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Boxing must tighten its safety net

Evander Holyfield boxing
CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images
There is plenty boxing can do to make the sport safer for its athletes, writes Tris Dixon, author of Damage, shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year

IT was only when I got an email from acclaimed author Thomas Hauser that my mind was put at ease. Hauser, who I’ve known for several years and who I’ve admired for far longer, had sent me a message congratulating me on my efforts.

He had been mailed a review copy of my latest book, Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing, and I was in that nervous no-man’s-land position authors find themselves in when they are waiting for the reviews to come in.

The fact that Hauser was the first to read it and message me mattered a great deal. He said I’d written an “important” and “wonderful” book, so actually, I was on cloud nine.

Then, in the following weeks, more and more reviews came in. Boxing News and The Ring gave it plenty of coverage, and it was given lots of space in the Guardian, the Times, the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did my peers appreciate what I wrote, they knew why I had written it.

I have long had a complex relationship with boxing. It’s taken over my life at several junctures and I have also lost friends to premature deaths due to the damage they have sustained in the ring.

Damage is not about the injuries we all hear about on fight night. It is about the chronic damage fighters sustain, the neurological changes that can affect a fighter long after they have taken a punch for the last time. And it is not just about the physical symptoms, like slurred speech, tremors and unsteady walking but the psychological ones we do not associate with trauma, such as poor decision-making, depression and mood swings. It also explores the links — and the proof — that those who suffer head trauma have a greater risk of neurological illnesses either later in life or that causes them to be brought on early, like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and dementia.

It has become a big topic in sport all over the world, initially through American football and its concussion crisis and then in rugby — union and league — and soccer.

But boxing seems to be turning a blind eye to it and I’m still not sure why. There is plenty that the sport can do to make it safer for its athletes. Sure, the fights are the fights and there will always be punches, contact and trauma. You have to accept that. But there’s so much that can be done in terms of educating those in boxing about the volume and type of sparring that can be done. Boxing also needs to tighten its safety net so fighters like Evander Holyfield can’t get into the ring again, and those who are no longer what they once were are protected from themselves.
The sport is on loop, and I’ve taken great offence to fighters over the years being mocked or taunted for being ‘punchy.’ I hate it. These are warriors who we admire and they deserve a damn sight more than that.

Last week, Damage was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. I know we are up against the big boys in the five other excellent titles in the list. Boston-based Hamilcar, who published Damage, only started publishing books three years ago and it was only their fourth original, full-length book. We are the Buster Douglas against a row of Mike Tysons but myself, Kyle Sarofeen and Andy Komack have come out swinging. They believed in me and Damage from the get-go and hoped, as I do, that it will help change the sport for the better. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t; but we’ve done our level best to try and help those in the sport who could do with it, now and in the future.

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