Professional boxing has been one of the U.S.’s most popular sports since the early 20th century. Boxing’s fans–who describe the sport as “the sweet science” for its mix of artistry and strategy–say that the sight of two people engaged in passionate, tactical combat holds an elemental appeal. Some of the most legendary athletes were pro boxers, including Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali; indeed, many sports experts regard Ali as the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, pro boxing remains a big business, turning an estimated $500 million profit each year. But its popularity has declined sharply in recent years. Some experts argue that boxing is losing its fan base because society is changing. “[I]n the last quarter century, violence has become less legitimate in our society,” says Michael Mandelbaum, the author of The Meaning of Sports (2004). “The idea of watching two guys beat each other up is less respectable.”
Boxing has long been lambasted by critics who point out that it is one of the few sports in which the goal is to physically harm one’s opponent. Experts estimate that nearly 900 people have been killed due to traumatic boxing-related injuries since 1920. In 2005, two such deaths occurred within a two-and-a-half-month span, which caused many commentators to renew their argument that boxing is a barbaric sport that should be banned.
Critics of boxing say that the sport is far too dangerous and should be banned, or at least better regulated. Brain injuries to boxers occur as a matter of course, they point out, because the sport involves absorbing repeated blows to the head. Furthermore, critics argue that boxing exploits underprivileged minorities because most boxers are poor blacks and Hispanics who turned to boxing because they saw it as their best chance to rise out of poverty. Often those fighters do not know the dangers inherent in boxing because their handlers–such as their promoters and managers–intentionally keep such information away from them, critics maintain.
Supporters of boxing argue that the fact that a sport causes injuries is not an adequate reason to outlaw it. All contact sports carry some degree of danger, advocates maintain. Many have questioned why boxing is singled out by critics while sports that have proven to be more dangerous–such as automobile racing, college football and even horse racing–are never mentioned. Boxing’s backers further dispute the idea that poor people become boxers out of desperation. They argue that becoming a boxer is a matter of choice for everyone, no matter how poor. If you’re a supporter of both boxing and sports betting you should use this pointsbet deposit bonus to get a head start.
The decline of boxing also has much to do with the corruption that surrounds the sport. Instances of bribery and fixed fights have been documented, and have caused fans’ trust in boxing’s legitimacy to wane. Again, Mandelbaum says that modern society simply does not tolerate such corruption. “We are…a more honest and transparent society [now], and boxing has always dwelled in the nether regions of corruption and organized crime,” he says.
Attempts have been made in Congress to clean up boxing’s corrupt elements. Most of those attempts have been lauded by boxing experts and fans. But some have opposed those laws, arguing that they represent a level of government intervention that should not be tolerated in U.S. society. And such reforms have done little to placate those critics who would rather see the entire sport banned outright.
Professional Boxing in the U.S.
Professional boxing matches in the U.S. are typically divided into 12 three-minute rounds. At the end of each round, the two boxers return to their respective corners for one minute of recuperation. The objective of boxing is to “knock out” one’s opponent by hitting him or her hard enough that he or she falls to the canvas and stays down for 10 seconds. The referee can also, at any point, deem one of the fighters physically unfit to continue the match and award victory to his or her opponent. Such a victory is referred to as a technical knockout. In the event that no knockout of either type occurs, three ringside judges, each of whom keeps a separate round-by-round scorecard, decide the victor. FYI, you can use a pointsbet deposit promo to actually bet on a boxing match.
Over the years, a variety of interesting characters have participated in professional boxing. In the early 20th century, Jack Johnson became the first black champion of the heavyweight division, flaunting his African American roots in an era when few dared to do so. Sugar Ray Robinson, who fought professionally from 1940 to 1965, is regarded by many boxing experts as the greatest professional boxer who ever lived. The 1960s and 1970s saw boxing reach its pinnacle of popularity, with Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier participating in some of the most legendary matches ever fought. And in 1985, the controversial Mike Tyson rose to prominence as boxing’s fiercest and most dominant heavyweight.
