
At the beginning of this article it seems like I have already entered a sodden bog with no chance of escape. My father’s three-folded argument gives him a sense of immense satisfaction like a Sunday picnic. For all his esteemed wisdom and experience, I cannot bring myself to remember that cold shiver, which consumes my spine with the power of a spasm when I hear the word ‘vulgar’ associated with boxing. It feels like being spat in the face and I am not exaggerating.
Even the more horrid suggestion that boxing should be banned in any shape or form provokes a profound anger and disengagement from my end of the battlefield to consider rational discourse with those self-righteous Neanderthals who harbour such visions. Of course, you the reader, instantaneously feel I am becoming too emotional and you are right. However, emotion is one of the prime reasons, and there are a myriad of why I love this barbaric sport. It mirrors real life in all its highs and lows.
Unfortunately, too much emotion kills debates and one should always, even if he/she does not want to look over their own battlements and try to consider the other side. Boxing abolitionists are human beings after all but the exchanged broadsides can be, on occasion, a bit too personal and it is always necessary to take a step back and see a bigger picture. Many arguments supplied against this gladiatorial contest are well intentioned, yet deeply flawed and misplaced. There is also the big sin in selective hypocrisy when it comes to some of the coverage boxing gets in the media. Much of it is highly subjective and one only has to explore its depths to see the weaknesses.
The Bout to Ban Boxing
I am sure a highly intelligent neurologist could give you an intricately detailed exposition of what punching does to the brain; blows kill neurones but so does alcohol and drugs. Both of these substances, particularly alcohol have none of the social stigma attached to them, which boxing does.
The history of controversy surrounding boxing has a rich tradition and the attempts to stop it do as well. The Journal of the American Medical Association had an article written by Dr Harrison Matland, which was published in 1928 entitled ‘Punch Drunk’. In his assessment he brought the issue of boxing and the possibility of brain damage into the public spotlight for the first time. Matland concluded that punch drunk symptoms were caused by ‘traumatic multiple haemorrhages’ and could ‘no longer be ignored by the American public.’
1962 witnessed a very significant fight and a profoundly poignant one between the American Emile Griffith and the Cuban Benny ‘Kid’ Paret that by its very nature made fans and society alike probe the fundamentals of boxing. This was understandable. Paret had been a two time welterweight champion and it was the final instalment of a trilogy with Griffith. It was a close contest but Griffith knocked out Paret unconscious on the ropes in the twelfth round and the referee Ruby Goldstein failed to stop the gruesome affair. Paret lay impotent and took about 13 needless blows to the head, slipped into a coma and died nine days later. NBC refused to televise anymore bouts and the other networks followed. Boxing was not on free T.V until the 1970s again.
Griffith felt immense guilt subsequently and is most famous to this day for such a horrible occurrence. What was particularly discomforting for many was seeing the slow motion feedback, a fairly novice invention at that point in time, which was obviously providing an entirely new perception to sport. What had originally been concealed to all except the most trained naked eye: the sheer physicality, power and surreal quality of boxing was now shown in full, some saw the raw meat of the beast and could not stomach it.
In January 1983 The Journal of the American Medical Association was again the centre fugal force in championing the ban of boxing. Its stance caused a considerable stir, there were hearings in the United States Congress and the Olympics Committee re-examined the activity. Boxing was a figure, which suffered from some dramatic blows, Muhammad Ali had already contracted Parkinson’s, the signs were all too visible but thankfully it survived to the dismay of some of its attackers. From then on the World Medical Statement promulgated a ban saying, ‘boxing is a dangerous sport…for this the World Medical Association recommends that boxing be banned.’ This official line was adopted at the 35th World Medical Assembly in October 1983.
The most recent shot thrown in this long fracas came from the Australian Medical Association in April 2006. The AMA’s President, Doctor Mukesh Haikerwal picked up a rocket launcher and fired his verbal missiles strutting, ‘International events based on the spirit of goodwill – such as Olympic and Commonwealth Games – are no place for interpersonal violence and injury.’
Haikerwal’s evaluation in politically correct terms, is rubbish; he fails to make a distinction between amateur boxing and professional boxing. Amateur boxing is limited to three rounds, three minutes if you are at the top and two if you are at the bottom. There is far more emphasis on point scoring and skill then physically hurting someone. Similarly, amateur boxing does not suffer from what a lot of the professional sphere does and which many boxing aficionados will criticise as a lack of enforced regulation. They also wear head guards and must past stringent trials. You don’t just turn up at the Olympics with a pair of gloves and say ‘lace me up!’
