Simon Barnes

The brain-damage game

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

The brain-damage game
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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.