Nick Blackwell Injury: Is It Time To Ban Head Blows in Boxing?

Nick Blackwell, left, was placed in an induced coma after his British title fight with Chris Eubank Jr.
British middleweight fighter Nick Blackwell, left, at the SSE Arena, Wembley, March 26, 2016. Blackwell was placed into an induced coma after the fight with Chris Eubank Jr, the son of Chris Eubank, right. Adam Holt/Action Images

The ugly picture of boxer Nick Blackwell's swollen eye jarred the conscience of a nation.

In the name of sport a young man has suffered a serious brain bleed and been placed in an induced coma. With good fortune he will make a full recovery. But visible injuries and ring deaths are a small manifestation of boxing's avoidable damage to the lives of its participants.

Boxing is unique, even above mixed martial arts, in encouraging blows to the head. Football is another sport that allows damage to brain cells through heading balls. A football player heads the ball multiple times each game. A boxer can receive hundreds of blows to the head in a single bout. It is similar to using a person's head as a football.

The brain is suspended in the skull like a jelly in a box, held by strings. A blow causes the brain to strike the walls of the skull. One neurosurgeon has claimed that 80 per cent of all boxers have brain scarring as a result of the cumulative effects of blows. The British Medical Association has said that boxing should be completely banned.

If that happened the sport would go subterranean and the health precautions of the legal activity would disappear. Boxing would revert to its barbaric 19th century past. The Queensberry rules prohibited blows below the waist. Armed with our present knowledge that boxers are as vulnerable to blows above the neck as they are to blows below the waist, I proposed a parliamentary bill to ban blows to the head as a sensible first-step reform. It was intended to probe the mood of the U.K. parliament and the country towards this issue. A favourable response would have persuaded the government of the day to support the bill or introduce a similar one of its own.

My 1998 bill, if the then government had elected to take it forward, would have transformed the nature of boxing. Banning blows to the head would have changed the whole techniques of boxing attacks and defence. But the skills of defence, attack and the competitive athleticism would be retained. I boxed as a young man and for many years reveled in the skills of the sport. Now, I view it as a degrading spectacle of gratuitous violence. No longer do I applaud brilliant techniques. Instead I mourn the irreplaceable brain cells destroyed by each blow and the potential onset of early dementia.

In the past, before concerted research was conducted into the effects of head blows on the brain, many boxing gyms had stumbling, mumbling characters doing menial tasks in the only world they knew. Sometimes cruelly mocked, they were the "punch-drunk" casualties of our past ignorance.

A personal turning point for me was the death in September 1980 of Johnny Owen, aged 24.

Owen fought for world title in Los Angeles against a Mexican opponent. He was knocked out and stretchered out from the ring through a rabid auditorium. The crowd used plastic cups for drinks. They reused them as urinals to avoid leaving the arena. Some were emptied over Owen's prone body as he was carried out. Owen was taken to California Hospital where he died. It was later found that he had a fragile skull and an unusually thick jaw, meaning that the fatal blow could have come at any time in his career.

Owen was a stark example of the dangerous and sometimes exploitative nature of boxing that continues even though many excesses of the past have been reduced. Boxing in the armed services was usually a spectacle of the working class squaddies knocking lumps out of each other for the entertainment of the officers. Deprived communities traditionally offered up their young to gamble their health in the hope of a lift up the ladder of wealth. It is not a sport that, even today, has many aristocrats or royalty among its participants.

There has been an awakening of conscience in other sports. Rugby has acted against blows to the head to protect injured players. Rugby authorities now take concussion seriously. Players are tested and prohibited from returning to the game if they show symptoms of concussion—usually after a clash of heads.

The time is ripe to assess gratuitously dangerous practices in all sports including boxing. They can all survive and thrive without these avoidable dangers.

There is no longer any excuse for delaying reforms in boxing. Without them, the sport deserves to die of shame.

Paul Flynn has been Labour M.P. for Newport West since 1987.