The legality of boxing: a punch drunk love?

Published 23 September 2015 By: Jack Anderson


On 11 September, Davey Brown Jr, fought Carlo Magali from the Philippines in a 12-round International Boxing Federation (IBF) super featherweight contest in Australia. Brown, the local fighter, was knocked out 30 seconds from the end of the final round. The 28-year-old father of two collapsed on his stool and was taken to hospital on suspicion of critical brain trauma. Four days later his family consented to his life support being turned off in a Sydney hospital.1

Six months previously, another Australian, Braydon Smith, died after losing a fight in his home tome of Toowoomba, Queensland. Smith had collapsed 90 minutes after his bout and died two days later.2

The day after Davey Brown’s death, South African fighter Mzwanele Kompolo collapsed and died on being knocked out in the first round of a bout in the Eastern Cape.3

These fatalities raise medical, moral, ethical and legal concerns about the sport of boxing.

In legal terms, the English courts have long recognised that in contact sports not every foul, even one occasioning serious injury, is necessarily a crime because injury and hurt is, to a certain level, consensual and, moreover, is usually incidental and accidental to the playing of the game in question.

Boxing stretches this legal tolerance to its limit.

Boxing is similarly on the extreme when it comes to the concussion “crisis” currently afflicting rugby4 and American football.5 World Rugby and the NFL have had to deal with accusations that the frequency of injury is such that concussion is fast becoming an “occupational hazard” for its players. It has always been thus for boxers.

In short, the most efficient way of winning a professional bout is by way of knockout. A knockout is a temporary stunning of the body’s most sensitive organ. Put another way (admittedly somewhat provocatively) a central aspect of the scoring system in professional boxing is that it rewards the deliberate infliction of brain damage.

In light of this criticism, the boxing fraternity usually retorts that, although mountain, motor and equine sports (and even activities such as trampolining) have far higher rates of fatality and injury, those pursuits never face calls for their outright proscription.

The difficulty for boxing is that, while the above activities can mitigate associated risks through better use of safety equipment, boxing can only ever satisfy its critics in this regard if it bans blows to the head, which for the boxing community would eliminate an intrinsic part of their sport.

A further difficult for boxing is the potential gravity of boxing injuries – as opposed to a “like for like” comparison to fatality rates or injury incidence in other sports. A meta-analysis of the medical literature suggests that almost four-fifths of professional boxers will suffer some form of measurable brain injury as a result of their career, and one-fifth of those boxers will go on to develop chronic brain trauma or dementia pugilistica.

Nevertheless, there are ways of limiting the risks that boxers face inside the ring.

A 2010 study of fatality rates in boxing in the respected periodical Neurosurgery6 illustrated that there was a significant decline in mortality rate after 1983 when championship bouts were reduced from 15 to 12 rounds, following the death of South Korean Deuk Koo Kim in a WBC title fight in November 1982.

That 2010 article suggested straightforwardly that the post-1983 decline in fatalities in boxing was the “result of a reduction in exposure to repetitive head trauma (shorter careers and fewer fights), along with increased medical oversight and stricter safety regulations.

It is of note that Davey Brown Jr’s death last week occurred in the last (12th) round of the fight. Is it time to reduce championship bouts further from 12 to 10 rounds?

In this part of the world, the British Boxing Board of Control learned the hard way that inadequate medical care of boxers leaves a controlling sports body vulnerable to negligence liability. In the aftermath of the litigation7 that arose out of the serious brain injuries sustained by Michael Watson in his WBO super middleweight title fight against Chris Eubank in 1991, the BBBC implemented, and still have, some of the strictest medical controls in boxing.8

There is no doubt that increased efforts should be made worldwide to improve medical supervisions of boxers. Specific reforms, such as mandating central nervous system imaging after a knockout, could lead to a significant reduction in associated mortality rates among professional boxers.

Beyond the medical safeguards, four other reforms might be considered.

The key figure in protecting boxers from excessive punishment in the ring is the referee. Donald McRae’s new book A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith recounts the infamous Emile Griffith vs Benny Paret welterweight championship fight in 1962, when referee Ruby Goldstein stood idly by as Paret, pinned against the ropes and the flailing fists of Emile Griffith, slipped into unconsciousness during the 12th round and later died.9

Are pro-boxing referees trained to an adequate level and especially in light of the fact that generally the referee is the only person authorised to end a fight for excessive punishment (and not the medical assessor who can only recommend a stoppage)?

