Is Boxing Safe?

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From the beginning, boxing has had its ardent critics. Not unlike other sports, it has also had its share of tragedy.  In all honesty, accidents happen in competitive sports.  Athletes get hurt.  This is true in all sports and boxing is not immune.  But the fact is, boxing has no more risk than other contact sports and, in some cases is safer than many non-contact sports.   That’s reality and yet somewhere just beyond the spotlight, there’s always lurks the question of safety.

The real problem lies in how it is depicted by its detractors.  By some, boxing has been portrayed as brutal, primitive, and even outright deadly and yet it has survived and continues to be a favorite sport among fans and fitness enthusiasts who see it as a thing of beauty and not as barbaric.   So where does the false impression come from?  What is the real truth?  Is boxing as dangerous as they say?

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Each year the National Safety Council compiles statistical data that tracks and records sports injuries in the United States.  Of the 37 sports reflected in the 2011 report, in terms of number of injuries (those that required treatment in hospital emergency rooms), boxing was 26th on the list.  That means there were on 11 sports that could be considered safer than boxing (based solely on number of reported injuries).  Among those that reported fewer injuries than boxing were racquetball, archery and billiards.  Ranked highest on the list of more dangerous sports were (in order of highest number of injuries) bicycle riding, basketball and football.  Even bowling, cheerleading and tennis reported more injuries than boxing.  Would you hesitate to engage in any of those sports for fear of getting hurt?

Now, having made that case, you should also factor-in the overall number of participants on a nationwide level and know that there aren’t anywhere near as many athletes engaged in boxing as there are basketball or bicycle riding, but that doesn’t totally compensate the fact that, all sensationalism aside…the numbers prove that boxing is not as dangerous as it’s made out to be.

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The real fact is that boxing is among the most regulated sports in all of athletics.  The very foundation of amateur boxing (where all fighters should start their pursuit) is built on providing a level playing field for the competitors.  Matches are made by pairing-up fighters who are of similar weight, age and share a similar amount of experience.  The goal is to make fights that are fair and competitive.  Now, compare that to football, where you may have two athletes who play two opposing positions and could be a hundred pounds apart.  They may be two or three years apart in age.  One player could even be fairly new to the sport, while the other has had several years of experience on the field and yet those two collide, full-force midfield, play after play.  When you look at the two objectively, factually, which approach sounds safer…two evenly-matched boxers or two very different players?  In terms of boxing, as long as the coaches in charge of match-making make logical decisions when pairing their fighters, boxing provides a fair, competitive environment.

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The health and physical welfare of the athlete is paramount and when it comes to medical attention, boxing has gone the extra mile to insure the safety and protect the well-being of its athletes.  Doctors are on-site for pre-fight physicals (to determine the fighter’s health and ability to compete before he steps into the ring) and at least one physician is required to be present at all times during competition.  They monitor the fighters as the bout progresses and they even examine each fighter as they leave the ring.  The amount of medical presence that most other sports have is nothing more than an athletic trainer who is able to treat minor cuts, bumps, bruises or dislocations.  Not to diminish the role of an athletic trainer, but the level of expertise that a doctor has and his ability to respond to an emergency situation or injury are very different.

Aside from the doctor, there is always a referee in the ring with the two combatants, watching the action up close at all times.  He is there, not only to insure that all of the rules of the sport are followed, but also to continually monitor and gauge each of the fighter’s physical and mental state.  Aside from the doctor sitting at ringside and the coach in the corner, the third man in the ring is also charged with protecting the fighters.  A boxing referee is responsible for the game, but even more so, for monitoring the safety of the athletes.

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So, if boxing is so safe, why do so many people think it’s not?  Many detractors of the sport have concluded that boxing is less safe than other contact sports because the goal of the combatants is to render each other unconscious.  In actuality, the real goal in boxing is to win.  It’s no different than any other sport and, in fact, most boxing matches are won on points, not by knockout.  The truth is that fewer than 7% of all professional bouts and less than 1% of all amateur matches end by way of knockout.

One of the major contributing factors to the idea that boxing is dangerous is the way it’s presented in the media.  The knockout or seeing another boxer hurt is dramatic and often grabs the headlines or makes the highlight reel.  The extra attention this type of moment receives feeds the general public’s misperception that boxing is all about putting the other guy to sleep.  For the two or three exciting, sudden-ending KO’s that most people see on SportsCenter, hundreds and thousands of other fights have come to a close and gone to the judge’s decision…on points, in front of a few hundred fans, away from the watchful eye of national television.  Both combatants may have experienced the typical bump or bruise from contact, but neither was hurt and both gained a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction from competing.

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Boxing, or any other sport for that matter, can be dangerous, especially if it is not taught or executed with safety in mind.  A good boxing coach will focus on laying a strong technical foundation that emphasizes all aspects of the game equally.  He will teach his boxing student, first and foremost, how to defend himself.  He will teach him how to wage an affective offensive attack, how to use the ring, how to employ strategy, when to punch, where to punch and when to move.  He will help instill a sense of ring generalship and how to protect himself at all times.  He will teach him an appreciation for the game, respect for his competitor and how to exercise self control.

Boxing is not about brute strength.  It is not about the destruction of another human being or demoralizing another athlete.  It is about practicing and employing the art of self defense.   Boxing is an art form and unique physical self-expression.  With all of its dynamics, mechanics and nuances, the beauty is in the skill it takes to perform masterfully under extreme competitive conditions.   It is using the human form to its greatest capacity in pursuit of athletic excellence.  With that, as any sport, comes some level of danger, but unless you test your limits, you may never really know your capabilities.

Doug Ward is the President and Trainer for the Underground Boxing Company.