Alan Hubbard: Will professionalising boxing increase what are already inherent risks in the sport?

Tuesday, 09 April 2013
Alan HubbardMichael Norgrove is the first boxer to die following a fight in Britain in 18 years. He was 31, unbeaten in five previous contests and passed away in hospital last Saturday (April 6) morning after collapsing in the fifth round of a bout at The Ring in London's Blackfriars nine days earlier.

To many, his death will symbolise what they consider the brutality and barbarism of what it still referred to as the noble art. Others will rightly point out that nobody forced Norgrove into a boxing ring.

He was well aware of the risks, as was the jockey Ryan Mania who, a day after winning the Grand National on a 66-1 outsider, was thrown from his horse in a bread-and-butter race at Hexham and was hospitalised with severe neck and back and injuries.

Ryan Mania 090413Ryan Mania suffered severe neck and back and injuries after being thrown from his horse the day after winning the Grand National

Another jockey, the Irishman J T McNamara, is now paralysed from the neck down after a similar fall during the Cheltenham Festival a few days earlier.

The underlying point is that all are victims of what, possibly outside mountaineering, are the most dangerous sporting pursuits known to man. Or women. As they knew very well.

Norgrove's close friend Monica Harris, herself an amateur boxer, has been deeply affected by his death. She said: "I saw him just before his fight and he had the biggest smile on his face, he looked so happy. That will stick with me forever."

Monica now plans to retire from boxing after a final bout this weekend, which she will dedicate to him.

I wasn't at Norgrove's fight but I understand the London-based Zambian, known as the Zambezi Hitman, never appeared to be in trouble from any blows during the bout, in which he had knocked down opponent Tom Bowen in the first round.

Michael Norgrove 090413Michael Norgrove is the first boxer to die following a fight in Britain in 18 years

He had not struggled with the weight and had taken all the required medicals, including a brain scan.

But he appeared to become unwell during the fifth round when the bout was stopped.

He was treated immediately in the ring by doctors and paramedics, rushed to hospital but has subsequently died following an operation to remove a blood clot from the brain.

Significant factors could be that Norgrove had not fought for two years and at one-time was involved in so-called White Collar boxing, which is not supervised by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC).

Norgrove, a crowd-pleasing light-middleweight and former member of the reputable Repton Club, was a sparring partner of James DeGale, who won a gold medal in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

"I am so sad to hear about the passing of Michael Norgrove," said DeGale. "He will be sadly missed."

Norgrove is the fourth boxer to die in 27 years and the 21st fighter in that same period to require emergency surgery after either a professional fight or an amateur contest in Britain.

Robert Smith, an ex-fighter who is general secretary of the Boxing Board, has defended the safety procedures in force before the contest: "We are one of the strictest authorities in the world. This is an acute injury, this can happen any time. He had his medicals done, he had his brain scans done. There was nothing there of any concern whatsoever, otherwise he wouldn't have been in the ring."

Robert Smith 090413Robert Smith said there were no medical concerns before Michael Norgrove's fatal fight "otherwise he wouldn't have been in the ring"

No doubt the political abolitionists are gloving up but those who customarily call for a ban whenever a boxing death occurs have been, oddly silent – perhaps because Parliament has been in recess.

Equally unusually, Norgrove's demise has barely made the newspapers. Certainly not the sports pages more occupied with the fate of a hitherto unknown jockey than that of an equally unknown boxer.

However, the brain injury association Headway said his death was another example of the "brutal and dangerous nature of the sport" and called for it to be outlawed. Chief executive Peter McCabe said: "Every time a boxer gets into the ring, there is a significant risk that they may lose their life or sustain a devastating, life-changing brain injury.

"There are risks involved with all contact sports, but while other sports manage those risks by introducing laws to try to protect participants from blows to the head, the ultimate aim in boxing is to knock your opponent out by repeatedly and deliberately striking their heads. Until this sport is banned, more young lives will be tragically lost."

One suspects this observation and its relevance to pro boxing will have reached the alert ears of the AIBA President Dr C K Wu.

Wu Ching-kuo 090413C K Wu is working towards professionalising amateur boxing

As insidethegames has reported his ultra-ambitious Grand Design to be the poo-bah of boxing in all its forms has got up the nose of other boxing czars, notably Jose Sulaiman, his opposite number as President of the leading professional controlling body the World Boxing Council.

Not to mention those International Olympic Committee (IOC) members who believe he is taking things a bit too far.

As it happens, deaths in amateur boxing are extremely rare – though there was one in Australia two years ago. But I cannot recall a single fatality associated with boxing in the Olympic Games.

Yet the question needs to be posed as to whether the moves to professionalise what used to be known as amateur boxing increase what are already inherent risks in the sport. If you embrace the system, you also embrace the dangers.

WSB1The World Series of Boxing is currently the only competition in the world that allows fighters to compete professionally and retain their Olympic eligibility


World Series Boxing (WSB), the new APB (AIBA Professional Boxing) competition and Olympic Boxing are professional in all but name. No headguards, a ten-point scoring system, longer bouts, the age limit now upped to 40 and referees no longer compelled to halt contests at the hint of nosebleed.

Although I have never been convinced that headguards offer that much protection anyway.

Of course, medical safeguards are as rigid as in pro boxing, but the more "professional" AIBA-governed tournaments become surely the risk of the sort of head injuries we see more frequently in the pro prize ring increases.

So should boxing be banned?

I have always maintained that while this bellicose world continues to wage such devastating bomb and bullet-ridden wars, two guys – or girls – punching each other on the nose in legitimate unarmed combat should be the least of our concerns.

This may seem a trite reaction to a tragedy but unpalatable as it may be, ring fatalities, thankfully infrequent, are like jockeys risking life and limb every time they mount a horse, an occupational hazard and will remain so while the sport willingly embraces danger.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.
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