Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Is the case against boxing too strong to ignore?

Recently, I wrote about the arguments in favour of legislating to make cyclists have to wear cycle helmets. Doing so got me thinking about a sport which, unlike cycling, doesn’t also double as a gentle recreational pursuit. It’s a sport with an illustrious history dating all the way back to the original Olympics of Ancient Greece, but it’s one which is fraught with all manner of issues – and it certainly isn’t gentle. What am I talking about? Why, none other than the noble art or, depending on your viewpoint, licensed thuggery that is boxing.

Boxing has been with us for centuries and now permeates our everyday language to such an extent that I sometimes feel that we must all be pugilists. Phrases like ‘it’s time to step up to the mark’, ‘he’s on the ropes’ and ‘he’ll have to take this one on the chin’ all come from boxing. We use them now without even knowing where they come from. Granted, if we think about it we can all hazard a guess at what ‘on the ropes’ and ‘taking it on the chin’ mean, but how many of us understand the provenance of ‘stepping up to the mark’? For the record, my understanding is that it’s a reference to a line – a mark – drawn on the ground, either side of which two prize-fighters would stand before the commencement of hostilities.

That was way back when, before the codification of boxing by the Marquess of Queensberry in 1867. Since then, what was always a brutal sport – where initially fighters would simply trade blows until there was just one man left standing – has become more sanitized, especially in the amateur ranks, where headguards are compulsory and doing battle is confined to three two-minute rounds. But regardless of whether the Queensberry Rules are applied in the professional fight game or amid the amateur divisions, there is no escaping one simple fact: boxing is about the intentional infliction of violence by one human being on another.

Photo courtesy of ronnie44052 via Creative Commons

To be a good boxer, you need to be able to hit your opponent as hard and as painfully as possible. For this reason, people die in boxing matches or a few days after them. The former middleweight world champion Alan Minter is a popular and respected British sportsman, but in 1978 his knock out of Angelo Jacopucci in a twelve-round title fight led to the latter’s death a few days later. Three years ago, the Korean boxer Yo-Sam Choi was killed despite actually winning a world flyweight title. He was punched to the canvas (or ‘dropped’, as boxers have it) with five seconds of his fight against Heri Amol remaining. Choi beat the count and won the fight, but collapsed while still in the ring after the bout. He was rushed to hospital, where he underwent brain surgery, only to die just over a week after the fight.

Jacopucci and Choi are far from the only men to have died thanks to boxing. Others have sustained terrible brain injuries; even the best of them all, Muhammed Ali, is now a shadow of his former ebullient self. It is impossible not to conclude that Ali’s Parkinson’s Disease is a consequence of his years in the ring, while other boxers of decidedly more journeyman status end up with damaged cervical spines thanks to the repeated whiplash of being punched in the face.

Is it right that a civilised society continues to allow boxing? When we look at the damage caused by the so-called noble art, should we really endorse governmental proposals to bring it back into schools, because it is somehow ‘character-forming’? Ask any neurosurgeon if he would allow his son (or daughter!) to take up boxing and the answer is predictable, as such professionals know how easy it is to damage the brain.  Is it right that our taxes should go towards treating those who consensually batter one another?

When asked about this particular issue, the chief executive of Headway, Peter McCabe, said, “Headway supports the British Medical Association’s view that Boxing should be banned. The evidence is overwhelming that repeated blows to the head causes chronic brain injury. Anyone taking up boxing is needlessly risking their health.”

The Times sports writer Simon Barnes perennially voices his antipathy to boxing. I confess I hadn’t thought it through in great detail before, but now that I have I find it very hard to disagree with him. What do you think? Should boxing be banned, or should we accept it, as, for one reason or another, has been the case for centuries? 

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