Alan Hubbard

The chief sports writer of the London Times, Matt Dickinson announces that he will no longer watch boxing as it is "too brutal." At least, that’s what his wife has told him. Now he agrees.

Well he is entitled to his opinion and he is not the first chief sports writer of that newspaper to go all woke over the sport. 

Back in January 1988 The Times, for some unfathomable reason, instead of sending their esteemed boxing man, Sri Sen, instead despatched the chief sports writer, a rather fey young man with ponytail and fedora, whose preferred beat was horticulture and horses, with a touch of ornithology thrown in, to Atlantic City to "cover" the world heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes. 

He sat next to me at ringside, obviously squeamish, appalled at what he was seeing, and when Tyson began to belabour the ageing, hapless Holmes in the fourth round, he dived under the table on which we were working, wailing that he couldn’t watch any more saying "it’s horrible, horrible – such brutality."

Or words to that effect. There he stayed until 42-year-old Holmes was rescued by the referee after the fourth knockdown. How he reported it I have no idea.

Of course some people hate boxing, but the fact is the majority don’t. Like me they accept it for what it is. 

It has been the subject of would-be bans since the bare knuckle days, several motions have been put to Parliament by a few abolitionist MPs, but all have been overwhelmingly defeated and I cannot think of a single Sports Minister - and I have known a dozen and a half of them - who did not support the sport.

As Dickinson wrote the piece on the eve of the British heavyweight title fight in which champion Daniel Dubois sustained a gruesome eye injury and decided to quit against Olympic silver medallist Joe Joyce, he might argue justification for his view. 

He says he will never watch boxing on the box or in the flesh ever again. As a former sports editor of two national newspapers, I would find that unacceptable because of his position as chief sportswriter, a scribe for all seasons and all sports.

So should Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua meet next year in the biggest ever all-British fight will Dickinson refuse to be there?

It would be like a political correspondent declining to cover a Tory Party Conference because he did not agree with their policies.

The eye injury that led to Daniel Dubois retirement against Joe Joyce is a recent example of the brutal side of boxing ©Getty Images
The eye injury that led to Daniel Dubois retirement against Joe Joyce is a recent example of the brutal side of boxing ©Getty Images

He does acknowledge that boxing safety measures have improved over the years, although not enough, he says. He also rightly cites the inherent dangers in other sports, notably the number of cases of head injuries resulting in dementia in rugby players and footballers.

I would argue that in fact the safeguards of boxing are far advanced from those in any other sport, and have been since the unfortunate injury to Michael Watson.

There are now one, sometimes two, ambulances at all promotions, up to three qualified doctors at ringside together with a team of paramedics ready to spring into the ring whenever a contest is stopped. 

And any boxer who is stopped or knocked out cannot fight again for at least three weeks, and only after a thorough medical examination which includes a brain scan.

Compare this to examples in both football and rugby where players have been sent back on the field and later diagnosed with concussion.

Arsenal even allowed one player to drive home knowing he was concussed and this week former England rugby doctor Phil Batty admitted that during his tenure with the national team from 2012 to 2014 he had allowed players back on the field without knowing whether they were concussed or not.

"The game has to change," he says now.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no such thing as safe sport.

Unless, of course you include chess in that category, which has been pressing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to do just that for years. And the trendy way the IOC is leaning it won’t be long before it gets the green light, probably at the expense of traditional sports like the modern pentathlon or boxing.

These days you don’t see ex-boxers walking around on their heels and I haven’t seen a cauliflower ear for years. But there are plenty prevalent among among those who scrum down, where all sorts of things go on that can do plenty of damage to more sensitive parts of the body too.

The situation regarding dementia among former players in both rugby and football is getting deadly serious and something has to be done. Despite the admirable campaigning in newspapers, authorities such as the Rugby Football Union, the Football Association, UEFA and FIFA and the Professional Footballers Association don’t seem to know which day it is when it comes to dementia.

Arsenal footballer David Luiz was allowed to play on in the Premier League game against Wolves despite appearing to suffer concussion ©Getty Images
Arsenal footballer David Luiz was allowed to play on in the Premier League game against Wolves despite appearing to suffer concussion ©Getty Images 

It has been well documented that half of the England team which won the World Cup in 1966 has passed away because of, or are suffering from dementia.