Boxing has also had a tremendous impact on U.S. culture. Many expressions that originated in boxing circles are now part of the vernacular, such as “down for the count,” “pull one’s punches” and “throw in the towel.” Boxing has also been the central focus of scores of famous movies, from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull to John Avildsen’s Rocky. It also has a place in numerous books, such as A. J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
But professional boxing also has a very shadowy past. Since the state of New York legalized professional boxing in 1920, the sport has attracted vast numbers of gamblers, all trying to earn some quick money by betting on fights. Organized crime has had a direct influence on many boxing matches because members of crime syndicates have managed to convince some boxers to intentionally lose fights so that gangsters could collect tidy sums when they cashed in their bets. Those corrupt conditions inspired the famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon to describe professional boxing as “the red light district of sports,” borrowing a term referring to a neighborhood where prostitution is common.
Throughout the 1930s, for example, heavyweight Primo Carnera was controlled by an American crime ring. Later, Jake LaMotta (the subject of Raging Bull) admitted he threw a 1948 fight against Billy Fox due to coercion by the Mafia. And in 1965, Sonny Liston was felled by Ali in the first round of a title fight with a knockout blow that many observers say did not even touch Liston and that has come to be known as “the phantom punch.”
Professional boxing has also long been looked down on by some due to its inherently violent nature. Because boxing injuries stem from repeated blows to the skull, they tend to involve severe brain damage and can be fatal. Perhaps the most famous ring death occurred in 1962, when Emile Griffith, in a heated fight against Benny (Kid) Paret, connected on 29 consecutive, unanswered punches–18 of them landing in the span of six seconds. An unconscious Paret was rushed to a New York City hospital, where he died 10 days later.
Boxing and the Brain
Paret is one of an estimated 895 boxers who have been killed since 1920 due to injuries sustained while fighting. That total does not include the many boxers who died as a result of some form of neurological impairment in the years following their retirement from the sport. Chronic brain damage is a common ailment among ex-boxers, although experts disagree as to just how common it is. Some studies have shown that 15% of former boxers develop chronic brain damage in the years following their retirement; other studies have claimed that the percentage could actually be 80% or higher.
The debate surrounding boxing safety, however, is usually reignited only following so-called ring deaths–that is, deaths that occur following a specific, traumatic injury during a fight. Paret is perhaps the most famous example, but boxing’s history is littered with ring deaths, among them Jimmy Doyle (1947), Roy Holloway (1975), South Korea’s Duk Koo Kim (1982), Jimmy Garcia (1995) and Pedro Alcazar (2002).
In 2005, two ring deaths received national attention–Mexican fighter Martin Sanchez on July 2 and Leavander Johnson on Sept. 22. Sanchez, fighting in the super lightweight division (135-140 pounds), was knocked out in the ninth round of his fight against Russia’s Rustam Nugaev in Las Vegas, Nev. He died the next day.
Johnson, a lightweight (130-135 pounds), was also killed in Las Vegas. Paramedics rushed him to an area hospital after he suffered a 12th-round knockout. Doctors performed emergency surgery to try and reposition Johnson’s brain, which had shifted to the left side of his skull. The surgery was not successful, however, and he died five days later. The two deaths have caused many sportswriters and boxing commentators to call for reforms designed to make the sport safer, while many leading doctors have redoubled their efforts to encourage a complete ban on boxing in the U.S.
An injury such as Johnson’s is not uncommon in boxing. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), the force generated by a boxer’s typical punch is equivalent to being struck by a 13-pound weight traveling at 20 miles per hour. When a force that great connects with a person’s skull, the skull reacts by accelerating away from the object that caused the force. The problem lies in the fact that, inside the skull, the brain accelerates at a different speed than the person’s head. Therefore, “the brain will bounce around the wall of the skull,” says Patrick Bird, dean emeritus of the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida in Gainesville. That can cause veins inside the skull to rip apart, resulting in internal bleeding, an often fatal condition when it occurs in the skull.
