Banning boxing is not the way to avoid more tragedy in the ring

Boxing Gloves

He died doing what he loved.

It doesn’t get any more trite than that, but it’s a cliché for a reason.

Some young men and women love to play footy, others love to spearfish, and as much as it might offend you, some love to fight.

To some extent, all these activities are risky – that’s why people love to do them.

Brayd Smith loved to box. He came from a boxing family – his dad was his trainer and manager – and reportedly wanted to improve the sport’s image.

Yet he knew the risk he was taking when he stepped into the squared circle with John Vincent Moralde on Saturday night.

That doesn’t make what happened next any less tragic. Undefeated up to that point, Smith suffered his first professional loss and collapsed 90 minutes later. He was airlifted to hospital in Brisbane, but never woke up. His life support was switched off on Monday.

As a boxing fan, you feel sick whenever you hear that fighter has suffered a brain injury or been killed in a bout. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens too often, and the natural reaction is to ask yourself whether it’s worth it.

So I understand why the Queensland president of the Australian Medical Association is calling for the sport to be banned.

Yet in every case I’ve seen like this, and I’ve seen a few, I’ve come to the same conclusion: these young men wanted to be in the ring. They enjoy it. Contrary to popular belief, boxers aren’t stupid – they’re usually sensitive and intelligent, and boxing is a choice they make.

There’s an ugly industry that profits from their blood, sweat and tears, but that’s not why the AMA wants to ban boxing.

Despite what the AMA say, it is possible to make boxing much safer, through better regulation and administration

“We believe that a so-called sport where two people knock each other in the head as often as you possibly can to win a bout seems rather barbaric.”

Apart from being a massive simplification, the word “barbaric” is telling. I don’t see anybody calling for horse riding, a sport which kills and maims more Australians each year than the sweet science, to be banned.

The obvious response is that the point of equestrianism isn’t to hurt someone else, but what do intentions matter to doctors when people arrive at the emergency room?

The truth is that boxing is a working class sport. It always has been. Many middle class people find it distasteful.

Yet that’s not reason enough to ban it. Nor would banning it result in better health outcomes for fighters. Boxing – violence, basically – has an elemental appeal to a lot of people, there’s no point in denying that.

A prohibition of boxing would work about as well as other prohibitions have in the past. It was tried in various US states in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it merely drove the sport underground, where participants were even less safe.

People want to watch fights and people want to fight, so to put it in public health terms, the best way to deal with boxing is harm minimisation. Doctors of all people should recognise that.

Though it seems Smith’s death was a freak accident, combat sports regulation in Queensland is a disgrace. As sports lawyer Tim Fuller, who consulted with the Queensland government after the death of boxer Alex Slade in 2010, told the ABC: “The sport is continuing to essentially operate in a very unregulated manner.”

The introduction of a proper regulator in Queensland would ensure that boxers in the Sunshine State are looked after, officials are properly trained, and data about injuries and suspensions is kept up to date. Combat sports regulators in the other states should be fortified.

Perhaps the most important thing that could be done to protect boxers would be extra education for trainers and cornermen. Boxers often receive a lot more punishment sparring in the gym than they do on fight night. Teaching trainers how to run a safe gym, as well as when to protect their fighters when they’re in the ring by throwing in the towel at the right time, would be good for boxers’ health.

I’d also advocate the introduction of incremental weigh-ins, rather than one the night before the fight. Having 24 hours between making weight and fighting gives fighters an incentive to “cut” water weight before attempting to rehydrate. The process can leave them dehydrated and at further risk of brain injury.

As for extra padding and headgear, which would seem like obvious safety improvements, research suggests they don’t actually diminish the amount of force a boxer’s brain receives when struck with a blow. In fact, amateur boxing, which has long used headgear, is moving to ditch it at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I’m biased – I’m a boxing fan, but that means I have a lot of affection for boxers. I never want to see another boxer seriously hurt. Despite what the AMA say, it is possible to make boxing much safer, and the way to do it is through better regulation and administration. More young men will die if we don’t.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex McClintock, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 18th March 2015 01.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010