In February 1995, former middleweight golden boy Nigel Benn’s finest hour was marred when his magnificent victory over the big hitting (and big talking) Gerald McClellan turned to tragedy. As every reader of Jabs & Jolts (1) surely knows, McClellan failed to beat the count in the 10th round of their super-middleweight world title fight, and was taken away unconscious to hospital. He is now deaf and blind and needs constant medical attention. Other notable boxing tragedies include Barry McGuigan’s 6th round stoppage of Young Ali in June 1982; Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen’s 13th round knock out loss to Lupe Pintor in September 1980; and Rocky Kelly’s 1986 knock out of Steve Watt in a domestic fight. Unlike Benn v McClellan, these were not simply tragedies but fatalities; the most recent death - in a British ring - at the time of writing is that of 25 year old Scottish bantamweight Alan Murray in October 1995.
Every one of these and almost every other fatality or serious injury, in a British ring or elsewhere, receives enormous media coverage and is accompanied by calls to ban boxing, both from the medical profession, who are naturally concerned at what they perceive to be legalised GBH, and from others who profess to be concerned, but who often as not have more sinister motives for seeking to ban the sport.
Boxing is, by its very nature, in the public eye. A major world championship fight will be attended by thousands of people and broadcast live or recorded into tens of millions of homes worldwide. It is unfortunate that in recent years many of boxing’s fatalities have happened in such high profile fights. Yet there have been only eleven deaths in boxing in Britain since 1949. (2)
Boxing’s brutal, bloody image is largely the result of irresponsible, sensationalist and downright inaccurate reporting. Indeed, a closer look at boxing reveals that even the medical profession is not totally and unequivocally opposed to the sport. In 1959, a furious debate ensued over boxing in British medical circles. In June of that year, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, (3) published an anti-boxing article which reported 64 deaths in four years, including 22 amateurs. An amateur boxer was said to have died on May 9 at Windsor Hospital the day after being knocked out in his third contest. (4) However, the article was based largely on American data, and drew sharp criticism the following week from a correspondent. C.G. Learoyd commented that: “Your leader shows little sense of proportion and verges on the hysterical. On the same day it was published there was an account in the papers of yet another public-school boy dying from cerebral haemorrhage caused by a cricket ball. And so it goes on. Cricket should be abolished by law!” The writer went on to praise amateur boxing as a character builder and exerciser. Professional boxing, he said, is “primarily a money matter”. (5)
Another correspondent, E.F. St. J. Lyburn, opined “Boxing teaches a man to stand up to the physical and moral stresses of life while fighting under stringent rules of combat. It is, of course,a hard game, but is not life itself beset with far more dangers as well as other forms of sport both amateur and professional?” He did though argue for stringent controls. (6)
Two weeks later, no less than fourteen doctors - all medical officers of the ABA - put their names to a letter in defence of the sport. There had been, they said, only seven deaths from boxing in the British Isles in the past thirteen years. The doctors argued that the proportion of fatalities in boxing is lower than in rugby, soccer or riding. At the time, boxing injuries ranked eighth in sporting injuries. (7) Deaths in other sports are not, generally, so well publicised. On July 20, 1996, the Times reported that the previous night Richard Davis, a 27 year old jockey, had died in hospital after an accident in a National Hunt race. The previous such death in Britain was of jockey Steve Woods, whose horse fell at Lingfield in May 1994. Returning to the Lancet, in July 1959, the journal reported that since 1945, there had been only four fatalities in over 42,000 contests under BBBC control. (8) The year ended on a doubly sour note: a young RAF man died three weeks after a boxing match from laceration of the brain, and a Nigerian middleweight died after being knocked out at Wolverhampton. (9) There can be no arguing about the above tragedies, although some of the alleged ill-effects of boxing are by no means as clear cut. The phrase punch-drunk was coined as long ago as 1928 by Dr Harrison S. Martland, (10) but although this term can be correctly applied to some former fighters, it is by no means certain that boxing is the major or sole cause. The most famous face in boxing, Muhammad Ali, was diagnosed some time ago as suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (11) But this is a disease that also affects many elderly (and not so elderly) people who have never stepped inside a ring (including women).
It isn’t only boxing of course which is blamed for such illnesses. Nowadays, all manner of nonsense is attributed to everything from smoking and drinking to eating the “wrong kinds” of foods. Not that there is anything new about this. In 1895, a certain Doctor Herman warned women against the perils of cycling thus: “Such side to side movement of the pelvis produces unnecessary strain on the muscles of the back and loins, and also friction against the sensitive external genitals. If the saddle is badly shaped, the friction thus produced may lead to bruising, even to excoriations, and short of this, in women of certain temperament, to other effects on the sexual system, which we need not particularise.” (12)
If the reader finds this amusing, what will he make of the claim that smoking will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it? On July 8, 1927, the New York Times newspaper (“All the News That’s Fit to Print.”) warned that women smokers were leading the nation to ruin. Herein, the Vice President of the Anti-Cigarette League of America stated baldly that: “When smoking becomes as common among women as it now is among men, there will be a landslide not only in physical and mental but also in moral degeneracy.” America was, he said, “reaping the harvest in the rapid increase of nervous disorders and mental diseases reported, of the sowing during and after the war when young men were encouraged to smoke cigarettes.”
No one has yet suggested seriously that boxing is leading the nation to ruin, but one should never rule out the possibility. Of course, there will always be unscrupulous promoters and managers the same as there will always be tragedies, but overall the sport’s record is second to none. Between 1918 and 1983 there were 645 recorded fatalities wordlwide, mostly in professional boxing, and 28 deaths from 1979-85. (13) Medical supervision of the sport in Britain - amateur and profession - is second to none, and even in the United States money doesn’t always rule. There have been a number of cases in recent years of fighters who have been refused licences on medical grounds, indeed as long ago as 1913, former world light-heavyweight champion Robert Fitzsim- mons had his licence withdrawn by the New York State Athletic Commission on medical grounds. (14)
Fifteen round fights are now a thing of the past - some would say unfortunately - and fighters are frequently stopped on their feet protesting angrily that they are fit to carry on. (15) A far cry from July 8, 1889, when bare knuckle champion John L. Sullivan retained the world title with a 75th round stoppage!
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To Boxing, Medicine, Risk & Freedom (Part 2)
To Boxing, Medicine, Risk & Freedom (Part 3)
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