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The inevitable question, and its only answer

LatestBy Adam Godfrey: An August 2013 article produced by The New Scientist entitled ‘Ban boxing-it’s demeaning and dangerous’ claims that ‘a sport whose sole aim is to cause brain damage to another person is not a “noble art”. It has no place in a civilized society’. These two sentences beautifully sum up the misunderstanding that those who do not religiously follow boxing have when it comes to our fine sport.

The fallacy that boxing is, at its core, about damaging an opponent to the greatest extent possible could not have been expressed any more perfectly. Claiming that the sole aim of the art is to cause somebody brain damage is unequivocal nonsense. I know of not one boxing fan that revels in seeing a boxer seriously hurt. We enjoy a clean, heavy knockout because of the skill it involves or the drama it creates, and are, to a man, relieved when those on the receiving end of such blows recover.

Indeed, the most popular PPV fighter of the last ten/fifteen years, Floyd Mayweather, had a reputation (maybe unfairly) for being a weak puncher who NEVER fought to knock out his opponent. And while it cannot be denied that we do hear the trash talk between two fighters occasionally descend to a less than savory level, we don’t really believe that any fighter will only be happy if they manage to brain damage their opponent. The contrast between the Mike Tyson who informed Lennox Lewis at a press conference that he wanted to eat his children and the humble Mike Tyson who spoke so respectfully to the same fighter after receiving a beating by him sums up what nearly all boxing trash talking is; a way to engage fans and pump up the boxers. If a boxer says he wants to hurt another, we take it as a given that, really, he doesn’t.

The ‘ban boxing’ brigade will inevitably rear its head following the events that followed Chris Eubank Jr’s one-sided demolition of then British Middleweight champion Nick Blackwell. The Trowbridge fighter remains in an induced coma following a small bleed on the brain, and we all wish him a speedy recovery. There was a moment during that fight that when viewed in hindsight is extremely poignant; Chris Eubank Sr, a fighter who knows better than most what it is like to seriously hurt an opponent, implored his son to refrain from hitting the champion in the face. He could see the damage Blackwell was taking and did not want to see him hurt any more. This is in stark contrast to the insistence of those who wish to see the sweet science banned, and who claim that it is nothing more than a bloodthirsty excuse to beat somebody up. The truth is that boxers and their fans shudder at the idea of someone being beaten beyond recognition or hurt to the extent that Nick Blackwell has been.

Those that feel the need to defend boxing in the face of those who want to see it outlawed always seem to have two go-to arguments. I sum these up as follows:

1. Kids who learn to box at a young age learn an array of life skills from boxing, such as discipline, respect, a strong work ethic, not to mention the fitness benefits of sparring and training. Therefore banning professional boxing will inevitably have a detrimental effect on those youngsters

2. There is a risk of serious injury in all sports, and in fact serious injury seems to occur more frequently in sports which ostensibly carry less risk such as Football or Formula 1

I agree with both these arguments, they are both very strong reasons to support boxing. However, they also make me feel slightly nauseous. The reason for this is simply that boxing does not need to make grand justifications for its existence. It does not need to pander to those who do not understand it and want to see it gone. It does great things in society and amongst the much-maligned ‘youth of today’, but this is not what makes it great. What makes it great is the immense power and skill that the most talented boxers possess. It is not called ‘the sweet science’ on a whim. I think it is fair to say that the top boxers are amongst the very best athletes on the entire planet, across the whole gamut of sports in which humans engage. Their dedication is a gift to the pure sports fan, whose sole desire is to see the best in a sport compete against each other. Next time you feel the need to defend boxing, my advice is: don’t. The mere fact that so many people enjoy boxing is reason enough not to ban it. Nobody is forced to fight in the professional ranks (although you will have to excuse the demeanor of Kevin Bizier at the weekend, who looked like he would rather be Hugh Heffner’s codpiece than in the ring with Kell Brook). Boxing is not bear baiting or fox hunting, it is conducted by well-paid professional sportsmen who can choose not to step into the ring.

None of this is to say that boxing does not have responsibilities or that the way that it treats the safety of its charges is perfect. There is always room for improvement in this respect, and this applies to every single sport. Referees must be confident to stop a fight if they feel fighters are too badly hurt to be able to defend themselves. Two recent occasions where a referee’s decision to stop a fight has caused some controversy are the first Froch v Groves fight and the Jacobs v Quillin duel. In hindsight both stoppages could have been deemed to be too early. Personally I am of the opinion that the Groves stoppage was early and that the Quillin stoppage was correct, but I have no problem with anyone who disagrees with me. What is not up for debate, however, is that we weren’t in the ring when both stoppages occurred, and we were not in charge of the fight. Whether we agree with the decisions or not, we have to accept that they have been made and that the referee is simply doing his job (and assumedly the referee is both competent and impartial). But protecting a fighter should not become over-protection. The nature of boxing is a physical battle and that should not be diluted by an over-eagerness to be seen to be safe. Getting the balance right is not easy, but should be a priority.

One more thing that boxing has to improve on is its matchmaking. It must insist that a fight takes place on an as even a keel as possible, and if a proposed fight has one boxer with an insurmountable unfair natural advantage, then the powers that be must be willing to step in and refuse to sanction the bout. Although I’ll be accused of referring to one future bout in particular, I am not. Our concern should be for any boxer who is forced or allowed to take on an opponent who they are physically unable to match. Extreme weight gain/loss should be monitored and controlled, and this is a reasonable health and safety concern to address that doesn’t encroach on the spirit of boxing and what makes it great to begin with.

Boxing will endure past the Eubank v Blackwell fall out, and the manner in which the boxing community has rallied around the young man in the face of his struggle is a testament to how powerful a sport it is. But this should not be needed to defend an activity that brings so much pleasure to the millions who either spectate or partake in it, and whose often-brutal nature belies a skill set and dedication that few other sports can match.

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