Feature

The Whipping Post: Why are boxers fighting less and getting injured more?

David Haye
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge
Boxers don't fight anywhere near as often as they did in years gone by and yet their bodies break down more and more. Terry Dooley investigates why

COMMON convention would have us believe that modern fighters suffer more injuries than their counterparts from days gone by. There is a school of thought that says “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”, a cousin of “Things were much better back 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, rehabilitators, 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 learning being applied to a sport that, at its base, is founded on toughness and physical robustness, and that modern-day fighters have honed their bodies to the point where every tweak or strain becomes an injury and therefore ample reason to postpone 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 over-trained,” 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 over-trained I mean there are so many disciplines involved in fitness for modern athletes. 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. They try to apply them all 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.

“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?” he reiterated.

“What we have seen is 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 with Team GB since 2003 and works closely with the Lead Physio Ian Gatt. “This is on account of better medical knowledge, and improved techniques of wrapping and also warming the hands up. We have hand therapists who make splints to put underneath the wrapping so that they can use them in camp to support their hands. 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.

“So we have seen a genuine decrease in elite amateurs, but the people outside that population may not have seen a decrease (in injuries). 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 that there are people like myself who can help them. People are more aware of the referral routes now.”

Still, the question remains of whether it could be a cultural thing. Did boxers in the past fight through injuries, whether through ignorance or due to greater resilience? Liverpool’s Tony Bellew was 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 yet 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.”

Tony Bellew
Tony Bellew reached the end last year (Action Images/Andrew Couldridge)

“I think that is a very stoical approach and it worked in some instances,” was Cosgrove’s take on the idea that people used to grit their teeth and fight on. “You maybe would just do the job and, in many cases, fight through the injury.”

“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. We’ve now got techniques where we can get them back fighting where, previously, they would have to retire because of weak hands.”

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 has often told me that good management is hiring the best people then trusting them to do their jobs while you oversee the whole operation. Therefore you could argue that either the boxer or, ideally, their trainer needs to ensure 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 Steven Maylett, the trainer of former WBO lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan. 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 leg work now’.

“I had to tell him to hang on, 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.”

terry flanagan
Former WBO champ Terry Flanagan in action (Action Images/Andrew Couldridge)

When talking about an injury to David Haye’s back in 2009, Adam Booth told Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian that “injury is an insidious thing” (June 5 2009). A few years later he told me that he was referring to 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. Sometimes, the skill lies in knowing when to succumb to or battle through the pain.

“Terry has picked up more injuries recently,” said Maylett. “The last three years he’s had a bit of a tendonitis problem in his foot. Is that age or just 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’ (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,” 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 had my gym a policeman used to come in and he was the most horrific, sloppy and bad form trainer I’d ever seen yet he never had an injury in his life.”

Age is another factor. What came to us so easily in our twenties has to be earned once we hit our thirties. 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 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 up 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 p**s 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.”

stamina
John Murray, seen here against Anthony Crolla, did things the hard way

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.”

Ultimately, though, there is one 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 p**s,” 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.”

Boxing news – Newsletter

Current Issue