Boxing became codified as a sport way back in 688 B.C., when it was accepted into the Olympic Games. But it's not all medals and belts, it's one of the most physically demanding—and dangerous— sports. This week Rick Reilly writes a column about an amateur boxer killed in a charity match. With that on our minds, we decided to ask the experts just how dangerous the sport really is.
What kind of numbers are we talking about?
Joe Svinth, editor of the Journal of Combative Sport: Since January 1999, at least 98 boxers have died. Note that this is all classes of boxers sanctioned: amateur, unsanctioned amateur, military, training, Toughman, and pro.
Rex Walker, president of the North American Boxing Federation: There's fewer deaths in professional boxing than in little league baseball. It's a dangerous sport, in the same way football is, but it's not as bad as people think.
Got it. Little League is very dangerous. But how exactly do boxing deaths occur?
Dr. Martha Goodman, Las Vegas neurologist and writer for Ring Magazine: From a medical standpoint it's called subdural hematoma. It's when the little web of veins that covers your brain is ruptured. When it starts bleeding it puts pressure on the rest of you brain and that causes a domino reaction of brain cell death.
Dr. Joe Estwanik, author of Sports Medicine for the Combat Arts: We're looking into what's called Second-Impact Syndrome. Say somebody gets a head blow, and he's sustained a prior recent head injury—whether in sparring, in a bar fight, in an auto accident—you already have a minor hit that has changed the physiology of the brain, and even if it's not a severe hit, that second impact has a greater than 50% mortality rate.
Are there other risks that are really specific to boxing?
Dr. Michael Schwartz, chairman of the Association of American Professional Ringside Physicians: The resulting dehydration from fighting outside a weight class can be a big deal. It's not uncommon for fighters to lose up to 20% of their body weight two or three days before a fight and we're still trying to figure out what effect this has on the brain.
Dr. Chuck Williams, supervisor with the World Boxing Council: The bottom line is that the less punches a guy takes, the less chance he has of getting hurt. If the guys show they don't have a chance, why let it continue? Boxing is supposed to be analogous to fencing—I score on you, but I don't let you score on me. It's not supposed to be two guys pounding away at each other to see who's more macho.
But if you've got gloves on, you can hit someone as hard as you want without doing that much damage, right?
Ed Hutchinson, president of the North American Boxing Council: Boxing gloves are one of the biggest scams of all time. That they're presented as safety devices is a joke. By wrapping fighters hands with gauze and tape, boxers are essentially turning their hands into casts. It makes for spectacular knockouts on television, but it's bad for pugilistic dementia and injuries.
Dr. Estwanik: Headgear doesn't appear to make a big difference. The acceleration of the brain from an uppercut or jab will be the same if you have headgear on or not.
So what, if anything, might reduce the odds of fatalities?
Dr. Estwanik: Come up with a better design of the hand wraps, because right now they're using 1,000-year-old mummy gauze technology.
Ed Hutchinson: I would follow the example of the MMA. They go three rounds, and five for title fights. Boxing should probably be 4 rounds for a non-title fight and 6 rounds for the title fights.
Ralph Petrillo, Athletic Assistant with the New York State Athletic Commission: We need to go out and look into the gyms, because there are accidents there that go unreported before a fight and that can lead to lethal blows during a match.
Dr. Goodman: A lot of people argue that no matter what you do, you're still going to have the occasional boxing death. Any contact sport where the brain is susceptible to injury is going to cause some kind of death. Boxing is state-regulated, but some states require aggressive neurological examinations and mandatory MRIs, and others don't. Some fighters can't afford to foot the bill for those kind of things. But they save lives.