I wonder how many of those who watched the Haye versus Valuev fight yesterday remember the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when the shambling figure of Muhammed Ali struggled nobly to light the Olympic flame.In Atlanta, and since, Muhammed Aliâ€™s suffering from â€œPugilistic Parkinsonâ€™s syndromeâ€ was visible for all to see. Like other great champions before him â€“ Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson amongst many others â€“ the effects of repeated blows to the head over years in the ring was finally taking its toll. It would be churlish to deny David Haye his moment in the spotlight and no doubt he will now climb aboard the gravy train big time before he throws in the toel for good. But will it by then be too late? It may take up to fifteen years for the damage of repeated concussion to emerge in the way that it has with Ali and countless others.
Defenders of boxing often argue that many other sports are dangerous and that that the death or serious injury rate in the sport is lower than in (say) mountaineering or sky diving. This argument misses the point completely. It is only in boxing where you will have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless. That is the point of the sport â€“ to strive sufficiently to injure your opponent that you beat him physically into submission. The world of professional boxing is an anachronism in modern sport in that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics – and it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Whilst contests in many contact sports (like Rugby, for example) can be tough and very physically and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. Boxing legitimises and glorifies violence. There is a glamour, of sorts, in boxing of course but a pretty vulgar one with â€œA listâ€ celebrities occupying the ringside seats only intensifying the repulsion that many of us feel that modern society still tolerates this vulgarity.
Estimates indicate that around 900 people have died from boxing related injuries over the past seventy years or so â€“ it is, therefore, no surprise that all medical authorities have called for the sport to be banned. The American Medical Association puts the case very clearly â€œAll forms of boxing are a public demonstration of interpersonal violence which is unique among sporting activities. Victory is obtained by inflicting on the opponent such a measure of physical injury that the opponent is unable to continue, or which at least can be seen to be significantly greater than is received in return. This particularly applies to professional boxingâ€. But it is the individual cases that really bring the barbarity into sharp relief. Take, for example, that of the former world Middleweight champion, Gerald McClellan, who sustained a brain injury in a fight in 1995 as a consequence of which he is now deaf, blind and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yes such things could happen accidentally in other sports â€“ but in boxing, as the AMA rightly says, the causing of such injury is deliberate.
There are multi-million dollar purses in boxing at the top and nobody can blame David Haye and others for reaching for them. With money at this level is it surprising that the sport survives, despite all the medical evidence against it? And is it surprising that it is the sport with historically more corruption and criminality in it than any other? The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates. Surely sport should not be part of this shady world at all. Sport should set an example to society not reflect back its darker images. The charter of the Olympic Games says that â€œThe goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.â€ Boxing fails this test.