Investigation

Boxing in Britain: The Untold Story

Boxing is legalised murder. Boxing is a barbaric form of entertainment that turns criminals into millionaires and role models. Boxing should be banned.

In 2016 alone, we saw some of the sport’s highest profile tragedies in recent memory. In March, Nick Blackwell’s career was ended after a British middleweight title defeat to Chris Eubank Jr left him in a coma, while Eduard Gutknecht suffered the same fate in a November bout against George Groves. In between, Mike Towell’s September fight against Dale Evans ended in tragedy for the Scotsman, who passed away after suffering severe bleeding on the brain.

You don’t have to delve much further back into the archives to find the likes of Jonjo Finnegan, who had life-saving brain surgery in 2012, and Jerome Wilson, who lost a quarter of his skull after a 2014 knockout against Serge Ambomo.

The more these incidents come to light, the more the aforementioned arguments are rolled out. As an outsider looking in, it’s hard to comprehend why the sport’s existence is even still a debate.

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“If you do a cross section of neurologists, the vast majority will say boxing is detrimental to your health,” says Dr. John Winer, a Birmingham-based neurologist with more than 25 years of experience. “Obviously there are benefits to boxing, such as young men on the streets who are taught to box and channel their aggression in certain ways. But all neurologists would tell you boxing is not a great idea.”

It’s this aspect of the sport’s discipline and life-altering nature which people inside the boxing community are holding onto.

The physical nature of the sport means a boxer must look after his body in an extreme and unique way in order to defeat his opponent, as well as being able to cope with the punches thrown from the other side. It’s all about improving your own conditioning to give you the best chance of resisting someone else’s. It’s baffling mixture, but it works, and it pays massive life-long rewards if it’s done correctly.

Indeed, a boxer can go 12 rounds before even setting foot in the ring. Round one is not the first bell, it’s forcing yourself to a gym session when it’s the last thing on your mind. Round two is the unwanted 6am alarm to go running in the rain. Round three? Don’t even think about fast food for dinner. Round four is rejecting an invitation to the pub, while round five is refraining from sexual activity weeks before a scheduled fight to maximise aggression. The list goes on.

“It’s a balance and certainly not every boxer ends up with cognitive problems,” Winer says, before admitting that he actually viewed rugby as a greater risk to health due to the possibility of breaking someone’s neck.

“Typically, it’s the professional boxers who fight for money who are constantly being hit all the time. Those people develop a neurological illness which is a bit like Parkinson’s disease where your mind blows up and your memory is ineffective and they are called punch drunk.

“We’ve known about that for a long time but what we didn’t realise is that minor injuries, such as repeatedly being punched to the head, contribute to cognitive decline and I think that’s been realised more recently. Some people are just risk takers.”

One such risk taker was John Murray, a former British and European lightweight champion who last fought in 2014 and has since been forced into retirement. The 32-year-old’s final bout left him with a detached retina and there was a moment in his career where he believed he could have even been on death’s door.

“After having numerous brain scans it was a misread scan [in 2012] which kept me out in the prime years of my career,” Murray says. “I was 26 or 27 when I lost to Brandon Rios and I didn’t fight for another two years after that.

“Obviously it affected my career and the direction that it went, but safety first with boxing.”

Despite the unnecessary trauma that came with his misread examination, it’s these sorts of medical precautions which make the sport as safe as it is despite its inevitable dark days.

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Muhammed Ali, boxing’s biggest icon, passed away in 2016 aged 74. Credit: Jay Galvin Flickr

“If it’s once in a hundred times they pick it up and that person’s life is saved then it’s got to be done,” Murray adds. “We don’t want any damaged people in boxing. The positives of this sport heavily outweigh these negatives. Boxers have got this image of being horrible people and thugs and you could not be more wrong.”

The sport could be banned, lives could be saved, and people could invest their time in something else just as rewarding – but it’s just not as simple as that.

Nick Parkinson, a boxing journalist for almost 20 years and author of ‘A Champion’s Last Fight: The Struggle with Life After Boxing’, has watched the sport develop into what it is today, from Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn of the early 1990s, to the professional careers of their respective sons, Chris Eubank Jr and Conor Benn.

The third generation of these two British legends may have to seek alternative employment away from fighting even if they don’t want to. But Parkinson foresees another problem with the call for banning boxing.

“It will just go underground,” he says. “Illegal fighting where there are no medical regulations or rules.

“It will be more dangerous underground and unregulated, with the boxers far more likely to suffer injuries in the ring.”

“We’re saving the NHS a fortune, really.”
Trainer Stuart Gill on the role of amateur boxing clubs

Indeed, spectators have enjoyed watching other people fight for hundreds of years and this fascination is unlikely to end purely because the law says so.

“I don’t think boxing can be made any safer than it is at the moment,” Parkinson adds. “This country has excellent pre-fight medical checks and support on the night of fights. Occasionally some referees allow fights to go on longer than they should, but these are rare events.

“When boxers take up the sport, they must now be made aware of the chances of suffering from brain disease later in life. Alcohol is also an issue.”

Away from the limelight and glamour of fighting on the world stage, boxing is more than simply punching someone else in the head. It’s a route into normality and a critical tool in keeping someone’s life on a positive track. To some people, it’s all they have.

“There is a lot more good that comes out of it than bad,” says Stuart Gill, the head coach at Golden Ring Amateur Boxing Club in Southampton.

“Clubs all over the country, including us, are keeping thousands and thousands of kids off the street. They’re keeping healthy and not getting fat. We’re all volunteers – I don’t get paid for doing this – and we’re educating them on why they shouldn’t drink, why they shouldn’t smoke, why they shouldn’t take drugs. But we’re not just educating them on why they shouldn’t, we’re giving them a reason not to. We’re saving the NHS a fortune, really.”

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 Joel Tambwe Djeko (left) and Craig Kennedy (right) battle it out.  Credit: Jon Scriven at Boxing Media UK

Gill, who won four combined service titles when he boxed while in the Navy in the 1980s, was also named BBC Radio 5 Live Coach of the Year. He’s a man who has lived and breathed the sport his whole life. The suggestion that boxing could be banned met with a look of disbelief.

“It’s been in my life all the time,” he explains. “You don’t get injuries like [Nick Blackwell’s] often. It’s really, really rare in amateur boxing. I like coming down here and seeing kids who couldn’t box to save their life before they started, getting in there and learning.

“My favourite thing is seeing someone having their first fight and getting their hand raised for the first time. The look on their face is brilliant.”

There’s no hiding from that fact that when two people come together in a ring it is always brutal, and sometimes bloody, but it’s not vicious. Hit and don’t get hit back. Deteriorate your opponent’s ability to fight and maintain yours.

Not one boxer steps in the ring with the main objective of killing, or even seriously injuring, the opponent stood in front of them. If that was the case, there would be no referees nor time limits. It would be a fight to the death.

When professional boxing does go wrong, positive stories from these hundreds of amateur boxing clubs, such as Golden Ring, go unnoticed. The hard work put in by the coaches, and the aspiring fighters themselves, almost seems worthless when someone from outside the boxing bubble overrides them and demands the sport should be stopped. Step inside this thriving community and the truth is clear to see for everyone: boxing is saving far more lives than it’s taking.

Boxing is an art, and if it’s done well, it’s up there with Da Vinci and Van Gogh. For so many people, life without it is not worth thinking about.

golden-ring-listen    watch-john-murray

Header image credit: Jon Scriven granted permission. Owner of Boxing Media UK

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