Such sustained punishment to the brain often results in severe neurological conditions. A common affliction for retired boxers–studies show that as many as one in four boxers will suffer from it–is dementia pugilistica. Fighters with that condition are said to be “punch drunk”–they slur their speech, have a difficult time steadying their limbs and extremities, and are prone to bouts of depression, memory loss and antisocial behavior. Dementia pugilistica is often compared to neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to researchers, boxers do not begin developing those types of conditions until 16 years after they begin boxing, on average. However, those symptoms could appear anywhere from seven to 35 years from the start of one’s career. The more fights a boxer participates in, the more likely it is that he or she will incur some sort of brain injury. One study shows that brain injury occurs in 19% of those boxers who have participated in 50 to 150 professional fights. Among those with more than 150 bouts, roughly half suffer from chronic brain injury.
Boxing’s violent nature has led many medical associations around the world to call for its abolition. George Lundberg of the American Medical Association (AMA) called for a complete ban on professional boxing in 1983 in an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of which Lundberg was then editor in chief. The AMA as a whole voted in favor of that position shortly thereafter. Following suit were the American Neurological Association and the American Academy of Neurology, as well as the World Medical Association. Eventually, more than 35 national medical associations from around the world joined the AMA in its campaign to abolish boxing.
Many supporters of boxing are completely opposed to such a ban, on the grounds that it is an example of big-government paternalism at its most invasive. Others, however, while opposing a total ban on boxing, agree with the AMA’s contention that boxing is unnecessarily dangerous. Those people argue that professional boxing is merely in need of reforms that would make it a safer and more enjoyable sport.
Critics Call for Ban on Boxing
Critics of boxing argue that it is unethical to allow people to fight due to the immense health risks involved. The high percentage of ex-boxers who suffer from chronic brain injury creates a moral imperative to end the sport entirely, they say. “[B]oxing is wrong medically,” Lundberg writes, “since it not only kills some participants, it inflicts objectively proven chronic brain damage in as many as 80% of fighters who have had a substantial number of fights.” Opponents of boxing also point out that many ex-boxers suffer from acute eye damage after they retire from the ring.
Critics say that calls to reform boxing instead of banning it outright are misguided. Boxing is inherently dangerous, they say; it cannot be made safer by simply mandating that all boxers must wear protective headgear. In fact, some experts say those proposed reforms would not do much good anyway. “[T]he brain will still rattle around” in the skull, Bird says. “You can put an egg in a carton, but if you rattle it around, you will still break the yolk.” Indeed, boxing’s critics point to a 1993 survey of amateur boxers who, unlike professionals, are required to wear headguards. The survey found that in 41% of the amateurs surveyed, abnormalities showed up in brain scans.
Many opponents of boxing regularly speak out against its inherently violent nature. The Italian magazine Corriere della Sera–recognized as being close to the Vatican–published an editorial in October 2005 condemning boxing as a “legalized form of attempted murder, in the short or long run.” Opponents of boxing say that is it immoral to allow a sport to continue to exist whose sole objective is to inflict pain on one’s opponent and attempt to knock him or her out–which, as Lundberg describes it, is “brain damage by definition.”
Boxing’s foes further argue that activities such as gladiatorial competitions and dueling have been phased out of society, and that boxing should also be. Although sports such as football and hockey can also result in catastrophic injury, those sports are ethically permissible because they are not predicated on the idea that one must cause physical harm to one’s opponent in order to win, critics maintain.
Opponents also express concern that boxing is exploitative of the many poor minorities who become boxers, driven into the sport due to economic necessity and encouraged by the slight possibility that boxing will make them rich. An overwhelming majority of boxers start out poor, experts say. “No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out–especially black athletes–quite like boxing,” asserts sportswriter Dave Zirin. “For the very few who ‘make it,’ it is never the sport of choice.”
Critics allege that boxers often do not know about the tremendous risks involved in boxing because greedy managers and promoters deliberately shield them from any negative information. While it is true that the most successful boxers can earn a good living from fighting, the vast majority retire from the ring as poor as they were when they entered it, opponents maintain.
