The case for improving the safety of boxing
THE phone rang and the caller ID let me know it was a friend of mine, a former undisputed world champion (whose name I would rather not reveal) I had spoken to just 20 minutes earlier. But when I picked up, he had no recollection of our conversation. I have known the former champion for decades and have witnessed his condition deteriorate. His long-term memory is fine, but short-term it is gone.
On numerous occasions I have seen him at boxing events where he forgot where he had parked his car. Making plans to do something with him is futile being that he won’t remember beyond a few minutes what had been discussed. It is the price he is now paying for achieving his dream.
Unfortunately, the longer one boxes the more likely they are to exit the sport in far worse condition than when they entered. The scary part is that the effects of the punches might not become evident until after they retire, when even the greatest boxers in history like Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali were adversely affected.
And it is sad to think that they are the lucky ones compared to the fighters who die soon after a contest or those who are permanently damaged like Gerald McClellan, those who no longer having the same quality of life as before.
Let’s be upfront about this, that there is no way to make boxing safe. For all the good qualities it has, for all the lives it changed for the better, and for all the rich history, it should never be forgotten that it is a dangerous sport. Rarely is it the intent to injure an opponent, but the goal is always to render them incapable of defending themselves. That is how fights are won and careers advanced.
Well-conditioned boxers are trained to push their body to the limit. They need to be protected from themselves. On occasion, the sport has failed to do this despite its best efforts. While boxing can never be made safe it certainly can be made safer than it currently is. These are some of the ways we can improve the safety of boxing:
Few fighters box in their natural weight class. Lots try to take off as many pounds as possible and compete in the lowest weight division they can land in. To do this many starve themselves in training after having gained considerable weight between contests. It is a recipe for disaster.
To combat this there should be mandatory random weight testing between fights conducted by the local commission where the boxer resides. If their poundage is 10 per cent above the division they are competing in then they’d have to move up at least one weight class permanently. For example, a career middleweight (160lbs), would be allowed to scale up to 176lbs between fights, anything higher would eliminate him from competing as a middleweight again.
One fact stands out among the rest, that the majority of fatalities and serious injuries occur in the later rounds of a contest when a boxer is fatigued, and their resistance is at its lowest, due largely to dehydration. Mandatory weight testing would eliminate that to a degree and take steps towards improving the safety of boxing.
No second chances at making weight
Opinion is sharply divided when it is best to hold a weigh-in, the day of or the day before a fight. What we need to focus on is the weakened state a boxer puts himself in when they fail to make weight, then is asked to return and weigh-in again a short period later. Replenishing fluids helps but it is not the answer.
Ideally a boxer needs all the rest they can get before a fight. Multiple trips to the scale deprive them of that. All fighters should be allowed to weigh-in only once. If they fail to make weight, then they probably don’t belong in that division.
Harsher punishment for drug cheats
The rules should be straightforward. Caught once testing positive for steroid use and the boxer should be suspended from competing for two years, then upon their return they should not be allowed to box for a world title for an additional 12 months. Test positive again, and the penalty repeats itself. A third offence should constitute a lifetime ban. Anyone helping the boxer circumvent the penalty by going to a locale that allows them to perform there should be suspended as well. That includes managers, trainers, and anyone else associated with him on fight night or in the lead up to it.
Ringside physicians should take more responsibility
Why is the corner always blamed for not stopping a fight? They should be no more than an extra layer of security. By now we should know that most cornerman are reluctant to throw in the towel no matter how badly their fighter is getting thrashed. In general, they are indecisive and defer to the boxer by asking him if he wants to continue. It is the same mistake that referee’s make. The late Arthur Mercante Sr, one of the greatest referee’s in history, once said he never asked a boxer if he wanted to continue. “Fighters are valiant” said Mercante. “They are conditioned to never give up no matter what. As a referee I tried to help them save face by stopping a fight where they were taking too much punishment because they never would have voluntarily told me they wanted to quit.”
During a round it is the referee who has to often make a quick judgement when to stop a fight but, in the corner, it should be the primary responsibility of the ringside physician. Cornerman can be too distracted by the competitive nature of the match. Conversely, Ringside Physicians should be concerned with the safety aspect only.
Change rules for rabbit punching
Hitting behind the head is illegal for a reason. It is far more dangerous than a legal blow and compromises the safety of boxing. Super-welterweight Prichard Colon was permanently injured after being repeatedly hit with rabbit punches.
Rabbit punches should be enforced as strictly as low blows, but rarely are. Even when a point is taken away it usually occurs after at least a couple of warnings from the referee. The question is why? Every fighter knows that rabbit punches are illegal. Warning them first is like granting a licence to commit a dangerous foul without any repercussions. The man on the receiving end is having his safety compromised by lax officiating.
Fighters can best be protected from the dangers of rabbit punches if a point is taken away on the first infraction, then again on the second. After that the violating boxer should be disqualified.
It’s okay to say ‘No mas’
When Max Baer took the full count in his knockout loss to Joe Louis way back in 1935, he came under heavy criticism from many who felt he could have gotten up in time. Baer admitted as much. Referring to the price people paid for a ticket, Baer said, “It entitles them to see a fight, not a slaughter.” Boxing would be a lot safer if more fighters adhered to this policy, but so few do.
This ‘fight to the death’ mentality brings just that. If a boxer no longer feels they can win a contest there is absolutely nothing wrong with indicating that they do not want to continue. Unfortunately, the public reaction to a fighter quitting is so harsh that few actually do. Instead they hang in and take a needless beating because they don’t want to risk the wrath of the public. A public, by the way, that is getting ever more unforgiving in the age of social media.
Change the criteria for stopping
Referees tend to think they are doing a fighter a favour by giving them every opportunity to continue as long as he is able to defend himself and occasionally hit back. What they are really doing is putting him in the danger zone. Just because a boxer is not defenceless does not mean they should be allowed to go on. Punches add up whether they come in flurries or are spread out. Referees should be more aware of that. The criteria for stopping a contest must change. The safety of boxing must always be paramount.