Title fight puts boxer safety in spotlight

JESSE O’KEEFE 

The responsibility of trainers in relation to boxer safety in the ring and the need to protect boxers from the risks of brain injury are in the spotlight following last month’s controversial stoppage of the Australian lightweight boxing title fight between Jeff Horn and Tim Tszu.

Boxers in the ring

United Fight Club’s John Bastable believes a trainer should be focussed on the boxer’s safety, no matter how important the fight. Photo: Courtesy Ivana Cajina/Unsplash

 

Despite Tszu clearly dominating the fight and Horn appearing to be dazed and unresponsive after the eighth round, Horn’s head trainer, Glen Rushton, refused to call the fight.

Footage showed Rushton encouraging Horn to continue the bout despite having taken numerous headshots throughout the fight and appearing unable to answer for himself.

The result was that cornerman Adam Copeland threw in the towel to end the bout, but many believe Rushton should have not only made the call but should have done it sooner.

The incident with Jeff Horn raised the question of just what the role of a boxing head trainer should be.

United Fight Club head coach John Bastable said the role of the fighter’s corner and the coach was to protect their fighter at all costs.

“When you get to the top level, there is that added concern everyone is safe, [and] it’s our job to make sure they are cared for,” Mr Bastable said.

“Their instinct is to fight, so we are there to act as a form of conscience for them,” he said.

“We are there to watch out for things that they can’t see when their heart wants to keep going, but they are taking too much damage; then it’s our job to stop it.”

“It’s a fighter’s job to fight, and if we are in a world title fight, they are not going to want to quit.”

John Bastable and April Adams

United Fight Club head trainer John Bastable (right) gives training instructions to professional boxer April Adams. Photo: Courtesy Simon Pool

 

Mr Barstable said a coach should only be focused on the safety of their fighter, regardless of the fight’s importance.

“I have been in three instances now where I have had to throw the towel in within the last 18 months,” he said.

“One was in a world title fight [where] we had a three-knockdown rule, [and] he had been knocked down twice, [so] I threw the towel in to save him.”

“I’d rather stop a fight and walk away safe, than take the risk to keep going and my fighter take too much damage.”

With the National Football League (NFL) investigating and addressing the issue of head injuries in their sport, the boxing world has also acknowledged the need to evolve to protect the fighters from obtaining unnecessary head trauma.

Former Australian boxing world champion Jeff Fenech recently confirmed he plans to donate his brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASPR), where his brain will be studied for any signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, who experience repetitive brain injuries, with symptoms including impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.

As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.

Mr Barstable said in recent years both the coaching teams and fighters had become more educated about the impacts of head injuries and took more precautions while training, and to prevent unnecessary damage during fights.

“Everyone started paying more attention, we spar a lot lighter, a lot less, if anyone has any type of head injury, they are put out to recover and have all the necessary checks and we act on the doctor’s advice,” he said.

Professional boxer Bec Rawlings

Professional boxer Bec Rawlings adopts a more safety conscious approach, minimising the amount of sparring and the risk of head trauma, in preparation for an upcoming fight. Photo: Jesse O’Keefe

 

Bare-knuckle flyweight division world champion and former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter, Bec Rawlings, trusts her coaching team and understands the difficult situations they can be placed in.

“The coach has the most important role to play in a fighter’s career, as a true fighter is never going to quit in the ring,” Ms Rawlings said.

“We need coaches to call it if we are taking too much damage,” she said.

“It’s a really hard job for them because it’s our hopes and dreams in there.”

Ms Rawlings said she had obtained minor brain damage in the form of scarring on the brain, resulting from years of sustaining heavy head knocks, both from fighting and sparring, but said there had been no neurological impairments impacting her daily life as a result of that damage.

“I’ve obtained some scarring on my brain, the majority of the damage has come from training and heavy sparring,” she said.

Ms Rawlings, who has spent eight years competing in combat sports, said as more information about head injuries had become available, improving training methods and having an increased focus on safety had become higher priorities for her.

“When I did start training years ago, we did train kind of stupidly at the beginning,” she said.

“Now we are more educated on head trauma, identifying concussions and when to rest.”

“I have yearly MRIs to keep track of the damage and make sure it’s not increasing, and have to be cleared by a neurologist, for certain commissions and states I have to get an MRI and a CT scan to get cleared to fight.”

Amateur boxers spar intelligently

Amateur boxers spar intelligently, using protective equipment to prevent unnecessary head injuries while training. Photo: Courtesy Simon Pool

 

Combat sports medicine expert Dr Peter Lewis has officiated over more than 20,000 fights across various combat disciplines, where he has performed the role of judge, referee and doctor.

Dr Lewis said education was crucial for both coaches and fighters, to improve the safety of boxers throughout the sport.

He said hydration and safer equipment would reduce the risks of head injuries, while rule changes such as shorter fights, scoring for body shots and standing eight counts, could also improve safety.

“Most boxers spar using 16-ounce gloves and fight with eight or 10-ounce gloves,” Dr Lewis said.

“Heavier gloves are supposed to have more padding across the knuckles but being heavier they transmit more momentum to the head,” he said.

“Lighter gloves with better knuckle padding should be used.”

Dr Lewis said a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 provided no evidence to support the idea of boxing being any more dangerous compared with other sports where risk was involved.

“Their figures showed professional boxing had 7.6 deaths per 100,000 athletes, and amateur boxing had 1.39,” he said.

“Horse racing had 128, skydiving 126, mountaineering 51 and motorbike racing seven.”

Dr Lewis said boxing was a popular activity and said there were many benefits to be gained from the sport, whether it be for casual fitness or to fight.

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