May 2, 2018
May 2, 2018
Tony Bellew

Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

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This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

COMMON convention would have us believe that fighters tend to suffer more injuries than their counterparts from decades gone by. As is the case with a growing number of opinions in the modern age it is based on a general feeling garnered from perception: “I know this to be true because I feel it to be true”.

Throw in the school of thought that says: “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”, a cousin of “Things were much better in the past”, and it appears that for many there is a strong case to be made for the idea that despite the presence of a multitude of coaches, conditioners, the use of yoga, and other scientific wrinkles fighters are just not as physically hardy as they once were.

Could this be down to a simple of case of far too much science being applied to a sport that, at its base, is founded on toughness, physical robustness and good old-fashioned “Sucking it up”, and that modern-day fighters have honed their bodies to the point that every tweak or strain becomes an injury and therefore ample reason to postpone or even cancel a fight?

“You asked if it is question of being too finely-tuned, in my opinion it is the case that too many modern athletes are overtrained,” stated physiotherapist Stuart Cosgrove when exploring the issue with Boxing News. Cosgrove helped Ricky Hatton get extra extension on his left arm and still works with people within the trade.

“By overtrained I mean there are so many disciplines involved in fitness for modern athletes. Science has proven that fitness is multifaceted, so there are different experts in each different field. They try to apply them to the athlete, but, in doing so, they have to cram everything into a schedule that is already quite full and the athletes aren’t getting enough rest.

“In football, and it is getting this way in boxing, you see increasingly that people have multi-discipline teams behind them and you wonder how well they communicate with each other. You have the strength coach, the skills coach, the rehabilitator, the psychologist, when you think about it there are a lot of specialists and they all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet. If you have a breakdown of communication the job isn’t going to get done. Everyone wants a bite of the cherry, but put egos aside and remember that the main goal is to make sure the athlete can perform as best as they possibly can.

“If the athlete doesn’t rest for long enough before training again they haven’t allowed for that adaptive process to occur. Many athletes train every day yet by doing that you don’t get enough chance to recover. That doesn’t just apply to the tissues, the muscles and tendons, it is also the stress response it causes and it is all related to injury. You’ve got a situation where the muscles can’t recover, and that can lead to pain and more stress — it becomes a vicious cycle.”

For Cosgrove, all roads lead back to the idea that you should either maintain a certain level of fitness between fights or bite the bullet and have longer training camps. “What they’ll do is try to cram everything into 12-weeks, why do that, why not spread it out over six-months?” he reiterated.

It is a point that was picked up by veteran broadcaster and writer Al Bernstein.

“I don’t know if injuries are more prevalent when it comes to the numbers (of injuries) yet one thing I do know is that fighters aren’t fighting as much,” he said. “The longer you take off between fights the higher the possibility that you will become out of shape and then it is not just a matter of honing your skills, you are training to get back into shape, which may have some impact on it.”

“What we have seen in an actual reduction in both the incidents and severity in the elite boxers looked after by GB Boxing,” pointed out Mike Hayton, the Consultant Hand and Wrist Surgeon who has worked for Team GB since 2003. “This is on account of better medical knowledge, and improved techniques of wrapping and also warming the hands up. If you look at the GB squad, since 2009 through to 2018 we’ve seen a significant decrease in all injuries to the hand and the wrists.

“We have seen a genuine decrease in elite amateurs, but the people outside that population may not have seen a decrease. It may also be that there is an increase in the number of people coming to us because there is more awareness of the different types of injuries. They now know there are people like myself who can help them. People are more aware of the referral routes.”

Still, the question remains of whether it could be a cultural change. Did boxers in the past fight through injuries, whether through ignorance or due to greater resilience? Liverpool’s Tony Bellew was typically forthright when the question was put to him. “I believe that people used to fight through injuries, I think fighters today are more wary of them,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say they are injury-prone, but they do push the boundaries more now with science, diets and other things. They also fight a lot less so it is a bit of a Catch-22 situation — we fight less yet we also push ourselves a lot harder in training than the old guys used to do.”

injuries in boxing

“I think that is a very stoical approach and it worked in some instances,” was Cosgrove’s take. “You maybe would just do the job and, in many cases, fight through the injury. These days we might overreact to things a bit more instead of just pulling back a bit to avoid overtraining. It is the nature of the beast with boxing.”

“Boxing is associated with hand injuries, which is inevitable when you consider the considerable forces involved in punching,” added Hayton. “In the past, people would have probably put up with it until they couldn’t fight anymore and just given up. They can now engage with a hand surgeon and we will look to plan definite treatment around their schedule, maybe get them through their next fight then do reconstructive surgery.”

“You have to wonder if boxers in the 1970s and 80s had to take fights whether they were injured or not,” opined Steven Maylett, the trainer of former WBO lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan. “Now there is more money in the sport, with much more to lose, and you know the shows can be postponed and you will still get the fights whereas in the past you might not have been offered it again so would only tell your coach you were carrying an injury.”

The saying ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ could also be at work. Nutritionist and former bodybuilder Kerry Kayes used to run his own business, CNP, and told me that good management is hiring the best people for certain roles then trusting them to do their jobs while you oversee the whole operation so either the boxer or their trainer needs ensure that there is good communication.

“Modern boxers are working with more than one person, they might be with the boxing coach in the afternoon then go to a separate gym to do their strength work,” said Kayes. “What you have to remember is that the boxing trainer is the most important part of the team apart from the boxer. The boxing coach is the gaffer.”

