I adore sport. I can no longer stomach boxing. Here’s why

In most sports, injury is something going horribly wrong. In boxing, it’s something going horribly right

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

In the course of a queasy hour in Harley Street 30 years ago I learned a great deal about the brain — what Woody Allen called ‘my second favourite organ’ — and altered the course of my life in sports writing. Dr Peter Harvey concluded: ‘Boxing is a contest in which the winner seems often to be the one who produces more brain damage on his opponent than he himself sustains.’

Last weekend, after a boxing match for the British middleweight title, Nick Blackwell was in an induced coma with bleeding to the brain. Things would have been a good deal worse if his opponent, Chris Eubank Jnr, had not been told by his corner to stop hitting Blackwell in the head and confine himself to body shots. Eubank’s father and trainer, Chris Eubank, was also imploring the referee, Victor Loughlin, to stop the fight. He was certainly recalling the night in 1991 when his own fight against Michael Watson ended with Watson brain-damaged and disabled.

Boxing has slid down the sporting agenda in recent years, the big fights on pay-per-view and marginalised by football on the sports pages. You don’t often come across boxing by accident these days. It seems astonishing that it’s still going on in the 21st century.

It’s not risk that makes boxing inappropriate to modern life. Risk sports are more important than ever: life is so comfortable for many people that they seek adventure and are the richer for doing so — and sport is the world’s most accessible adventure. Most sports require serious physical commitment, and the best demand a little courage even to take part. Everyone gets hurt now and then. For a few, it’s worse; for a very few, very much worse. In 1999 five people were killed in the sport of eventing — the finest sport of them all, at least for the participants.

There’s something particularly awful about deaths and serious injuries in sport: they seem like death in pursuit of a triviality. But the pursuit of excellence is never pointless — and that’s what sport is all about. Here’s an ancient paradox: people who take part in risk sports don’t have a death wish. They tend to do it from an exaggerated love of being alive. A life wish, if you like.

But when deaths and serious injuries happen in sports like eventing, it’s because things have gone horribly wrong. When they happen in boxing it’s because things have gone horribly right. Two powerful and highly trained athletes are trying to hit each other’s brains.

Dr Harvey told me there were two kinds of brain damage, very broadly speaking. One comes in traumatic circumstances, sometimes with a single blow; the other is subtle and cumulative and comes from repeated blows.

Boxing gloves don’t protect the person being hit. Quite the opposite: the padding protects the fist from damage and lets you hit much harder. A padded fist is a lethal weapon. Headguards worn for sparring and for amateur bouts (as in the Olympics) don’t protect boxers from concussion: they make the target area larger and exaggerate the torsional effect of a glancing blow.

I remember a morning in a boxing gym in New York. Snow fell on the hard streets outside. We were with Sugar Ray Leonard: ‘I hate that guy,’ said the Associated Press boxing correspondent, Ed Schuyler. ‘Ain’t right that a boxer should be smarter than me.’

‘Raymond, what would you do if your son wanted to box?’

‘I’d lock him up.’

Leonard was an impressive man. I’ve met other boxers and admired them: the composure of Duke Mackenzie, the generosity of Howard Winstone, the sweetness of poor Frank Bruno and the desperate figure of Mohammed Ali. Fine people.

But across history, boxers have been expendable. It’s always been easy to sell the spectacle of two fine athletes inflicting potentially lethal damage on each other. It’s the people who pay and the people who profit who must carry the responsibility for what happens to boxers.

In recent years rugby union and American football have become desperately concerned about concussion protocols and the effects of cumulative injuries to the brain. It’s seems odd that society still accepts an activity in which such injuries are caused on purpose.

Most sports are metaphors. The territorial ball games are battles, tennis is a duel, races are about hunters and hunted, cricket is a life-and-death thing. Alone among them is boxing, which is not a metaphor at all. It really is a death-duel. The ultimate achievement in boxing — like hitting a six, taking a wicket, scoring a goal or try, serving an ace, passing the post first — is to knock someone out. That is to say, to inflict permanent brain damage. Odd that this is a public entertainment in 2016.

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Show comments
  • right1_left1

    I am not a fan of boxing but do not like the idea of protecting people from voluntary activity which many particpents seem to enjoy.

    I did happen to see the Eubank fight and it was clear to me something did go badly wrong.
    The referee made a major error of judgement by not stopping the fight.
    Eubank jnr at one point could be seen asking the referee to stop it.
    Eubank snr was warned to stand back when apparently he was also asking for the fight to be stopped.

    adding: another problem was the will to fight of Blackwell.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    A civilized society has a responsibility to limit activities that support and encourage gratuitous acts…boxing fits into this. There are plenty of other outlets for testing oneself physically or for indulging in the ‘thrill’ of danger without punching someone in the face.

    • UncleTits

      And “civilised” means, what, exactly? Who decides what a gratuitous act is? A government pin-head? Ban boxing and I guarantee its replacement, in back streets all over the country, will be much more deadly.

    • JohnnyNorfolk

      Just leave people alone.

      • Faulkner Orkney

        Yeah…because that works really well.

  • Giles Toman

    If they are grown men and they both want to do it, let them do it. It is their choice.

