Below is an article I wrote in January. There has been another tragic death. Having published my condolences to the family, I have declined to join any media discussions. This tragedy is too recent for any conclusions to be made. The medical reports will inform us soon and possible remedies can then be discussed.
An expanded version of this article is published on the NEWSWEEK site on
The ugly picture of boxer Nick Blackwell’s swollen eye jarred the conscience of the nation.
In the name of sport a young man had suffered a serious brain bleed and was put into an induced coma. With good fortune he will make a full recovery. The visible injuries and ring deaths are a small manifestation of the boxing’s avoidable damage to the lives of its participants.
Boxing is unique in encouraging blows to the head. It’s the principal way to win. Football is quoted as another sport that allows damage to brain cells through heading balls. A soccer player heads the ball an average of three times in each game. A boxer can receive 100s of blows to the head in a single bout. It’s similar to using a person's head as a football.
The brain is suspended in the skull like a jelly in a box, held by strings. A blow causes the brain to strike the walls of the skull. One neurosurgeon has claimed that 80% of all boxers have brain scarring as a result of the cumulative effects of blows. The British Medical Association has said that boxing should be completely banned.
If that happened the sport would go subterranean and the health precautions of the legal activity would disappear and boxing would revert to its barbaric 19th century past. The Queensbury rules prohibited blows below the waist. On our present knowledge that boxers are as vulnerable to blows above the neck as they are to blows below the waist, I moved a bill to ban blows to the head as a sensible first-step reform.
Of course my 1998 bill would have transformed the nature of boxing. But the skills of defence, attack and the competitive athleticism would be retained. I boxed as a young man and for many years reveled in the skills of the sport. Now, I view it as a degrading spectacle of gratuitous violence that exploits mainly the least advantaged people. No longer do I applaud brilliant techniques. Instead I mourn the irreplaceable brain cells destroyed by each blow and the future certain early onset of dementia.
In the past all boxing gyms had pathetic stumbling mumbling characters doing menial tasks in the only world they new. Sometimes cruelly mocked, they were the ‘punch-drunk ‘casualties of our past ignorance.
A personal turning point for me was the death of in September 1980 of Jonny Owen aged 24. He was articulate only with his fists. A sad vulnerable character, he was encouraged to use to the maximum his only talent. Owen fought for world title in Los Angeles against a Mexican opponent. He was knocked out and stretchered out from the ring through a rabid auditorium. The Welsh entourage recalls how urine was thrown over his unconscious body. The fans pockets were picked as they left the stadium. Owen was taken to California Hospital where he died. It was later found that he had a fragile skull, meaning that the fatal blow could have come at any time in his career.
Owen was a stark example of the exploitative nature of boxing that still continues even though many excesses of the past have been reduced. Boxing in the services was usually a spectacle of the working class squaddies knocking lumps out of each other for the entertainment of the officers. It’s deprived communities who traditionally offer up their young to gamble their health in the hope of a lift up the ladder of wealth. It’s not a sport that has many aristocrats or royalty among its participants.
There has been an awakening of conscience in other sports. Rugby has acted against blows to the head to protect injured players. Fearsome injuries caused by head collisions call for new safeguards in a still risky sport that is dangerously permissive. The time is ripe to assess gratuitously dangerous practices in all sports. They can all survive and thrive without the avoidable dangers.
There is no longer any excuse for delaying reforms in boxing. Without them, the sport deserves to die of shame.
Ten good reasons for banning blows to the head
MOHAMMED ALI (Parkinsons)
STEVE WATT (died) v Rocky Kelly, March 14, 1986, at Fulham. Brutal fight, which lasted 10 rounds, between welterweights fighting for right to challenge for Southern Area title. The neurologist claimed Watt's brain had several old injuries.
ROD DOUGLAS (injured) v Herol Graham, Oct 25, 1989, at Wembley. Douglas was expected to win this British middleweight title fight, but was given boxing lesson and slow beating before ninth-round stoppage. He collapsed on way home, but has recovered.
MARK GOULT (injured) v Danny Porter, March 20, 1990, at Norwich. Hard encounter for vacant Southern Area bantamweight title, won by Goult, who later complained of dizziness. He remains in a wheelchair.
MICHAEL WATSON (injured) v Chris Eubank, Sept 21, 1991, at White Hart Lane. Vacant WBO super-middleweight fight in which Eubank and Watson were both down in 11th round. Both were exhausted after fight that was too personal. Watson is suing the BBBC for negligence and has only just started to walk again.
BRADLEY STONE (died) v Richie Wenton, April 26, 1994, at York Hall, Bethnal Green. Hard fight for vacant British super-bantamweight title, won by Wenton in round 10 when Stone was rescued by referee. Stone, 23, left the ring, but collapsed later. Died two days after.
GERALD McCLELLAN (injured) v Nigel Benn, Feb 25, 1995, at London Arena. After 10 savage rounds in WBCsuper-middleweight fight, American McClellan was rescued by referee. Minutes later he collapsed, but was revived before undergoing emergency surgery. Has now lost his sight.
JIMMY MURRAY (died) v Drew Docherty, Oct 13, 1995, in Glasgow. Murray was winning British bantamweight fight before fading and then collapsing in round 12. He died that night after surgery.
CARL WRIGHT (injured) v Mark Winters, Oct 11, 1997, at Sheffield. Vacant British light-welter. Winters was given decision in fight for vacant British light-welterweight title. Wright fell unconscious several hours after fight and was immediately operated on.
ImagesJOHNNY OWEN (Died): September 1980