Should boxing be banned in Australia?

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The issue
On April 6 2001 a 30-year-old Queensland professional boxer Ahmad Popal was fatally injured in a bout fought in Melbourne.
On April 23 2001 a 26-year-old Victorian amateur boxer Tricia Devellerez suffered severe brain injury in a bout fought in New Zealand.
Both these events have led to renewed calls from both the Australian medical Association and the Federal Health Minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, for boxing to be banned in Australia. Supporters of boxing have argued that such a move would be an over-reaction.

What they said ...
'Professional boxing is a high-risk sport and we all know the dangers when we step through those ropes'
Tony Pappa, the boxer against whom Ahmed Popal was competing when he was fatally injured
'The whole purpose of boxing is to kill some of your opponent's brain cells and they don't ever recover'
Dr Trevor Mudge, the AMA national vice-president

Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 14
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

Australia currently has approximately 300 professional boxers and some 2,500 amateurs.Somewhat different regulations cover amateur and professional boxers. The following distinctions mark some of the major differences between professional boxing as practised in Victoria and amateur boxing.
(The regulations that govern amateur boxing apply in some 186 countries; the regulations governing professional boxing vary from one region or jurisdiction to another.)

Differences between amateur and professional boxing regulations
* Since 1984 all amateur boxers have been required to wear head guards during training and in fights.
Head guards were introduced into amateur boxing during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Professional boxers only wear head guards during training.
* Amateur boxers generally fight rounds of only two minutes, while professional boxers fight rounds of three minutes.
* Amateur boxers usually have bouts made up of three rounds, while professional boxers usually have bouts made up of six or more rounds.
* Amateur officials also claim that officials more readily stop their contests if a boxer appears glassy-eyed or unsteady on his feet.
Despite these differences, defenders of professional boxing maintain that the regulations governing their code are adequate.

Regulations governing professional boxing in Victoria
Professional boxing in Victoria is regulated by the Victorian Government and managed by the Professional Boxing Control Board. The Board is to ensure that government regulations are followed.

These regulations require
strict medical checks before and after bouts;
a minimum of at least a week's spell between short bouts;
a fortnight's spell for longer bouts, with a doctor able to order longer spells;
fighters must have a thorough medical each year to retain their licences;
trainers, referees and other officials must also be licensed;
a doctor attend all bouts and be able to halt any fight.

The Professional Boxing Control Board can cancel the licence of any fighter, trainer, referee or official.

There have been regular calls to ban boxing in Australia. These typically occur after a death or serious injury. State governments, not the federal government, regulate boxing in Australia. The Australian Medical Association has called for the banning of boxing in all Australian states for at least the last ten years.
Currently professional and amateur boxing between men is allowed in all Australian states and professional and amateur boxing is allowed between women in all states except New South Wales.
Professional boxing has been illegal in Sweden since 1970, and in Norway since 1981. Fighters from those countries now compete outside their national borders.

Internet links

* The Australian Medical Association's site can be found at
The AMA strongly supports a total ban on boxing, both professional and amateur. The site includes an AMA position paper on boxing. This can be found at
* The AMA has also issued a couple of media releases in April 2001, calling for the banning of boxing. One of these, 'We don't throw people to the lions: we should also ban boxing' be found at
* Also available is a transcript of an interview with AMA president, Dr Kerryn Phelps, detailing the type of head injury that can be sustained in boxing and rugby. The interview can be found at
* The AMA also issued a media release in April 2001 declaring its opposition to amateur as well as professional boxing and calling for the banning of each code. This release can be found at
* An unofficial introduction to Amateur Boxing Australia can be found at
This site supports the continued existence of amateur boxing in Australia.
It is an extremely informative site that gives information on learning boxing and the rulings governing amateur boxing. It has a detailed section considering the safety of boxing. This section examines the safety procedures that are in place and presents and criticises the position adopted by the AMA. The section of the site treating safety can be found at
* On April 9, 2001, the ABC's current affairs program 'The 7.30 Report' conducted on interview with former world-ranked heavyweight, Joe Bugner. The interview was prompted by the death of Gold Coast bantamweight, Ahmad Popal. The interviewer, Kerry O'Brien, asked Joe Bugner what actions could be taken to make boxing safer.
A full transcript of the interview can be found at
* On May 14, 1999, the ABC's Radio National program, 'Sports Factor', conducted a discussion on the future of boxing in Australia. It was titled 'Boxing on the Ropes' and included interviews and comments from professional boxing promoter, Joe Cursio, former Australian boxing champions Jeff Fenech and Johnny Famechon, and Australian author and boxing enthusiast and critic, Peter Corris.
A full transcript of the program can be found at
* In December 2000 a British boxer, Paul Ingle, suffered brain injury and had to undergo emergency surgery. The Ingle case renewed the debate in Britain over whether boxing should be banned.
BBC Sport has a transcript of a debate between Dr Adrian Whiteson, chief medical officer for The British Boxing Board of Control, who is a vigorous supporter of boxing, and Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association that wants the sport banned.
The transcript titled 'Is boxing a spent force?' can be found at
* Boxing Canada is the official web site of the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association. It can be found at
It is an informative site that includes a careful comparison of the regulations governing professional boxing as practised in Canada and the regulations governing professional boxing. This comparison can be found at

