How To Reduce Brain Damage In Boxing: Is It Even Possible?

For as long as boxing is a sport, fighters are going to get brain damaged. It’s an unfortunate consequence to a sport that can be equally beautiful and brutal. Sometimes it could be a single knockout blow, a brutal fight that went the distance or a fighter just fighting on for too long. Brain damage is something all fighters want to avoid, but for some they pay the ultimate price.

Thankfully, brain damage has already been reduced in the sport, as the way it used to be conducted was a lot different than it is today. You only have to head over to YouTube (video below!) to see some of the worst endings to a fight of all-time. The black and white days when fighters kept punching until the referee told them to stop, which didn’t happen nearly as quickly as it does today.

The days of a boxer repeatedly hammering a fighter who is on his feet only because he’s being held up by the ropes is a thing of the past. So are fights that don’t have a round limit, let alone the old 15 round fights what we saw until 1982, which were stopped following the death of Duk Koo Kim.

There have reportedly been over 2,000 deaths in boxing, with over 500 listed since the introduction of Queensbury Rules in 1884. It’s not a thing of the past either, with high profile deaths in each of the last three years. Brain damage is of course far more common than death, both in the short-term after fights and the long-term after a career in the sport. Whilst the sport has moved forward, there is still plenty to be done to reduce brain damage in the sport.

So, How Can Brain Damage Be Reduced?

There are ways and means of reducing brain damage in boxing that would undeniably help. A challenge for the people running the sport will continue to be how far do they want to go to protect fighters, whilst trying not to take anything away from the sport. We have seen in other sports such as Formula 1 where they have added the ‘halo’ device to the cars which is hugely unpopular with the fans, but will protect drivers.

One change that would be unpopular in boxing circles would be to reduce the number of rounds in a fight. For high-level bouts this is almost always set at 12, with the exception being lower level fights that can be any number of different rounds. As mentioned previously, this figure has already been reduced. There were fights with unlimited rounds, but the old championship distance used to be 15.

A further reduction to say, 10 rounds, would help fighters in the long run and also stop many of the horrible injuries that we see. There might be a compromise here however, and just leave 12 round fights for elite-level, experienced fighters. When you have a talented boxer coming though, it might be wise to leave any 12 rounds fights for later in their career.

George Groves and Christ Eubank Jr. Recently had a 12 round fight themselves, but both of them have been scarred in the past by leaving their opponent with life changing brain injuries. Eubank fought Nick Blackwell and completely dominated the fight, it wasn’t even close. The talent difference between the two was vast and you could argue that you could have easily settled that fight after 8 rounds. Instead, Eubank stopped Blackwell in the 10th and he is still recovering. Groves too completely dominated his opponent too, which went the full 12 rounds with two of those judges scoring 11 of those rounds to Groves, and the other giving him 10. Eduard Gutknecht is still unable to walk, or talk.

There are strong arguments that these two instances could have been avoided, and in turn, many other similar instances avoided too. One way would be to reduce the number of rounds in a fight as mentioned. Eubank and Groves were huge favourites in both fights, and the double-digit rounds were hardly needed. Another way would be to implement a mercy rule, which would be placed in the hands of either the referee or the judges.

The referee could call off a fight if, in his opinion, a boxer no longer has a realistic chance of winning. The judges could call the fight if they have one fighter ahead by six or more rounds. With either of these methods, the brain damage suffered by Blackwell or Gutknecht could well have been avoided as both of those fights would have been called off in the 7th round, or even before. If you didn’t want to take anything away from a sport, implementing a mercy rule could be the best compromise as no-one wants to see one-sided fights.

Everyone Should Wear Headgear, Right?

Sparring sessions are a lot safer than the bright lights of a professional boxing arena. One of the reasons for that is due to the use of large headgear and bigger gloves. If you were a boxing purist and only interested in the art of boxing, then surely you wouldn’t be against the use of safer equipment in the professional boxing game? The argument against that would be that anyone could look good in sparring without that fear of a huge punch breaking their nose or getting cut. The defensive art of boxing is to avoid the risks for getting hurt.

There is also the argument that wearing headgear isn’t actually any safer anyway. That’s the argument that the International Boxing Association (AIBA) made in 2016 when they decided to remove the headgear ahead of the 2016 Olympics for safety reasons, but when you look into it further, it’s not as crazy as it seems. According the AIBA’s research, referees had to stop fights more often when fighters were wearing headguards.

There is also the fact that headgear doesn’t do much to prevent knockouts as they don’t protect the jaw and can’t prevent the head whipping around. With the impaired vision a boxer has when wearing head protection, this can leave them more vulnerable to being knocked out and can also give them a false sense of security, and therefore boxers are more likely to get hit as they abandon their defence. So wearing more protection isn’t the answer, or at least it’s not until new studies prove otherwise.

You Can’t Replace The Thrill Of The Knockout!

When contemplating any changes, you have to discuss the aspect of the sport that people are almost hesitant to admit that they love, the thrill of the knockout. When Carl Froch landed that right cross on George Groves’ chin, the Wembley crowd erupted and revelled in the fact they had just witnessed one of the sports most memorable moments. After the punch, is the immediate concern, thankfully Groves was okay, but required a lot of treatment before he remembered where he was.

Boxers can land a punch at speeds of up to 32 miles per hour, and it’s that raw violence that gets people off their seats. Sports fans like seeing people get hurt, as long as it’s temporary. In boxing, that can be a very fine line. It’s a gladiatorial thirst for violence and the mobs of the Coliseum are now the paying customers in Wembley Stadium. Maybe in 2,000 years civilisation will look back on the sport of boxing the same way as we look back at the Roman battles.