  • rickmcinnis

    I do not care for the game invented by, I presume, the Venus de Milo, so I do not watch it or pay any attention to it. I would recommend the same to the writer of this tired opinion. I do not pay any attention to boxing but your explanation of the goals of the sport are incorrect. I think you are confusing boxing with ultimate fighting. You need to research how seldom matches are decided by knockouts. Bet you get all morally superior about hunting, too. Target shooting must send you into paroxysms of fear. Only sport that is “good” requires leaving your arms and hands dangling by your side like some large scale version of that Irish dancing craze of a few years back.

    AS they say, opinions are like sphincters …

  • UncleTits

    Almost feels like the New Labour era with this kind of risk-averse guff. Yes boxing gloves protect a fist, that is not trained to hit without them, from damage. They also disperse the force over a larger area. Big difference between someone stepping on your toe wearing slippers or stilettos. Boxing has indeed declined in popularity. Unbelievable that you have never heard of MMA and the UFC. Maybe look online for a local MMA gym and go and see what all the fuss is over. Looking forward to your next fluffy crusade. Presumably against cricket or skiing.

  • Marian Hunter

    OMG I can’t believe I’ve just read that. Simon Barnes a seasoned sports writer sounding as PC as Claire Balding at the skating.
    You will never see a spectacle so glorious as two middleweights practicing the science and art of professional boxing. It could be set to music. A dance almost.
    Unlike the heavyweight class which often disappoints due to two hulks either avoiding each other’s blows or hanging onto each other halfway through each round to wear each other down. Wears me down watching it.
    Having watched Chris Eubank senior bring his son on has been wonderful for the sport. I am sorry Simon doesn’t feel the same anymore.

  • JohnnyNorfolk

    Get a grip. Move over to The Guardian. Its called freedom of choice.Why do we have wets writing things like this.

    • Maybe he is sorry to see that fine young lad likely ending up as a cabbage. If he were my son I’d be very sorry about that. I’m sorry about it anyway. It’s a dam ned shame Johnny, and Euwbank Senior knew it and tried too stop it, having left one of his own opponents in a wheelchair since the 1990s.

      Tell you what Johnny, why don’t we reinvent mortal combat exhibitions with gladiators and cheer as they get stabbed and hacked to death?

    • red2black

      More likely it’s bad refereeing on account of keeping the paying punters happy?

  • Statistically speaking, isn’t rugby a more dangerous sport regarding concussions, and long lasting chronic medical conditions?

    Boxing is largely well regulated, and safe. The injury regarding the Eubank Jr fight was a referee error. If a big lump appears on a fighter then the referee should have stepped in and with the doctor’s advice stopped the fight a lot earlier.

  • Bristol Common Sense

    You can not wrap everybody up in cotton wool. If other people want to take risks, so be it. And if it were not for people taking risks humanity would still be stuck in Africa with sticks and stones.

    • Isn’t boxing from the same stable as sticks and stones? It is hardly a way to enhance human development so I’m not sure why you make that suggestion. Boxing is about as primeval as you can get, unless you envisage a sport where you include clubs and spears or hitting an opponent with rocks.

      • red2black

        What seems to have got lost in all this is the idea that once one man has proved himself the better boxer, enough is enough.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The movie “Concussion” would seem to be required viewing.
    Big money prevents contact sports from being banned. There is a link to smoking. Big money again.
    Jack, the partially blocked Brit

    • red2black

      “Partially blocked? …Poor technique, Grasshopper!” (falsely attributed to Master Po)

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        See the movie. Available at all good unofficial channel DVD outlets in third world Asia.
        Jack, Penng

  • Lizzy

    Simon, there’s several questions you need to answer based on your text. Would you rather be hit by a boxing glove or a bare fist? If the former, then your statement about the gloved hand being a lethal weapon seems erroneous. If you consider the head-guard increases the risk of harm, why on Earth are they worn; surely the doctors advising the boxing boards have a medical/safety reason to recommend them? Finally, it’s a sport, it’s entirely voluntary, people know the risks, it’s done by willing participants who know what the implications and requirements are. It’s their choice. It’s not as if they’re hunting animals; who have no choice whether to take part.

    • On the matter of the volition of the participants; a lot of boxers are rather hard up deprived lads with few opportunities to do well in life. To suggest that they are entirely free in making the choice to box (implying that they give fully informed consent) is exactly like saying hard up and desperate girls who take up pr ostit ution are making a freely informed and sensible choice to make good money. Well, maybe they are, but maybe their opportunities are so constrained that both kinds of choices are really not that free.

      • Lizzy

        Arthur, you make a very valid point and I dare say there are some participants who are not wholly volunteering in the purest sense. I would say that that is not the fault of the spirit of sport though and entirely down to their own situations; unfortunate as they may be.

  • ForGodsSake1

    Contra many of the comments here: the point about boxing (and its child, the truly obscene ‘mixed martial arts’) is that it is in a category of its own. Unlike any other sport, the declared aim of each participant is to disable the other by superior violence – which can be lethal. We ban prize-fighting between animals for good reasons – it’s bloody, demeaning to both fighters and promoters, and immoral. Above all, it only exists because of betting. All this equally applies to prize-fighting between humans. Can you honestly say that human existence would be any worse off if it was banned?