Arguments in favour of boxing
1. Boxing is no more dangerous than many other sports
Supporters of boxing argue that many other sports have a greater number of fatalities. Included in sports with a higher death rate are horse riding and car racing. Former Olympic athlete Lisa Marie Vizaniari, now a professional boxer, has said, 'There are more deaths in horse racing and other sports. We know what's involved and you know the risks you are about to take.'
It is claimed that those who argue against boxing on the grounds of the risks involved frequently have an unreasonable prejudice against the sport, as there are many other activities that cause death and yet which do not provoke calls for a ban.
Federal Sports Minister, Jackie Kelly, while acknowledging boxing is dangerous, states, '... we can't be hypocritical about our interest in sports like amateur boxing - the stands were full at the Olympics. There are heaps of sports that lead to greater numbers of injuries and casualties than amateur boxing.'
It has been claimed, for example, that there have been only two deaths attributable to boxing in Australia in the last five years, whereas there have been an average of 10 fatalities a year due to rock-fishing. Similarly a 1995 United States survey listed deaths from boxing at just 1.7 per 100,000, compared with 128 per 100,000 for horseracing and 123 for skydiving.
This point has also been made by one of the letter writers to The Herald Sun. In a letter published on May 5, 2001, the author writes, 'Using ... risk as a standard, Dr Wooldridge must be campaigning for a ban on football, or perhaps golf, which has the highest number of participants in danger of heart attack.'

2. Those who take part in boxing do so willing, knowing the risks
Many social commentators, including Melbourne writer Michael Winkler, have made this point. Mr Winkler has stated, 'The reason boxing shouldn't be banned is because the boxers themselves are willing participants.'
Mr Winkler has further stated, 'The paternalism of the AMA and other boxing abolitionists is truly worrying. They wish to forbid an activity they don't like and don't understand. That is not a good enough reason to impinge on the rights of adults to choose their own life paths.'
It is further argued that anyone who takes part in boxing knows the risk they are taking. Mr Winkler has stated, 'They know that any fight might have a bad outcome if a fighter is unlucky. They accept this and accept the consequences.'
Tony Pappa, the boxer against whom Ahmed Popal was competing when he was fatally injured, has also stated, 'Professional boxing is a high-risk sport and we all know the dangers when we step through those ropes.'

3. Boxing is a skilled sport that challenges those who practise it
Sharon Anyos, Australia's only women's boxing world champion, has made this point. Ms Anyos has stated, 'I get self-satisfaction out of boxing, and I get a lot of self-confidence ...
I get a lot of fitness out of it and the hard training's one of the things I enjoy most, as well as at the end of it when you win and you know you were better than the fight before.'
Mischa Merz, the Australian Amateur Boxing league Women's Welterweight Champion, has made a similar point. 'A boxer is consenting to being hit in the head and body and takes responsibility for protecting him or herself by using defensive skills and evasive moves.
The unschooled have no appreciation of the physical eloquence of a boxer who can't be hit.'
Mr Terry Grinstead, a former professional boxer and current professional and amateur boxing trainer, has claimed, 'Boxing can be as intelligent a pastime as chess if correctly taught and applied.'

4. Boxing offers a positive alternative to young people who might otherwise become involved in crime
It is claimed that boxing is a way out for many young men in socially disadvantaged situations to earn a lucrative living. According to this line of argument, young men without other skills or education could use boxing as a way of establishing a financially rewarding way of life for themselves.
The father of Ahmad Popal, the boxer who died in April after a boxing match, has said that his 30-year-old son had dreamed of fighting for Australia after fleeing war-torn Afghanistan with his family seven years ago.
It has also been suggested that the challenge and discipline involved in boxing can give young men a socially acceptable outlet for their violent urges and so protect them from becoming involved in criminal activities.

5. Boxing is regulated to reduce the risks involved
Those who support boxing note that current regulations together with improvements proposed since the death of Queensland boxer Ahmad Popal go some way toward reducing the risks associated with boxing.
The Victorian Government is now requiring that all professional boxers have a brain scan once every three years. Former Australian boxing champion now a boxing trainer, Jeff Fenech, has said that the new regulations would be a valuable safety precaution.
In addition, since the death of Ahmed Popal there have been proposals that ringside doctors receive regular updates in their training in emergency procedures. It has also been suggested that there be ambulances in attendance at all professional boxing matches.

