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The Hypocrisy of the Boxing Tragedy


One of my favorite scenes from the show “M*A*S*H*” was during an episode in which Dr. Hawkeye Pierce was distraught over his inability to save a young solider. Colonel Henry Blake sat the idealistic doctor down and told him that while he didn’t remember learning much in Command School, he did learn the two rules of war. “Rule Number One of war is that young men die and Rule Number Two is doctors can’t change Rule Number One.”
While the boxing world cries its crocodile tears for Magomed Abduslamov and Franky Leal, let me give one and all a reminder of Rule Number One in boxing: young men get hurt. Sometimes they even die.

Yet whenever the inevitable tragedy occurs in boxing - and they are indeed inevitable - the boxing establishment and its fans scurry like roaches looking to access blame or sit atop their moralistic high horse and explain how they, being the good people they are, know how boxing can prevent future tragedies.
But we don’t really care about preventing tragedies in the ring. We pay it lip service and lobby for the most obvious reforms like preventing fighters who have already suffered head injuries from continuing to fight.
But we really don’t care.
Perhaps it is our attempt to convince ourselves that we are different from our forefathers in ancient Rome who cheered gladiator fights that sometimes ended in a man’s death.
It happened.
It happens.
On the night Franky Leal suffered brain trauma that ended his life and a week before Abduslamov would end up in medically-induced coma, boxing fans celebrated the brutal trilogy of fights between the late Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward with the premiere of an HBO documentary celebrating their ring wars. The documentary honored the two warriors, highlighting the fact that after one of their bouts, the men actually shared a hospital room.
So we celebrate the courage of gladiators who end up in the hospital after a contest yet act as if permanent injury or death is the last thing we want to see happen in the ring.
That’s the hypocrisy of the ring tragedy. The idea that we support everything our experience and known science tells us will lead to a certain number of deaths and permanent injury yet desperately tell ourselves that we are not morally culpable when such things occur.
This self-delusion is evident in The Queensbury Rules and The Guardian commentary by Alex McClintock, who admits we are indeed the hypocrites and enablers that lead to ring tragedies. Yet even McClintock himself cannot resist the urge to give his own suggestions to make our brutal bloodsport less deadly.
But boxing is a deadly sport. The head of the World Boxing Association’s medical advisory board, Calvin Inalsingh, summed it up perfectly in one sentence: “Boxing is the only sport in which the objective is to render blows to the head and body of the opponent so as the cause the opponent to be incapacitated.”
It’s perhaps the only honest thing to come from the WBA in decades.
Yet we believe in our hearts that somehow death is an outcome that we find so unpleasant.
So we pray.
And we demand the sport enacts measures to prevent future such tragedies. But that is just to make ourselves feel better about what we do and who we are, to fulfill some basic need of moral superiority.
No different than believing the dollars we slip into a stripper’s G-string are going to her college tuition. It’s so much more honorable than the truth that we are just contributing to her meth or heroin habit.
I accept the brutal consequences of boxing without much question. Just as I never questioned Evel Knievel breaking every bone in his body and risking death for my entertainment and a few bucks. I can’t say I wanted Evel Knievel to crash and burn but I can’t say I really cared either. It was the danger of what he was doing that made it so exciting.
Boxing is no different.
Just as we accepted the inherent danger of an Evel Knievel stunt, we accept the danger of football players suffering debilitating brain injury, rock climbers falling to their deaths and windsuit jumpers risking everything. Yet we somehow convince ourselves that boxing deaths are unacceptable.
And we only need to look to football to see the same hypocrisy in fans that we see in boxing. Anyone that believes the NFL or NCAA are serious about limiting concussions is delusional. I don’t argue that they are doing a lot about public relations and the press related to head injuries but as far as actual head injuries…they simply don’t care.
Sure, we now see penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits on “defenseless” receivers but is the head injury problem in football mainly suffered by receivers and pass defenders? Hardly. In the PBS “Frontline” special “League of Denial,” the case which they showcased as bringing light to head injuries in football was that of Mike Webster, center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Webster was never a “defenseless” player. He was in the trenches and never caught a pass nor hit a receiver.
Yet fans everywhere fall for the ridiculous public relations ploy of the NFL and NCAA and believe they are serious about head injuries. And I’m sure it makes them feel better about supporting such a violent sport.
But neither football nor boxing can ever be both entertaining and safe at the same time. Would anyone who now decries concussions actually watch professional flag football? How many boxing fans would pay to watch pro boxers wearing headgear or wearing 16-ounce gloves?
Sure. And I would go to the track and watch the horses race if there weren’t betting.
We love to say we’d rather see a fight stopped 100 punches too early than one punch too late but we lie. Whenever a referee calls a halt to a contest and we perceive it to be premature, we are not satisfied. And even the mere memories of past ring tragedies do little to keep us from restraining our protest.
As long as boxing exists, there will be ring tragedies and while the hypocrites among us wring their hands in anguish and attempt to cleanse their souls from the reality that reveals they are indeed enablers of such tragedies, I will toast the late Kurt Vonnegut and remember his immortal words, so ironically used in reference to our collective impending deaths.
“So it goes.”
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