Working these days for a charity dealing with the effects of head injury has made me even more uneasy about the sport of boxing. I have often found boxing utterly compelling, particularly in the days of Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Michael Watson. Their fights on Saturday night ITV were the stuff of legend. If you only remember the good bits. There were some bits that were anything other than good.
Chris Eubank’s epic fight against Michael Watson resulted in the latter suffering irreversible brain damage. Nigel Benn’s fight with Gerald McLennan resulted in the latter suffering from catastrophic brain injuries, as well as the fighter becoming deaf and blind. I carried on watching boxing in the years that followed, but my perspective changed.
I watched Anthony Joshua last night defeat two time drugs cheat Alexander Povetkin with relative ease. Although the Russians landed some blows on Joshua, it was only a matter of time until the bigger and younger man got through. In round seven, Joshua flattened his opponent only for him to beat the count. Clearly dazed, Povetkin was allowed by the referee to continue and was soon knocked out. No head injury assessments in boxing because the whole point of boxing is to render your opponent unconscious. Awful. I find it hard to believe that Povetkin will not be slurring and stumbling into middle age – he is 39 right now – just as other boxers have done throughout the years.
People talk about the fight between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns in 1985 in revered tones. But listen to Hearns now. He can barely string two words together. And then there was Muhammad Ali.
One of Ali’s daughters Hana Ali has published a rather lovely book based on taped conversations she had with her father. She described its contents on Garry Richardson’s Radio Five Live Sportsweek show this morning and indeed played part of one of the tapes. It was so lovely. But what happened to Ali was not lovely.
Ms Ali was asked about the decline in her father’s health and his descent into the ravages of Parkinsons. Although she did not say it outright, the implication was that Ali’s condition was not down to boxing. To which I say nonsense.
I have read numerous books on Ali, the most important being Life and Times by Thomas Hauser and there is no question that his brain damage was caused by boxing. Hauser goes to great lengths to explain the unequivocal evidence, including that shown in X rays of his brain. The greatest boxer who ever lived, arguably the greatest human being whoever lived. However, let us not pretend that his deteriorating health was purely a coincidence. It wasn’t.
I would not ban boxing but I’d put a bigger health warning on it. The brain, if held in your hands, would seep through your fingers. If an 18 stone bloke sits you on the head, it is fair to assume that the brain will suffer trauma. Not necessarily immediate, noticeable trauma – although that can happen – but the cumulative effect of being hit in the head will cause lasting, irreversible damage.
Previously, I could set aside my concerns about boxing and brain damage, but now I work in the field of head injury, I feel strangely conflicted. People call it the noble art and explain, unconvincingly, that the whole point of the sort is not to be hit. To which I reply, yeah right. Last night’s crowd didn’t really get going until Joshua had knocked Povetkin to the floor.
Some of us close our eyes to the damage unfolding before our eyes, others don’t think or care about it. We can choose whether to watch it or not. Boxers can choose whether or not to fight but they cannot choose not to receive brain injury. One way or another, that will happen. And for as long as people hit each other in the head, there will be Gerald McLennans, Michael Watsons and, if you have time research the story, Johnny Owens’.