The all-encompassing approach is one that is favoured by Maylett. He said: “I do it all myself. I don’t think that is a bad thing. If you have other coaches and they don’t liaise back to you it can be dangerous. We have a lad that I let come in and train with us, he’s quite educated when it comes to strength and conditioning work and that type of training. I let him jump on one of our circuits and he said to a few of the boxers: ‘We’ll do some legs now’.

“I had to tell him to hang on, I’m the coach in my gym and he doesn’t know what they are doing the next day. They could be sparring. I don’t want them to end up as a punch bag in the ring because they can’t move their legs. Things like that make me think that it works well for me the way I do it. I know when Terry will be tired, when he’ll be fresh, and I know what he is doing on the different days of the week.”

When talking about an injury to David Haye’s back in 2009, Adam Booth told Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian that it was “insidious in nature” (June 5 2009). A few years later he told me that it was a herniated disc in the back that crept up on Haye “over time”.

There is a difference between an injury and niggles, which are minor, often persistent complains, yet a niggle can become the type of injury that Booth described if you ignore it, especially as you grow older. Sometimes, the skill lies in knowing when to succumb to or battle through the pain.

“Terry has picked up more injuries recently,” said Maylett, who admitted that his fighter has had to fight through the pain barrier in recent fights. “The last three years he’s had a bit of a tendonitis problem in his foot. Is that age or overuse?

“We’ve worked around the injury. Terry doesn’t have to run anymore, we use other stuff like the bike, the rowing machine, and do a lot of swimming, which we’d done for years anyway. It can work in a good way, running is good for your heart and lungs but doesn’t strengthen your legs that much. But, yeah, as a coach it is on my mind even though we work around it.”

For all the modern-day techniques the matter could boil down to the most basic building block of life: genes. This issue was explored in 2007 in relation to tendon injuries and the findings suggested there could be a ‘genetic component’ to certain injuries (September, Alison V. et al. “Tendon and Ligament Injuries: The Genetic Component.” British Journal of Sports Medicine). Further research into the COL1A1 gene, which supports cartilage, bone and other tissues, has strengthened this link (Goodlin, Gabrielle T. et al. “The Dawning Age of Genetic Testing for Sports Injuries.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 2016), with the scientists stating that genetic research “holds great potential for injury prevention for athletes at all levels”.

“I believe in genetics playing a part, definitely” argued Kayes. “Why do some boxers have weak chins and others don’t? Why are some prone to hand problems? I do believe you get genetic strength in tendons and ligaments — that some people have better ones than others. When I used to have the gym a policeman used to come in and he was the most horrific, sloppy and bad form trainer I’d ever seen. He never had an injury in his life.”

Age is another factor. What came to us so easily in our 20s has to be really earned once we hit our 30s and beyond. Our limbs begin to creak and groan under the weight of the ever encroaching years; we also lose elastin tissue, which is linked to elasticity and things snapping back into place. The fact that fighters have to go the whipping post year in and year out to whip themselves into shape makes it is easy to see why niggles become even more pronounced as fighters head into the championship rounds in their battle against Father Time.

“Look at footballers,” said Kayes. “Footballers are commodities that clubs pay big money for when they are in their early and mid-twenties yet by the age of 35 and 36 they are getting free transfers. If you could use science to keep the human body that fit and free from injury then how come footballers get injured and old when they are one of the biggest sporting commodities on the planet and have huge teams behind them?”

“I definitely noticed that I was picking put more little niggles the older I got,” said former British and European lightweight champion John Murray, who retired in 2014 after suffering a detached retina that required multiple operations.

“The wear and tear got to me at the backend. I had a black eye week in and week out throughout my career, bumps and injuries all over the place constantly, and my internal organs were battered towards the end — I’d piss bright red blood after the last three or four fights.”

“There is a right and wrong way of fighting and training,” mused Murray. “I wasn’t a bad boxer-fighter at first, but it got too easy for me because of my strength and fitness. I stopped boxing and started fighting more. If you want a long-lasting career you have to box smart and train clever. I thought it [his prime] would last forever only for it to have an effect on me as I got older. If you want to preserve yourself you have to look after yourself.”

As the factors come together, as you sift through the niggles and injuries, you get to what Floyd Mayweather referred to as the “breaking down” effect of what is a brutal profession. It is a point that strength and conditioner Ric Moylan touched on when discussing the role he has played when working with the likes of Scott Quigg, saying: “Boxing is a contact and collision sport, so you are going to get some unavoidable injuries within that, physical injuries to the hands and other areas, you also get the high-profile cases of very serious injuries. They will always be there, but, in terms of the actual training, there is methodology that you can use that will give the boxer the highest chance of preventing injuries.

“This is an area that S & C focusses on, stretching muscles that are tight or activating ones that are lazy or weak and that conventional boxing training doesn’t get near. Boxers get fit through preparing to box yet I see it as a jigsaw. What we do isn’t the main piece of the jigsaw — that comes down to the boxing side of the training — yet S & C can bring a lot to it.

“For example, a lot of boxers still do a lot of running. Some like it because they can think or their tactics and what types of punches they are going to throw so it has a dual purpose. We also know that running is not good for your hips, ankles and can give you flat feet so a good S & C will work on developing the strength of the muscles in the feet and ankles.”

Ultimately, though, there is a person above all others who knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to training and avoiding injuries, strains and tears. For fighters it is a case of ‘Know Thyself’, making use of the experiences gained in previous camps.

“You’ve got fighters out there boiling and drinking their own piss,” said Bellew. “There will be attributes from the old times that work and ones that don’t, so you do what is right for you. My training had to be altered for a week because I was too tired so I took a couple of sessions out. Some people might say ‘you are slacking’, but I know my body better than anyone else.  It comes down to people learning about their own bodies as well, what works for you and seeing what is right for them.”