6. If boxing were banned it would be driven underground where the risks would be greater
Tony Pappa's trainer, Keith Ellis, has made this point. Me Ellis stated, 'If you ban boxing it will go underground and no one will have any control.'
According to this line of argument, there will always be people, both male and female, who wish to box. There will also always be people who want to watch boxing competitions. Therefore, banning boxing will simply mean that those who wish to be involved in the sport will practise it illegally.
There are those who are concerned that if boxing were forced underground then many of the safety regulations, such as the mandatory attendance of a doctor at all boxing contests, would cease. Illegal boxing, it is argued, would be more dangerous than the regulated sport that exists now.

Arguments against boxing
1. Boxing is very hazardous
Boxing is regarded as highly dangerous because participants risk death and long-term brain injury.
The death of Ahmad Popal in April 2001 was the second boxing fatality in Melbourne in the last five years. In 1996, former Australian featherweight champion, Lance Hobson, died in hospital after a promotional fight in Melbourne.
In April 2001 a 19-year-old Mexican boxer died of brain injuries after winning his first professional bout in the United States.
Many opponents of boxing, particularly medical practitioners, stress that even more important than the possibility of fatalities is the likelihood of brain injury.
In April 2001 Western Australian amateur women's boxer, Patricia Devellerez, was hospitalised and put into an induced coma after sustaining severe brain injuries.
In December 2000 a British boxer, Paul Ingle, suffered brain injury and had to undergo emergency surgery.
The national president of the AMA, Dr Kerryn Phelps, has stated that quite apart from the dramatic injuries and deaths that attract media attention, 'Repeated minor trauma to the head is as anachronistic as cock fighting. Even if boxers are not knocked out, significant head injuries occur.'
Dr Phelps has claimed that with each punch the fluid-encased brain is 'bounced' against the skull. Blood vessels are broken and brain tissue is bruised and deprived of oxygen.
Dr Phelps has noted that damage to the brain is particularly significant, as brain tissue, unlike that of many other organs, does not regenerate.
Repeated blows to the head create a syndrome in boxers who then develop dementia, deafness and Parkinson's disease. Autopsies performed on deceased boxers show evidence of significant damage while at least 20 per cent of boxers, both professional and amateur, are said to show signs of brain damage in their lifetimes.

2. Boxing is unique among sports in that participants aim to injure each other
Dr Trevor Mudge, the AMA national vice-president, has stated, 'The problem is that the whole purpose of boxing is to kill some of your opponent's brain cells and they don't ever recover.'
Critics of boxing claim that the intent to injure makes boxing unique among hazardous sports.
According to this line of argument, boxing alone among hazardous sports such as rugby, car racing and horse riding, has as its aim the inflicting of injury on the torso and brain of the opponent.
Automatic victory is awarded in boxing for a knockout. A knockout, or unconsciousness, is the result of severe brain trauma. Further points are awarded for blows to the head and the body of one's opponent. The more blows to the head of an opponent, and the more incapacitated he or she is, the greater the likelihood of victory for the boxer inflicting these injuries. The sport's intent to cause real injury, rather than token injury as in fencing, makes it inappropriate to legally sanction boxing.
Critics claim that outside the ring activities that occur in boxing would be regarded as assault and the fatalities that result from boxing would be treated as potential crimes.

3. Neither protective headgear nor other safety precautions are sufficient to remove the risks from boxing
Both supporters and opponents of boxing acknowledge that protective headgear has little or no effect on the likelihood of serious injury. It is claimed that head trauma, or impact injuries to the brain, will occur whether or not boxers are wearing helmets. The brain is bounced around the cranium irrespective of the protective headgear being worn. It has been noted that amateur boxers already have to wear protective headgear and yet amateur boxer, Patricia Devellerez, was recently hospitalised and put into an induced coma after sustaining severe brain injuries during an amateur bout. It has further been claimed that all protective headgear achieves is a reduction in facial injuries.
The Victorian Government is proposing regulations that would require professional boxers to have brain scans every three years. Critics of this initiative have claimed that it is too little to have any real effect as a great deal of damage could be done in a three year period. Dr Mudge, the national vice-president of the AMA, has stated that in most cases all the scans would reveal would be damage already done. He suggested that to have any effect the scans would have to be done at least annually.

4. Legalised boxing sends an unacceptable message to society at large
It is argued that boxing is not simply a matter of individual choice. According to this line of argument, there are some activities that it is inappropriate to sanction in a civilised society, even if those who take part in them do so willing.
This position was put in an editorial published in The Age on April 24, 2001. The editorial makes a comparison between boxing and gladiatorial combat. It asks if fights to the death would be legalised today, even if those who were to take part in them did so willingly. It argues they would not and suggests that this is because legalising gladiatorial contests would have a negative effect on the whole of society, a little like allowing public executions.
The editorial states, 'To reduce the question of whether boxing should be banned to the choices made by those who participate in it and watch it is to ignore the real reason why fights to the death have long been banned ... this kind of sport is not only dangerous, but brutalising.'

