If Boxing Was Banned From Society
Martin Theobald

In the aftermath of the tragic events concerning Nick Blackwell at the weekend, a piece of radio coverage on TalkSport caught my ear. Two standard, nondescript presenters there to whip up furore amongst its listeners, put across the following statement:

"If society started again tomorrow, there is no doubt boxing wouldn't exist."

OK, it's perhaps not verbatim what they said but it was the start of their conversation piece that formed the basis of a talkshow. It is perhaps a valid one. Certainly it could be stated as fact within the health-and-safety-conscious UK. This is afterall a place where I recently took my children to a trampoline park (floor to wall trampolines to bounce around on) and was subjected to a fifteen-minute safety video before I was allowed to don my bouncing socks and make my way to the fun. Trampoline parks are a new thing to the UK and despite the relative lack of risk aside from bumps, bruises and the rare broken bone, every participant is made to follow the stringent rules governed by bored part time working teenagers. Contrast this to a place such as Latvia, a place in Europe I recently visited where for fun, you can go and shoot live weapons in an enclosed room while people stand a foot away from you, the only safety being a pair of ear protectors to shelter the sound. The same country allowed me to jump into a 'soft' bobsleigh and tackle an Olympic track. No health and safety briefing, no paperwork.

Therefore it is possibly safe to assume we can start on the premise that, we're society to start again tomorrow in the UK, there would not be boxing. It's simply too risky, two participants willingly allowing their opponent to punch them in the head and body? The risk of trauma to the skull or the organs? The aim of the sport of course is to get the win, although no awards are really handed out for concussing your opponents, it is undoubtedly those that do who become the headline acts and earn both plaudits and money (latter day Mayweather aside). Of course this overlooks the art, the skills of being able to hit and not be hit. But the baying crowds don't pay their money to cheers a slick defensive slip or roll, what gets them to their feet are the knockout blows.

So why then does it exist today? It exists because of legacy and history. Of course it has evolved in the UK both as a sport and a spectacle. Like all past times it has peaks and troughs and, with the well documented record number of current British champions, it can be argued we are in a boom period. The injury to Blackwell that has left him in a coma that all are hoping he recovers from is the highest profile in the country since the days of Michael Watson and the tragic events against Chris Eubank (of course the father of Blackwell's opponent). When Eubank Sr fought Watson in September 1991 it left the Brit in a come he has never fully recovered from. He thankfully is still with us today but lost some of the functionality of his body as a result of the injuries. At the time the British boxing Board of Control were hung out to dry; lack of medical expertise available, lack of specialist care. These were huge issues that nearly forced them into bankruptcy through the courts, but they survived and evolved. Changes were made.

Today, there have to be doctors ringside during fights. Anaesthetists have to be present in the building. Fights cannot happen outside of a radius of one hours travel from a hospital with a neurology department. These are just some of the changes that were governed by the Board as a result of the tragic 1991 incident. Boxers now are some of the most stringently tested sports people in the country, each has to have an annual medical conducted that includes brain scans assessed by specialists. In the recent case of Southern Area cruiserweight champion Lawrence Bennett, his career has been out on hold as brain scans have shown a significant change in results from the scan of last year. The boxer is told to stop sparring and further tests and results are carried out. For Bennett the results are not yet known (or at least published).

So what if boxing didn't exist in a new society where the slate has been wiped clean? Well, it is almost without doubt that the first thing to happen would be boxing goes 'underground'. Already there is a thriving unlicenced scene for boxers, particularly big in the Essex area. It gives promoters an opportunity to put on shows without the regulations of the Board. What are their health and safety requirements? I don't know to be honest. No doubt doctors are on hand but you suspect the additional, more costly expertise may not be. No longer is there the requirement to be within radius of a neurology department. The point is, the rules of a governing body which keep fighters safe are no longer there. This is EXACTLY what would happen if boxing were wiped out tomorrow. The maniacs would take over the asylum. It happens when there is already a Board in place, without one it would be free reign.

That animal instinct of man to fight another man, for money or enjoyment, prevails. Banning the sport doesn't kill the instinct. So is boxing such a danger? Statistics can show one way or the other.