Sir Bobby Charlton (though still alive) and brother Jack are among its victims together with Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson while George Cohen is crippled by arthritis - another scourge of retired athletes – and cannot walk without a frame.

The widow of Nobby Stiles allowed his brain to be examined by medical experts who have reported that there is no doubt that his dementia was caused by heading the ball.

I watched the recent Premier League game between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur on television when a free-kick just outside the penalty area taken by Palace’s Eze went straight into the Tottenham wall, striking Harry Kane bang on the head. 

It made him stagger, and I wonder how many of those it will take to trigger brain damage.

Former footballer Chris Sutton wrote in the Daily Mail yesterday that the many ex-players and their families hit by dementia and Alzheimer’s are not getting any help from football authorities who are failing to come to terms with the crisis.

He says of the PFA: "They are all talk and no action." Despite being asked a month ago they still have not set up a task force.

On the same theme rugby legend Kevin Sinfield, who announced the winners of this year’s Sports Personality Of The Year award called for the sport’s governing body to prioritise research into the long-term effects of concussion and make a growing concern about a looming crisis in the sport. 

The Leeds Rhinos director of rugby has an interest in the issue having run successive marathons on every day of one week to raise cash and awareness of his former teammate, wheelchair-bound Rob Burrow who has the dreadful motor neurone disease, the neurological condition which his family fear was caused by the sport.

Now players in both league and union are preparing legal action against governing bodies.

There is certainly a disproportionate number of former sports figures now suffering from neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s.

Naturally footballers know the risk, as do boxers. But the one difference in boxing is that they can defend themselves. After all it is still the noble art of self-defence.

England hooker Steve Thompson admitted he could not remember playing in any of England's winning 2003 Rugby World Cup run because of early onset dementia ©Getty Images
England hooker Steve Thompson admitted he could not remember playing in any of England's winning 2003 Rugby World Cup run because of early onset dementia ©Getty Images

Sport can be wonderful to play and watch but we must not be deluded into thinking it is safe.

Every week we hear or read of another rugby player who has been diagnosed with dementia – or, via UK Anti-Doping - has tested positive for drugs. One way or another their heath is at risk.

There is little doubt that here is an Olympic sport in dire straits, with leading academics now calling for a complete ban on tackling in schools rugby to begin with.

Yet the game’s bosses are still burying their heads in the sand over the sport’s links with generative brain injuries according to the youngest former player to join those taking legal action against the governing body. Adam Hughes, who retired two years ago at 28 after a succession of concussions, has had two major trauma scars on his brain.

He is one of six new players supporting legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh RFU.

Steve Thompson MBE, the hooker who played every game of the 2003 World Cup under Sir Clive Woodward, has revealed that he cannot remember any of those cup winning matches, including the final, or even having been in Australia for the tournament, after being diagnosed with early onset dementia. 

He says he wishes he had never taken up the sport.

There are so many similar cases both in football and rugby and surely action must be taken as things simply cannot go on like this.

Even horse racing is worried reading about the increasing number of jockeys who are concussed after a fall and are planning to fit a device into a rider’s ear canal which could significantly improve the understanding of head injuries and provide important data used in the war against concussion.

As I have said there is hardly a sport which has not caused some degree of hurt – or even death. How many have died of heart attacks running marathons or 10ks? Or from falling off a horse in equestrian events? Or climbing mountains or major yacht races?

And why do so many even in non-contact sports end up hobbling around around with acute arthritis?

I’ve covered most sports in my 65 years of journalism and most I like - but there are some I hate. Like the Grand National, which kills horses, or the Isle of Man TT, which regularly kills the motorcyclists and spectators. But I would not refuse to cover them because it is my job.

Perhaps within a couple of decades we shall see a ban on heading in football and rugby played without scrums and as a form of touch rugby.

And who knows, perhaps every match shown on television prefaced with the sort of warning you get on cigarette packets. Sport can seriously damage your health.