Boxing Advocates Defend the Sport
Supporters of boxing emphasize that no one is forced into a boxing career. Rather, it is a choice made by rational adults, they argue. Advocates of the sport further note that while there is significant risk involved in a boxing career, there is also the possibility that boxers can accumulate great wealth. Far from being socially irresponsible, boxing represents one of the few chances many underprivileged people have to climb the social ladder, supporters say.
Many boxing advocates argue that the sport’s risks have been greatly exaggerated. They point to studies that have shown that the risk of injury in boxing is lower than in sports such as rugby, hockey, football and automobile racing. Boxing’s supporters also disagree with the idea that boxing should be singled out because the idea of the sport is to cause harm to one’s opponent. All contact sports involve a risk of physical injury due to their very nature, advocates argue.
Boxing has many benefits as a sport, supporters say. “Boxing teaches discipline. It teaches fitness,” asserts Sean Ingle, writing in the liberal British newspaper the Guardian. “And it offers working class kids the chance to leave behind the pimps and pushers–or the 45 years of drudgery on the building site (some choice, eh?)–and make something of their lives.”
At the very least, some pro-boxing commentators argue, boxing gives underprivileged teenagers and young adults living in rough neighborhoods a sanctuary from the violence surrounding their daily lives. Boxing can be cathartic, “a safety-valve for aggressive tendencies,” writes Ken Jones in the British magazine Culture, Sport, Society. “Thus the angry young man who vents his aggression through boxing utilizes a socially acceptable channel for emotions which might otherwise have led him to criminal acts of violence.”
Banning boxing to ensure people’s safety would be counterproductive, advocates maintain, because it would not really end boxing. A ban would merely drive the sport underground, where it would not be regulated and supervised as it is today, supporters assert. “Fighters will choose to do it somewhere, and choice is always hazardous, regardless of place or profession,” notes the sportswriter Norm Frauenheim in his defense of boxing.
Many of those who oppose a ban on professional boxing agree that the sport could be safer than it currently is, and that changes–some minor, some radical–should be made to ensure safety. Some argue that fights should be made shorter, for instance. (Before 1988, most professional bouts were scheduled for 15 rounds, not 12.) The use of protective headgear and bigger gloves, which would disperse the force exerted by punches and therefore lessen their impact, have been suggested as two possible reforms. And some have argued that punches to the head should be outlawed from the sport. (Blows to the back of head are already penalized in boxing, as are punches that land below the belt.)
Some boxing advocates, however–including Robert Voy, the president of USA Boxing, an amateur-boxing organization–say that such reforms would undermine the institution of boxing. To Voy, eliminating blows to the head is out of the question. “That just wouldn’t be boxing,” he says.
Cleaning Up the Corruption in Professional Boxing
Professional boxing’s popularity has sharply decreased in recent years, a decline fueled by a general perception among sports fans that the sport is corrupt. Boxing promoters–who act as de facto agents for fighters, publicizing them and arranging their matches–are often cited by boxing fans as a main reason for that corruption. Promoters have been accused of misdeeds such as bribing boxing’s administrative officials to increase certain fighters’ rankings. Those rankings, writes journalist Jack Newfield, “supposedly rank fighters according to ability…with a number-one ranking guaranteeing a lucrative fight for the title…[but they] are at best impressionistic, and at worst totally corrupt–sold for cash.”
The ringside judges at boxing matches are often paid by promoters, creating a severe conflict of interest, many critics of boxing say. The promoter Lou DiBella, speaking out against such practices, says that scenario–all too common in the boxing world–is “the equivalent of [New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner picking the umpires for a playoff game with the [Boston] Red Sox.”
Typically, any time a controversial decision is made in the boxing world, fans are quick to point out the corruption they say lies at the heart of professional boxing. And the man often cited as a symbol of boxing’s corrupt core is the promoter Don King. Although King has, by his own estimation, made more than 90 fighters into millionaires, he has been involved in more than 100 lawsuits in which he had to defend himself against charges of bribery and extortion. Yet he has mostly eluded serious trouble. His ability to slide so consistently out of potentially damaging situations has earned him the nickname “Teflon Don.” King–who, beginning in 1967, served 47 months in a correctional institution for stomping a man to death over a $600 gambling debt–has also been suspected of having ties to organized crime.