5. Legalised boxing allows the sport to be promoted and increases the number of boxers
Michael Sedgley, the Victorian president of the AMA, has stated, 'Having boxing at elite levels like the Olympics and Commonwealth Games glorifies it and turns the winners into heroes for young kids.'
It has similarly been claimed that having high-profile women, such as the daughters of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, engaging in professional boxing has contributed to the sports popularity among young women.
It is argued that if boxing were illegal it would not receive the publicity and public recognition that is currently keeping it alive.
Dr Kerryn Phelps, the national president of the AMA, has stated, 'What encourages boxing is that people watch it and there is money in it.'

6. Boxing exploits the socially disadvantaged
It has been claimed that, especially among men, boxing is a sport practised professionally by the economically disadvantaged. It has been claimed that Aboriginal men and those from immigrant cultures form a disproportionate percentage of professional boxers in Australia. It is claimed that this is the case because men from these groups do not have the same range of educational and employment opportunities available to them as are available to men in mainstream society.
According to this line of argument, if young men take up boxing because they see it as the only way out of undesirable living situations this is not a free choice. These men, it is argued, are becoming boxers because they do not believe they have other options. Boxing, it is claimed, exploits the socially disadvantaged.

Further implications
It is difficult to predict what will be the medium- to long-term future of boxing in Australia. Currently calls to have the sport banned only come to the fore after there has been a boxing-related fatality and these occur relatively infrequently.
Further, boxing is controlled by state government regulations and so would have to be banned by state governments. Such a position would have to be taken by all states to be effective. For example it has been noted that though professional boxing has been illegal in Sweden since 1970, and in Norway since 1981 boxers from both countries still compete in bouts held outside Sweden and Norway. In Australia all that would be required would be for boxers from a state where boxing was banned to travel interstate in order to compete. Thus any ban would have to be Australia-wide to have a significant impact.
It actually seems more likely that boxing will continue to contyract rather than be banned. A number of boxing commentators have noted that there has been a significant decline of interest in boxing among young men in Australia. Interestingly, however, running counter to this trend has been a growing interest in boxing among young Australian women.
In years to come it seems increasingly likely that attempts to regulate or ban boxing in Australia will focus possibly more on women's boxing than on men's.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $27.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age
10/4/01 page 2 news item by Brett Foley, 'Death puts boxing in the firing line'
11/4/01 page 19 comment by Michael Winkler, 'Live and let box: it's a fighter's decision'
26/4/01 page 16 editorial, 'Boxing's defenders are losing on points'
28/5/01 page 4 news item by Stephen Cauchi and Brett Foley, 'Boxer brain scan insufficient, says AMA'
1/6/01 page 15 comment by Paris Lovett, 'A blow to free choice'
2/6/01 page 4 news item by Julie Robotham, 'Boxers may face gene test'

The Australian
10/4/01 page 5 news item by Alison Crosweller, 'Death reignites boxing safety row'
24/4/01 page 14 news item by Bronwyn Daly and Natalie O'Brien, 'Renewed calls for "manslaughter" to end'
30/4/01 page 4 news item by Sarah Stock and Peter Kogoy, 'Doctors back Wooldridge on boxing'

The Herald Sun
8/4/00 page 5 news item by Sue Hewitt and Kate Ashley-Griffiths, 'Boxer fights for his life'
9/4/01 page 3 news item by Philip Cullen, 'Tragedy, but we know the risks'
10/4/01 page 3 news item by Philip Cullen et al, 'Boxer's death sparks ban call'
15/4/01 page 9 news item by Marv Viscovich, 'Doctor: stroke killed fighter'
29/4/01 page 12 news item by Marv Viscovich et al, 'It's dangerous and degrading'
29/4/01 page 13 news item by Matthew Bayley, 'Females flock to the gym'
29/4/01 page 13 comment by Shareon Anyos, 'Why I like to box'
29/4/01 page 44 editorial, 'Time to ring the bell?'
30/4/01 page 11 news item by Tanya Taylor, 'State ponders ban on boxing'
30/4/01 page 19 cartoon by Mark Knight, 'They call that a "Killer punch"?'
1/5/01 page 20 editorial, 'Shadow on boxing'
2/5/01 page 20 comment by Mischa Merz, 'On the ropes already'
5/5/01 page 28 letters by GS & Terry Grinsted, 'Boxing deaths very rare, Dr Wooldridge'
13/5/01 page 18 news item by Geoffrey Goddard, 'I'm a fan, but boxing has had its day'