Research published by Sport England in 2015 showed the number of people that participate weekly in a sport. The highest was swimming, totalling 2,051,000 people per week. The top five were completed by athletics, cycling, football and golf. Boxing came at number 15 with 75,800 weekly participants. For reference, football has 872,200. So what are the figures for injuries?

Well, it's difficult to put a finger on exact figures for those visiting A&E. The NHS don't record visits by sport type, only by how the injury happened (typically 1-1.15 million people per year). But what I didn't find is a study undertaken by University College Birmingham who had audited Royal Berkshire Hospital in 2009 over a six week period to see which sports had caused the most injuries. 254 were treated for sporting injuries, 19 didn't state which sport had caused it. So the top five were:

Football: 97, Rugby: 50, Hockey: 19, Combat sports: 11, Basketball: 7

So, boxing is bundled in with other combat sports such as MMA, karate, judo, kick boxing etc. it accounted for 11 attendees, or a total of 4.33% of treatments from the study. Of course this is only one hospital over a six week period, but the numbers seem reasonable enough. Going back to the numbers participating in sports, there were approximately 11 million people canvassed, of which boxing was 75,800 people. Or, you can call it 0.69% of participants. Therefore, boxing (as a lumped part of combat sports) takes up a disproportionate amount of NHS time. Still, it falls significantly short of the time taken by football. Football account for approximately 8% of sports participation but has 38% of injury treatments. Ban football? It wouldn't even be a discussion point and the reason for that is severity. Nick Blackwell is unfortunate enough to be in an induced coma, which doesn't typically happen as a result of footballing injuries. It is of course something that also doesn't typically happen as a result of boxing injuries, which is why it is such a headline when it does. So what are the most dangerous sports to participate in?

Again it is hard to gather data on deaths per sport, the figures are rarely published. There are some figures published from the National Centre for Health Statistics in the USA who record deaths in general but also break down the risk per activity. So here are a few highlights:
Hang gliding: 1 in 560 participants to die
Boxing: 1 in 2,200 participants to die
Sky diving: 1 in 101,083 participants to die
Motorbike racing: 1 in 1,000 races to have a death
Swimming: 1 in 1,000,000 to die
Mountain climbing: 1 in 1,750 to die
Driving: 1 in 6,700 journeys to have a death

So boxing on this basis has a lower risk of death than mountain climbing or hang gliding. Motorbike racing, you are roughly twice as likely to die. Driving a car, the risk is three times less, but then we all do that every day so the number of occurrences is higher. There are plenty of caveats of course to put on this.  Of course these values can be questioned.  Take a look on Boxrec at the month of April as an example.  There are currently 25 scheduled events in the UK with a total of 162 bouts scheduled.  If you took this as a standard month and multiplied it by eleven (ignoring August as it is traditionally a dry spell for boxing) and you can forecast typically 1,782 bouts per year.  If this is a standard, then according to the above statistics it is likely at least one death should occur each year in a British ring.  Again to highlight the sad case of Blackwell, it is clear that there is not on average one death per calendar year in the UK.

The fact is that as a hobby/sport, there are risks involved in it. Driving is a requirement, to get from A to B. Boxing isn't a requirement. But then neither is motor bike racing. The argument around boxers and their injuries cannot be backed up by A&E statistics - football far outweighs the values of boxing as a percentage. For deaths, there are far more dangerous activities to take part in. So is it the middle ground? Not the injuries treated in A&E and not the deaths, but the damaged individuals? Blackwell is a severity, if he wasn't then he wouldn't be in the headlines.

But all of this ignores the social benefit of the sport. 90% plus of the over 100 boxers that have been interviewed for this site (including Blackwell himself) cite boxing as a discipline that has kept them away from trouble. It is a cliche, but it is a cliche that holds true to this day. Get a troubled child into a boxing gym and you immediately reduce the risk of them being involved in day-to-day troubles, the chances of them being involved in gangs or troubling the police. Boxing is an outlet. To participate in it is to give your life to it, trust in the coaches who are to guide you through the learning of the sport and provide goals and aims.

Boxing is a lifestyle for those that participate in it. Are there inherent risks? Of course there are. But then as much as fighters accept that boxing is a route out of trouble and they see it as an outlet, they equally know the risks involved in the sport that they are taking part in.

So if society started tomorrow and boxing was banned, what would happen? The regulation gone, the safety removed. It's not worth thinking about. One tragic happening should not taint the positives.

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