Second, any administrative or structural reforms of the professional boxing industry in any jurisdiction will have to address the oppressive dominance that boxing promoters exert in the modern sport. The licensing of promoters, in particular, should be predicated on a strict financial disclosure regime. Of critical importance would be the requirement that promoters provide and underwrite the costs of “their” fighters’ medical and insurance costs. This requirement alone would be hugely significant for the welfare of boxers.

In addition, on licensing a promoter, the governing authority should also request that a percentage of the promoter’s annual profits be dedicated to fund future medical research into the development of effective injury prevention strategies in boxing.

Third, some consideration should be given to establishing a representative body for professional boxers that could advocate for, among other things, adequate insurance and pension provisions for boxers.

The fourth reform is that world boxing badly needs some sort of central governing authority. At present, there is little hope of raising medical standards in the sport when many boxers can simply look for a “flag of convenience” jurisdiction in which to obtain a licence to fight. Similarly arguments apply to the sport’s inadequate compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code.

Admittedly, it is unlikely that the current administrative farrago or alphabet soup (WBA, WBC, WB…) that is the governance of world boxing will be reformed in the near future. The lack of governance credibility and reform has seen the sport’s credibility and popularity dip alarming in recent decades implode.

A stark illustration of the sports decline lies in the fact that 50 years ago all of us who love sport (generally) would have been enthralled by that year’s major sporting event – the second Liston v Ali fight. That fight was for the WBC heavyweight title. Who is the current WBC heavyweight champion? Deontay Leshun Wilder since you ask; and nope, me neither.

Medical and governance concerns apart, and somewhat paradoxically, the biggest threat to the future of professional boxing comes from its “combat” rivals – mixed martial arts sports such as UFC. Well marketed and centrally controlled, the demographic that is attracted to UFC, presents a significant threat to professional boxing.

So as administrative reform is unlikely in professional boxing, it is also unlikely that professional boxing will face abolition in the UK any time soon. Criminalising the sport might even make it less safe for boxers, forcing it underground and back to its bare fisted roots. Instead of threatening or lecturing the sport, as organisations such as the British Medical Association tend to do on occasion, it would be more productive to encourage the sport to introduce enhanced levels of medical, administrative and contractual transparency to the benefit of boxers.

Ultimately, the debate on boxing is ethical and moral in nature. The moral debate has three dimensions – those who in the classic liberal tradition respect the participants’ autonomy; those who take the paternalistic view that it should be prohibited to protect the participants from themselves; and those who take the view that so long as the sport is properly regulated, it should be allowed to continue.

In less theoretical terms, the moral and ethical debate on boxing was well summed up by Emile Griffith years after his tragic bout against Benny Paret. The undercurrent to that fight had been Paret’s much publicised (and much supported) taunting of Griffith’s homosexuality, which enraged Griffith. Reflecting on the bout, Griffith remarked: “I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say that makes me an evil person.10

Finally, and on a personal note, I am a fan of the sport of boxing. I like its characters, its courage and its minimalism. Nonetheless, my love of the sport is often uncomfortable and frequently unfaithful. Many aspects of the professional code unsettle me, as have the recent deaths of Davey Brown Jr, Braydon Smith, and Mzwanele Kompolo.

As Bob Dylan sang in his celebrated lament for Davey Moore, who died in the aftermath of a world featherweight title fight in 1963, sometimes even us fans have to ask:why and what’s the reason for?


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Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne. The sports law program at Melbourne was one of the first to be established globally in the mid-1980 and continues to expand at the Melbourne Law School, which itself is ranked in the top 10 law schools globally.

Jack has published widely in the area including monographs such as The Legality of Boxing (Routledge 2007) and Modern Sports Law (Hart 2010) and edited collections such as Landmark Cases in Sports Law (Asser 2013) and EU Sports Law (Edward Elgar 2018 with R Parrish and B Garcia). He was Editor-in-Chief of the International Sports Law Journal based at the International Sports Law Centre at the Asser Institute from 2013 to 2016. 

Appointed as an arbitrator to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2016,  he became a member of the inaugural International Amateur Athletics Federation’s Disciplinary Tribunal and the International Hockey Federation’s Integrity Unit in 2017. In 2018, he was the sole CAS arbitrator at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. In 2019, he was appointed to the International Tennis Federation’s Ethics Commission. He is currently chair of the Advisory Group establishing a National Sports Tribunal for Australia

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