In order for boxing to remain as a sport, the violence needs to continue and people need to continue to be knocked out. Having more and heavier equipment to sedate the fighting would simply kill the sport, so it’s not the way forward. Fighters over welterweight are already required to wear heavier gloves (10oz) than fighters below that weight (8oz) and any increase in this would be very unpopular. There have been calls in fact for women’s gloves to be lighter so that there are more knockouts, as they all currently are required to wear 10 ounce gloves, regardless of their weight class.

The Growing Awareness of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

The first published case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was in 2005 and since then it was caused a huge tidal wave through sport. It was first discovered in American Football players after a number of incident involving crime and suicide. Those studies have moved on to many other sports, with boxing obviously being no exception.

There is an increasing amount of surveys being done to develop the understanding of the brain and the impact that is has during sport. Unlike American football or rugby however, boxing is an individual sport whereby each athlete knows the risks and what they are putting their body though. That’s part of what makes the sport so encapsulating and the respect for its participants so high.

There are two big questions in the respect of brain injuries: How can we make sure boxers are taking less blows to their head during the careers? And what can be done to highlight any issues before they get more serious? As awareness grows, people will get more conscious about the risks involved with their fighter. I recall watching the Nick Blackwell’s last bout astounded by his bravery, but bemused by his corner’s reluctance to pull him out of the fight. I also remember naively thinking that it was weak for Gary O’Sullivan to quit on his stool when facing the same opponent the fight before, it wasn’t, it was wise.

There is no point a fighter continuing when he has no chance of winning, but obviously brain injuries aren’t just a one-fight problem, they are a career problem and nowhere can that be seen more sadly that one of the best to ever lace up the gloves, Muhammed Ali. While some fighters go on too long during a fight, others go on too long taking fight after fight when they are long past their best. Ali should have quit long before he did, and it could have made a difference.

One of the saddest parts of Ali’s story is that is wasn’t like the signs weren’t there already. It was obvious with his speech that his brain wasn’t as quick as it once was, but he still he kept on fighting. That is the problem with a lot of boxers that they can’t get away from the buzz that being in the ring gives to them. If Roy Jones Jr. retired after his greatest night, beating John Ruiz to become a four-weight world champion, then he’d currently be in the hall of fame and being talked about as possibly the greatest ever.

Instead, he fought on. Not once, not twice, but 26 times after that fight. His record after that Ruiz fight was an incredible 48-1, with his only loss coming via disqualification to Montell Griffin who he subsequently knocked out in the rematch. After that Ruiz fight, his record was 18-8 in those 26 fights, as he went through a run of losing seven fights in 12 bouts.

Any boxing fan who saw Jones Jr. at his best will have their fingers crossed that those extra rounds of punishment that he took didn’t take their toll. He is just the highest profile example of something that is seen countless times. Kell Brook’s first fight was against the infamous Peter Buckley, who finished his career losing an incredible 256 fights. Sometimes it’s for the buzz, other times it’s simply for the money. Many journeymen fighters continue as it’s all they ever know.

The Growing Need For Brain Scans

If these fighters could see what is happening in their own brains then maybe they would stop a lot sooner. Brain scans would be a good way to achieve this, but naturally there is a cost element involved that would have to be taken into consideration. This helps boxers find out if there is any damage and asses the risk of a long-term brain injury.

A scan in the UK would cost on average around £400 which may sound like small change to a contender, but could be a lot of money to a journeyman. It seems impractical to get every boxer to conduct annual brain scans, but they do need to become more of an integral part of boxing. Not only to save boxers while they are still actively fighting, but also for more research to prevent brain injury in the future.

There is little reason why as a world champion shouldn’t be having regular checks. Even for fighters below that level, it should be more in common. Having a pre and post-fight brain scan for all title fights may seem like a big step to take, but prevention is better than cure.

That’s exactly what a brain scan would do, it would prevent a fighter from ever fighting again. That’s not a piece of news that a boxer ever wants to hear, but it’s a lot easier to take than being told you have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease 10 years down the line. You hear of sportsmen having heart scans and being advised to never compete again, that same level of precaution should apply to be brain as well.

Boxing needs to reduce the amount of brain injuries that its sportsmen suffer, but they need to do it without losing the core elements of the sport that people pay to see. It is a delicate balance for any sport in a world where there is increasing focus on the welfare of athletes. It could be argued that the likes of American football, rugby and Formula 1 aren’t quite the sports they were before. Boxing for the most part has managed to maintain most of its appeal. Maybe that is due to the participants only answering to themselves, captains of their own ship who decide whether they get punched in the face or not.

Protect Boxers From Themselves, Whatever The Cost

Boxers though need protecting from themselves at times, hence why we even have such a thing as a Technical Knockout. Going back to that Nick Blackwell fight and it was clear from the 5th round that there was little reason for the fight to continue. Blackwell should have quit himself, but there is a stigma against doing that. His corner should have protected their fighter, but they are always reluctant to do so. The referee should have stopped it earlier, but they are under pressure to not stop a fight too soon.

Not only would a mercy rule have helped in that fight, something may have been picked up in a scan beforehand. But also boxing needs to take steps to remove the stigma from saying “no mas” (no more) as was famously done by Roberto Durán when fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. The likes of Kell Brook got a lot of criticism for not wanting to go blind after fracturing his eye sockets.

Boxing needs to move forward with more awareness about its responsibility to the people that everyone pays to see. There are many things that can be done to reduce brain injuries in the sport, but it’ll never get rid of them completely. That’s the nature of the sport. The high stakes involved are part of what makes it so enthralling. Hopefully in the future we see fewer boxers paying a heavy price for the immense entertainment that they let us all enjoy.