The noble art of boxing—or, the ignoble art of scrambling the human brain

The sport of cockfighting is banned in Canada and outlawed in most other countries throughout the world. It is a barbarous anachronism. The idea of training animals to injure and kill each other in order to provide a few brief moments of entertainment and elation along with winnings from betting is abhorrent to most of us. And yet boxing, which has its essentials in cockfighting, with behemoths instead of birds, gloves instead of razors, with wealthy businessmen behind the contestants instead of working class trainers, and the human brain the target rather than avian viscera, still continues. Just as cockfighting does not demean the cocks but the audience and the bird’s connections, so boxing does not demean the boxers, but the boxer’s supporters and manipulators.

The aim of boxing is to cause brain damage. People point out that football, hockey, and rugby are all dangerous. They are perfectly right. But the aim of these sports is not to cause injury. In boxing the ultimate achievement is to knock somebody out. And to knock somebody out is to injure his or her brain.

The medical profession has thrown its weight many times in calls for the sport’s modifications and abolition. A neurologist once made me feel queasy by saying the brain is the texture of lightly cooked scrambled eggs suspended in a bony thing called the skull. His analogy underscores how fragile an organ it is despite our perceptions to the contrary.

Every year we read of some poor boxer who collapses and dies after a boxing bout as a result of repeated blows to the head. Moreover, we know—it is a medical fact—that blows to the head have a cumulative and devastating effect. Twenty years on and the commonly referred to condition of being punch drunk are all too easy to recognize, even to a lay person: slurred speech, unsteady legs, lapses of memory, violent tendencies, and the general appearance of having had a few too many. Punch drunk seems such a frivolous term to use for such an array of problems.

A few years ago the British Medical Association defined boxing “as a contest in which the winner seems to be the one who produces more brain damage on his opponent than he himself sustains.”

Over the years boxing has been made safer, not safe. Shorter bouts, less frequents contests, and fewer mismatches reduce the problems. Ironically, the introduction of headgear in amateur events makes the head a bigger target. There is only one way to make boxing safe: to take the head out of the target area. Would that not make it a spectacle of more athletic ability and skill? Supporters of the sport freely admit that it would take half the fun away.

The notion that boxers are free to choose if they wish to have their heads beaten in is inarguable. I tend to think that boxing is kept alive by the people who have a vested interest in it—the managers and promoters.

Many years ago I saw Muhammad Ali interviewed on the subject of boxing and brain damage. He gave the sweetest smile and answered “who cares about the brains of a couple of black kids? Who cares about the brains of poor kids from the meaner parts of town?”

Mike Tyson is the personification of boxing’s greatest pieces of self-justification: that boxing is a way out of the ghetto. Let us put aside the ludicrous aspect of the claim; the implicit notion is that there is a job as a heavyweight champion of the world waiting for all kids from tough backgrounds, if only they could get their act together.

Ah, there is no sport like boxing, people say romantically. No sport that produces such characters or such confrontations, such awesome contests. There is a simple reason for this. Most man-to-man sports are a form of stylized dueling with ball, racquet, or stick. The enmity, the attacking, the defending are metaphorical. There is no metaphor in boxing: it is the real thing. Boxing is real fighting, perfectly genuine violence, a pastime with the genuine aim of causing damage to the opponent. No wonder the contest stirs the blood; no wonder the contestants are fearsome, mythical men. The point is not, in fact, that “there is no sport like boxing.” The point is that boxing is not sport at all. It is violence unadulterated performed for the pleasure of millions. And millions are what it is all about.

—Malcolm Smillie