“The hardest of sports will be asking once again if the game is worth the candle. Quite a few of us who have been involved with it most of our lives share the doubts.”
These are the words of late sportswriter, Hugh McIlvanney, after witnessing the fatal injuries suffered by Welsh boxer Johnny Owen in a 1980 world title fight.
Owen remained comatose following the fight in Los Angeles, and died just seven weeks later.
The Welshman’s tragic passing left even the most passionate advocates of the sport reflecting on the moral issues surrounding what McIlvanney labelled the “dangerous language” of boxing.
While nearly 40 years have passed since this tragedy, many of the key ethical discussions around professional boxing still remain rife today.
Below, three of the main issues in boxing that require careful moral consideration will be outlined, before being analysed in relation to their affect on the reputability of the sport.
Health and safety
Perhaps the strongest case against boxing – or at least the most damning – is the argument of health and safety, and in particular; athlete well-fare.
A recent survey by Manuel Velazquez found on average there are 13 deaths a year as a result of injuries sustained in the boxing ring.
Critics of boxing would simply ask: why is it that society continues to tolerate a sport that is so detrimental to the health of its participants?
Blood is drawn. Internal organs are beaten and bruised. Bones are broken. Brains are concussed. The list goes on.
The health risks are there for everyone to see.
While injuries can just as easily occur in other sports, it is the direct intention of attempting to hurt and knock-out an opponent – one of the key objectives in any fight – which renders boxing ethically questionable.
This argument is further substantiated through the recent, tragic deaths of boxers Patrick Day and Dwight Ritchie.
Day, at the tender age of 27, died four days after suffering a brain injury in a fight against 22-year-old Charles Conwell, while Ritchie passed away after collapsing during a training session following a blow to the stomach from sparring partner Michael Zerafa.
Both cases cruelly highlight a grim truth. The dark and distasteful side of the sport.
In addition, many injuries can often go unnoticed at the time, but still cause boxers serious health problems in later life.
There is no example more prominent here than the late Muhammad Ali. Following his remarkable career in the ring, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome – a disease that often derives from trauma to the head.
As former Irish professional boxer Barry McGuigan puts it: “The trouble with boxing is that too often it ends in sadness.”
While boxing has been subject to strict moral examination following incidents such as the aforementioned, supporters of the sport would argue that the degree of criticism levelled at boxing is unfair.
They would point to sports such as rugby and ice hockey which demonstrate similar levels of aggression, yet receive significantly less condemnation.
The problem for boxing here is that the barbaric nature of the sport more obviously resembles a direct fight. Whereas, for rugby and ice hockey, it is the rugby ball and the hockey puck that provides the focus for the game.
“It was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else.”
The poignant writing of Hugh McIlvanney again transcends time.
Boxing remains a means through which people can find solace. A sanctuary.
Being inside the ring can become home. Somewhere where one can identify, express, and nurture key values like discipline and self-respect.
For young people growing up in poverty and for those coming from toxic homes, boxing can provide a route to social and economic advancement.
Very few sports have such power.
While critics would consider it irresponsible for people to turn to the dangerous sport of boxing as a past-time or profession, the argument of free will is relevant here.
The following quote from promoter Lou DiBella following the death of his fighter Patrick Day encapsulates this very sentiment.
“He [Day] chose to box, knowing the inherent risks that every fighter faces when he or she walks into a boxing ring. Boxing is what Pat loved to do.”
It is with the deepest sadness that I share the following statement on Patrick Day. https://t.co/SF1suXCBtB
— Lou DiBella (@loudibella) October 16, 2019
The decision to become a boxer is an autonomous one. The risks are understood and appreciated.
Therefore, should boxers not be criticised, but instead admired for their bravery and commitment as they put themselves on the line for a sport they love?
Action inside the boxing ring is often fought against the backdrop of a ruthless and hostile environment. The sport is not only a danger to its participants, but also to spectators and the boxing public as a whole.
The issue of social responsibility is an important one in this argument, with many seeing boxing as a facilitator to anti-social behaviour.
The morality behind supporting a practice where one person attempts to knock-out another by punching around the area of the face and brain is clearly questionable. Especially when these violent instincts could unsuspectingly infest themselves within an onlooker’s mentality.
You have to look no further than the danger of children playing violent video games or watching boxing fights on TV. Exposure to the sport from an early age could result in children becoming desensitised and habituated to both fighting and violence.
The violence of boxing can be just as impressionable on professional fighters. Take Floyd Mayweather, charged with two counts of domestic assault, as a prime example.
Despite the link between boxing and anti-social behaviour, it is worth noting the counter-argument that exists here.
While the phrase ‘safety valve’ is perhaps too strong a term to use, there is weight to the argument which considers boxing a suitable means through which aggression and frustration can be released.
To be able to channel these emotions through the socially accepted valve of professional boxing, boxers need not look for alternative means through which to fulfil their sadistic desires.
A potential ban or applied safety regulations to the sport would however, likely result in these individuals indeed having to search elsewhere for an avenue in which to liberate any built-up aggression.
This could in theory, increase levels of violence and anti-social behaviour in communities.
Ban, or no ban?
The arguments against boxing are not quite as impenetrable as proponents would like to think as the potential implications of introducing a ban must be carefully considered.
For instance, to ban the sport on the basis of health and safety could exacerbate the problem further. A ban could force the sport fully underground, where danger levels would be greater due to negligible, likely non-existent, medical control.
A dangerous precedent could also be set. Would other combat sports such as MMA, wrestling and judo also be subject to similar judgement?
In light of these problems, a reform that stops short of a ban may be the best solution for the sport moving forward.
For example, amateur MMA fighters are forbidden to attack an opponent with strikes from the elbow and knee. Boxing could perhaps introduce similar regulation, such as a rule prohibiting all punches to the head.
While this reform would certainly change the nature of professional boxing, the sport would still retain important virtuous values, and at the same time, be considerably safer for its participants.