Having been introduced to the complex world of brain injury in recent times, my thoughts have returned to the world of boxing. Described at the “noble art”, I admit to having watched a few fights over the years. I have winced when a boxer suffered a shocking knockout and winced some more when hearing an ex boxer slurring following a long career of being hit on the head for money. The more I learn, the more uneasy I get.
I watched Chris Eubank punch Michael Watson into a coma live on ITV, as I watched Nigel Benn inflict catastrophic damage to the brain of Gerald McLellan, leaving him blind, 80% deaf and unable to walk. I watched Thomas Hearns fight Marvin Hagler in what was possibly the most explosive fight ever only to see Hearns on TV in recent times barely unable to string two words together. I suppose you could say it was just bad luck that they were so badly injured. By the same token, you can bet your life that a boxer who makes it through a fight, through a career, without mangling his brain is a lucky man indeed.
I learned this week that if you held a human brain in your hand, it would seep between your fingers, like a barely set jelly. Of course, there is a level of natural protection including the skull and three membranes called meninges. But if some bloke – or woman – hits you in the head, that little object which controls your entire life is undeniably at risk.
TV commentators, after describing a knockdown or knockout, will always say that they hope the fighter will make a full recovery. Don’t we all? Yet the likelihood is that in some small way, the brain will be irretrievably damaged. In rugby, when it is even slightly suspected that a player might be suffering from concussion, he is removed from the field for an assessment. In boxing, a fighter can be concussed and carry on fighting, sometimes to the end of the fight, making that concussion worse. Imagine a head injury assessment every time a big punch would land. Most fights would last for hours.
When I was younger, I just enjoyed the fight, not thinking of any consequences. Then, watching men get badly injured in the ring, I started to feel uneasy. Now, as I begin to understand more about the brain, I am questioning whether I can, in all conscience, watch it and whether I ought to support the campaign to ban boxing.
There aren’t many sports where the aim is to render your opponent unconscious. That’s becoming my problem with it.