Some politicians–including New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.)–have said that the government must step in to clean up boxing. There are two main reasons that ending the corruption in boxing should be made a priority, those politicians argue. One reason is that a sport plagued by phony rankings and fixed fights is effectively consumer fraud, especially when fans are expected to pay upwards of $50 for some televised pay-per-view fights.
Secondly, the well-being of boxers is at stake. Promoters so thoroughly dominate the sport of boxing that the fighters themselves have almost no voice in their own careers, those politicians argue. They note that boxers have no union, no pension plan and no health insurance. Some critics have accused promoters of literally robbing their clients by exacting huge cuts from their purses (money that boxers make in the ring).
Legislative measures sponsored by some politicians have addressed those issues. The Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996, sponsored by McCain in the Senate and Rep. Pat Williams (D, Mont.) in the House, increased safety standards for professional boxers. And the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000–which McCain also sponsored–put more power in the hands of boxers and less in the hands of promoters.
The Professional Boxing Amendments Act, cosponsored by McCain in 2005, would mandate additional safety standards for the sport. It would also create a federal regulatory entity to govern the sport. “Ineffective and inconsistent oversight of professional boxing has contributed to continuing scandals, controversies, unethical practices and unnecessary deaths in the sport,” McCain said in introducing the bill to the Senate in January 2005. “These problems have led many…to conclude that the only solution is an effective and accountable federal boxing commission.” The bill passed the Senate, but as of November 2005, it remained stalled in the House.
Few people involved in boxing have opposed the idea of cleaning out the sport’s rampant corruption. Many say that the efforts to increase the rights of boxers, and limit those of promoters, are long overdue. Many physicians have expressed a particular enthusiasm for the medical registry proposed by the Professional Boxing Amendments Act. Without a registry in place, promoters have been known to push fighters back into the ring too soon after they have been knocked out, or after the fighters have suffered potentially serious injuries in the ring.
Some have opposed the drive to impose federal regulatory standards on boxing, however. The various organizations that sanction professional boxing matches–including the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association–have spoken out against the laws. They maintain that professional boxing should continue to be regulated by individual states rather than the federal government.
Others have criticized those attempts at boxing reform as simply another instance of the government trying to meddle with a successful industry. Many, including boxing broadcaster Larry Merchant, have argued that the charges against boxing’s “corrupt” nature are overblown. Still others maintain that boxing will always have an element of seediness to it; that seediness is, in fact, part of its appeal. “You can’t change 100 years of tradition,” says promoter Murad Muhammad.
Boxing Unlikely to Be Banned, Experts Say
The decline in professional boxing’s popularity has often been attributed to its corruption coupled with safety issues. Indeed, the very nature of boxing has led some of the sport’s remaining fans to defend their passion for boxing despite its flaws. “Blood sports are not much in fashion to begin with, and then there’s the perception that the combatants have probably been forced into it by socioeconomic hard knocks,” writes Steve Burgess in the online magazine Salon. “Two grade-school dropouts in a ring beating each other silly because they couldn’t read the want ads–you can’t get much more un-[politically correct] than that.”
The legislative reforms that have been put into place since the mid-1990s have attempted to make the sport safer and more palatable to mainstream audiences. The Professional Boxing Amendments Act, if it becomes law, would establish a centralized governing body for the sport, making it more like other, more successful professional sports such as football (which is controlled by the National Football League) and baseball (run by Major League Baseball).
However, despite the calls for a total ban on boxing from national medical associations around the world, most experts agree that such a ban is unlikely. Pro boxing is too financially successful to be banned, they maintain; high-profile matches earn millions of dollars for state governments and premium cable channels like Showtime and HBO. But that will not stop boxing’s many critics from voicing their opposition to the sport. Doctors like the AMA’s Lundberg have said they will not rest until the sport of boxing finally goes down for the count.