X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Features

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.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close