  • JEK68

    You can’t talk about boxing’s decline without talking about the rise of MMA.
    In MMA the gloves are smaller meaning shorter fights and less repetitive brain injury from repeated blunt trauma and knockdowns. The fights are also stopped much earlier and are shorter in length and there are a huge number of ways to win the fight, meaning less damage to the brain and a more entertaining fight than just two boxers punching each other in the head. There is more superficial damage in MMA (cuts, broken bones, bruises, swelling) but nowhere near the amount of irreparable brain damage that is done in boxing.
    Just watch less boxing and more MMA, its more entertaining, requires more skill and is less brutal.

    • Robert Basset

      MMA is 90% oily men hugging.

      • JEK68

        Oily? What have you been watching?

      • Mick Patrick

        You clearly haven’t seen a MMA event and your attempt to denigrate the sport by implying a large (“90%!”) element of homosexuality is rather sad.

        • Robert Basset

          You’re the one implying homosexuality. I’m implying oily men hugging.

  • enoch arden

    We have also to keep in mind that the ability to sustain punches varies a lot, and it isn’t related to the boxing skill or the physical condition. There is a condition called “a glass jaw” when a boxer can be knocked out (incapacitated) by a moderate punch.

    • Marian Hunter

      The late boxing great Sir Henry Cooper, who famously knocked out Muhamed Ali had the same problem with his right eye. His opponent allegedly fought with a tear in his glove knowing this.

      • Bob Gardiner

        Slight inaccuracies here. Cooper knocked Ali down, not out. It certainly had Ali staggering. Cooper’s problem was thin tissue above the eyes which were cut easily. He lost the second fight due to the same problem (I was at Highbury for that bout) Reports of the first fight are worth reading as there were other contraventions of the rules by Clay’s corner.

  • Minstrel Boy

    As Jackie Mason observed, boxing should be tolerated for ‘messhugenaghs’ as it provides an enormous amount of regular work for dental surgeons and a lot of good Jewish boys are thus kept in work while the other lot concentrate upon hitting each other in the mouth.

  • Discuscutter

    If Boxing is banned then Rugby which has a lot more serious injuries will be going as well.

    • SonOfaGun

      CTE (dementia) is widespread in US football, and they wear helmets.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Mountain climbing ,Rugby and American football are not long for this world. A tipping point cometh. If they were invented today ,they would be banned.

      • Tamerlane


  • stephengreen

    No man ‘adores’ sport.

    • Marian Hunter

      I also thought that was a weird choice of words, being a rugby/boxing fan myself!

  • SonOfaGun

    Make boxers wear head gear, bigger gloves (two feet wide), and decide every match on points.

    • Mick Patrick

      And skirts rather than shorts.

  • Flashman

    The punishment that a pro-cyclist inflicts upon himself over the course of a career is life-shortening. The damage that a pro-footballer does to his knees will often lame him.
    If we focus upon the injury, what does it matter if it was caused as a by-product or by intent?
    What Barnes ignores is the glory that sport practised at its highest level can bestow. Of course only Muhammed Ali will ever know how it felt as he knocked George Foreman to the canvass. But we can imagine. And if, like Simon Barnes, you can’t – or refuse to – imagine it, then you have no business being a sports writer. It’s like being a film critic who only likes silent movies.
    And for the record, there’s nothing remotely ‘desperate’ about the great Muhammed Ali. Anyone with even a casual interest in the 20th century’s greatest athlete (let alone a Times sportswriter) will know that Ali remains a happy, content man. At peace with himself, and fiercely proud of his many sporting and non-sporting triumphs.

    • Marian Hunter

      So, I think, is Mike Tyson.

  • quotes

    I sympathise but utterly disagree. I certainly don’t agree that the audience bears responsibility over the boxers, that’s just childish.

    All sport runs the risk of injury. I’d far rather see two grown men beat each other half to death – and for what it’s worth I don’t watch boxing – than thrown themselves to the floor in an effort to impress the referee.

  • Roger Hudson

    I often saw Watson being pushed around Stoke Newington by a carer and it always made me unhappy. I used to box at school ( imagine that these days) and still see a place for the amateur sport.
    It’s pro boxing that stinks, it’s the money corruption of course.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Boxing was corrupted first. Then Horse Racing. Then Baseball. Then Weightlifting. Then F1. Then Cycling. Then Soccer. Then Athletics. American football, Ice Hockey, Gymnastics and Swimming are all highly dodgy. Cricket and Tennis coming under the radar. Wrestling doesn’t even pretend to be genuine. Money and drugs ruined sport years ago.

  • hobspawn

    “Here’s why”

    This is the third time this month I’ve read a headline containing this ugly Americanism. The Spectator desperately needs an editor. 

  • misomiso

    The single thing they could do for boxing would be to remove the gloves and return to bare knuckle fights.

    Before gloves were introduced fighters always went for the torso and there were almost no head shots as the hands would break against the jaw / skull.

    Remove gloves and boxing has a great future.