Haikerwal finished off by saying, ‘The sick parade of injured, bruised and battered boxers are advertisements for a ban on boxing.’ The two fold problem with people like Haikerwal is that they are hypnotised by their own rhetoric and imagine there is a ‘parade’ of killed or injured boxers who somehow act as an ‘advertisement’ for banning the ‘sweet science.’
What about all of the rugby players who break their legs or necks in a scrum? What about the American football players who receive concussions? What about hunters who are accidentally shot every year, mistaking each other for deer? What about sky diving, rock climbing, bungee jumping, deep sea diving? The list can go on and if boxing has to be victimised because it is ‘evil’ or ‘morally wrong’ then so should other sports which harm personal safety.
One can sympathise with doctors as professional and decent humans, wanting to safeguard the wellbeing of others but it is very easy to slip into a dogmatic and romantically naïve role of a parent desiring to hold everyone by the hand and not let go. Boxers, especially at the mountain of the sport are professionals and like doctors they have certain ways of avoiding ills. ‘Hit without getting hit’ by using parries, blocks, faints, reflexes, footwork and speed are some of the trademark tools to avoid unnecessary punishment. Fighters are not statues just hitting each other in the head or body; they are intellectuals, crafting strategies on how to beat their opponents. Boxing is the most tactical and beautiful of sport in the world.
There are subdivisions too, you can just train, there is no conscription forcing anyone to fight anyone. Of course, poverty pushes many young men to take up the guard and an irony is in a way they are trying to escape violence through violence but if Bernard Hopkins, Mike Tyson and Chris Eubank had not been in that gym, where would they have been? Probably on the streets selling drugs and becoming involved in gang violence. There is a far higher mortality rate in that world then in the ring and if society really wants to be hit in the liver it has to realise that its social indifference in those communities, which produce these warriors are a failure on its part. Boxing has traced the sociological class development of countries. Many fighters are outcasts trying to fit into where they do not belong. Certain rich, affluent and snotty nosed members of the establishment whose own conceit fails them to see the motivation of their ‘uglier counterparts.’ If those who are richer were poorer, they would also be fighting for a better life.
Apparently, fifty three people died around the world between 2000-2005, these are statistics from the Journal of Combative Statistics. That is an average of 10.6 death a year but statistics are very dubious. In attacking these numbers, one must ask, how did these boxers die? Was it a failure of regulation in there not being a doctor at ringside? Was the boxer too old? Were they properly hydrated in the fight and of proper strength? Did they comfortably make the weight? Was the refereeing up to scratch? There are an entire multitude of factors, which need to be dissected and carefully scrutinised before any ‘expert’ can hold up a bunch of statistics and then conclude it is evidence for boxing to be banned.
The Ghost of the Past
Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfied are just a few names, which seem to be metaphors for the tragedy in boxing. They are tragic because each of them overstayed their welcome in the ring and how does this reflect on boxing? The fact is boxing has had fundamental institutional failures since it was born and I am afraid to say there still is a culture of corruption and complacency.
One cannot defend this area of the sport and it has undeniably hurt boxing’s public reputation, the fans and most importantly the fighters. Sonny Liston (former heavyweight champion) is the most infamous example of a man hounded by the mob and whose death has the greasy shadow of the Mafia hanging over it. A national commission to look after the interests of the fighters has been suggested in the United States and a pension plan to help them lead securer retirements has as well but this has borne no fruit. Similarly, Senator John McCain has been sterling is his efforts but even a possible future president’s influence has not yet been enough. As long as this injustice continues, boxing will continue to fade. It is far from dead, PPV sales transmit a contrary message but simultaneously the popularity has shrunk significantly.
We cannot remove some of the stains of history, which have dogged boxing. They will remain but it is invaluable to look to the future. Life is always about the next challenge and the obstacles we face are not striving but creating a climate, which is much better for those who have given us so much. It will not be easy but doctors and medical practitioners must admit boxing will not be helped by being banned. If so, there is a strong possibility it will go underground and be less regulated. Similarly, boxing fans must compromise and acknowledge medical science and technology has a lot to offer and improved tremendously with MRI scans, CAT scans, health checks and so forth. Both sides have the desire to make the fight game as safe as possible. When both camps remain divided, it makes tackling the corruption in boxing so much harder.
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