Eliminate headgear, which has been protecting amateur fighters for three decades now? OK, and while we’re at it why not do away with padded gloves and fight with bare knuckles.
Sure enough, though, the headgear is going. Before the year is out, young fighters throughout the world will meet in the ring and be able to recognize the face they’re trying to hit.
That will make for more attractive fights, might even safely secure the Olympic future of a sport that was very iffy in the games for a while. Coupled with a pro-style scoring system, it surely will restore some semblance of a combat sport to what had become fencing with gloves.
It would also seem, at least on the surface, to be inherently more dangerous. The padding has been there since the 1984 Olympics, and for a reason. It’s supposed to act as a cushion for blows to the head, protecting fighters from concussions and even worse.
Those who run amateur boxing say the headgear doesn’t really work, and may even add to the danger. It encourages fighters to take more blows, they say, and interferes with peripheral vision needed to see a left hook or right cross.
But no one can say for sure.
“It’s not really clear until you basically eliminate headgear and see what happens,” said Dr. Charles Bernick, who heads a study on brain damage in fighters for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t a big difference with or without headgear.”
It’s a bold move by the International Boxing Association, an organization once so corrupt that boxing was almost thrown out of the Summer Games. Under the new leadership of President Wu Ching-Kuo of Taiwan — now a member of the powerful IOC executive board — boxing is doing its best to become relevant as an Olympic sport again.
Last year, women boxers competed for the first time in the Olympics and were a smashing success. But the men have been mostly an Olympic afterthought for years, and something had to change.
The large padded headgear made fighters look alike to fans. You can hardly even see their eyes. The computerized scoring where knockdowns didn’t count any more than jabs— introduced in the wake of the Roy Jones Jr. fiasco in Seoul in 1988 — took the essence out of the sport.
(Jones dominated his gold-medal fight against a Korean opponent, Park Si Hun, but lost the decision. Later, he ended up being the tournament’s outstanding boxer.)
American fighters in particular have fared poorly since the changes, partly because many top prospects don’t even bother with the amateurs. They know they can’t win championships and gold medals with the pro style favored in the United States, and understand those have been devalued anyway by the amateur sport’s slow slide into oblivion.
The amateur program is barely hanging on in the U.S., nearly killed off by apathy and incompetent management. Coaches can’t get prospects to adapt to the arcane scoring, not surprising, because there is little use for the amateur style at the professional level. In a sport the U.S. once dominated, male fighters won just one bronze medal in the last two Olympics.
No one will be sad to see the scoring replaced by a 10-point must system, similar to pro-style judging. There probably won’t be much dismay in seeing the headgear go, either. But is it safe? No one knows, just as no one knows if the NFL will be any safer if Roger Goodell gets his way and introduces lighter helmets, thought to be less of a weapon in head-to-head hits.
The science of blows to the head and their effect on athletes is an evolving one. Only in the last few years — largely prompted by the NFL’s concussion debate — have doctors begun to study it closely. There’s still no firm evidence why some athletes take repeated blows to the head and are fine, while others end up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a variant of which has always been called “punch drunk “in boxing circles.
Everyone is guessing, and now they’re guessing about headgear.
“There are pros and cons from both angles,” Bernick said. “It’s not like there’s been a tremendous amount of research on it.”
Boxing is inherently a dangerous business, of course. Has been since long before the Marquess of Queensberry rules were adopted in the late 1800’s to control some of the madness in the sport.
Fighters take a chance they’ll get hurt every time they get in the ring.
Eliminating headgear won’t take the sport back to its heyday, when the Golden Gloves was big and Olympic boxing even bigger. It may, however, put it back in the Olympic spotlight and help create a new generation of boxing fans.
Hopefully, it won’t be at the cost of even more brain injuries.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg