Tuesday 22 May 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Nick Blackwell won't be the last fighter whose family have to look at him in a coma

Nick Blackwell and Chris Eubank Jnr exchange blows
Nick Blackwell and Chris Eubank Jnr exchange blows

Eamonn Sweeney

On September 21, 1991 Chris Eubank fought Michael Watson for the World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title in London. Eubank stopped his opponent in the 12th round.

Watson collapsed and spent 40 days in a coma, undergoing five life-saving brain operations. It was four years before he could walk an unaided step and though he has recovered to an almost miraculous degree, Watson will require a full-time carer for the rest of his life.

On March 26, 2016, Chris Eubank Junior fought Nick Blackwell for the British middleweight title in London. Eubank Junior stopped his opponent in the 10th round. Blackwell suffered a brain bleed and is currently in a coma. How things will pan out for him remains unclear. Twenty-five years on, boxing continues on its merry way.

In the early 1990s, Eubank and Watson's great rival was Nigel Benn. On February 25, 1995, he fought Gerald McClellan for the World Boxing Council super-middleweight title in London. Benn knocked his opponent out in the tenth round. McClellan spent two weeks in a coma, underwent brain surgery and today is blind, needs to use a wheelchair and is cared for full-time by his sisters.

After that fight the British Medical Association asked, "How many more cases do we need of boxers playing Russian roulette with their brains before the government and the British Boxing Board of Control take seriously what we say about the cumulative danger that boxing does."

The answer to that question is: any amount of cases. An infinite number of them perhaps. Because, though articles about Watson's recovery dwell on the improved medical care available ringside these days to the extent that you might think death and serious injury in boxing is a thing of the past, boxers are still dying in the ring.

Bad and all as their injuries were, Watson and McClellan were luckier than some in that they survived. They are also atypical victims in that you've heard of them because their injuries, like Blackwell's, were sustained in a high-profile televised title fight. It's unlikely however that you've heard of Davey Browne Junior or Braydon Smith or Mwanzele Kompolo or Phindile Mwelase.

Browne was an Australian super-featherweight who was knocked out in his fight against Carlo Magali on September 11 of last year. He went into a coma and died four days later in hospital in Sydney, leaving a wife and two young sons behind him. South African lightweight Kompolo died the same week; he'd lapsed into a coma after being knocked out in the first round.

Michael Watson, pictured in 1993 on his first public appearance after the fight with Chris Eubank which almost ended his life Photo: Getty/Allsport
Michael Watson, pictured in 1993 on his first public appearance after the fight with Chris Eubank which almost ended his life Photo: Getty/Allsport

The death of Browne wasn't the first in an Australian ring in 2015; featherweight prospect Braydon Smith had died on March 16 after losing a points decision to John Vincent Moralde. Smith collapsed in his dressing room and died two days afterwards. And Kompolo was the second South African fatality inside a year.

In October 2014, female boxer Phindile Mwelase died after being knocked out by Liz Butler in Pretoria. Mwelase suffered a brain bleed and spent two weeks in a coma before passing away. The deaths just keep on coming. By and large we don't hear about them or pass little heed when we do.

The great French writer Rochefoucauld said that "neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye." I'm inclined to think that the same applies to boxing, perhaps because of its connection with death. We seem reluctant to have an honest look at the enormity of what transpires in the ring and examine its implications.

So at the moment there is a huge debate about and much concern being expressed over the possibility that rugby may lead to players suffering concussions which affect their brain function in later life. The NFL in America has paid out a large amount of money to retired players after it emerged that repeated blows to the head had resulted in some players suffering from a degenerative brain disease.

There has been much scolding of the rugby authorities and suggestions that youngsters be banned from tackling. In the US there's even a campaign to stop underage soccer players from heading the ball from fear that this might eventually lead to some form of brain damage.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is a sport whose participants routinely strive to hit each other the hardest blows possible on the head. Concussion is a by-product of rugby and American football but is a desired result in boxing given that the quickest way to win a fight is to knock your opponent unconscious or incapacitate them so badly that they cannot get up. Strip away all the pretence and damage is the point of the thing.

Conor McGregor's success has fuelled a major rise in the popularity of mixed martial arts in this country.

That's why it's extremely bizarre to see people decrying Mixed Martial Arts as the last word in barbarism and wondering 'what it says about us as a society' that we allow this appalling spectacle to take place. In reality, a society which permits human beings to clatter each other on the head in the hope that one of them will be knocked out is hardly in a position to start taking the moral high ground about other sports. My suspicion is that MMA disturbs certain pundits because it is essentially boxing without the bullshit.

It freely admits that a certain bloodlust and savagery lies at the heart of our attraction to combat sports and camps that up to a certain extent. Yet its bouts are over much quicker than big boxing matches which probably results in less lasting damage being done to the fighters.

We'll have to wait for long-term studies to see if this is the case. But nobody denies that boxing harms some of its people. The most extensive survey carried out on former professional boxers said that 17 per cent showed clear evidence of brain damage while an unspecified but not insignificant number of others showed signs of neurological disturbance. There's even a sport specific name for this condition 'dementia pugilistica.' The 'punch drunk' boxer no longer in full command of his faculties is an archetypal figure.

In the documentary 'Facing Ali' four of the ten boxers had to be subtitled because their speech was slurred. Jimmy Ellis, who became world champion after Ali was stripped of the title for not going to Vietnam suffered from dementia for more than a decade before dying two years ago. The man Ali fought in his first comeback fight, Jerry Quarry, died at 53, having been unable to feed or dress himself for years.

And then there's Ali himself, the man who once said, "I don't want to be one of those old fighters saying duh-duh-duh." We can say that his current condition might not be related to all the punishment he took in the ring. But we all know the truth.

The American socialist James Cannon wrote that: "Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters into a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side-bet. But our civilisation has not yet advanced to the point where the law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators."

He wrote that 55 years ago. Since then man has reached the moon, invented the internet and discovered the spray-on tan. But we're still gung-ho for the spectacle of two men, and even women because we're more advanced these days, trying to beat each other up for our entertainment. There's probably more of a fuss made about racehorse deaths at Cheltenham than there is about the death of human beings in the world's boxing rings.

The problem with pro boxing is that it's essentially indefensible. I've watched and enjoyed plenty of it but I know that the reasons advanced in its defence are largely nonsense. The 'route out of poverty' one for example. How many boxers make enough money to support themselves for the rest of their lives? Too many end up like the great Wilfred Benitez, back in the poverty they came from with the added handicap of dementia to cope with. The drug trade also provides a route out of poverty but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing.

Then there's the 'if it was made illegal it would be driven underground' argument. Perhaps it would but there wouldn't be the same number of people involved if the lure of big TV money wasn't there.

And it's money which is the ultimate justification for boxing, the money made by broadcasters and agents and promoters as much as that made by the fighters themselves. Money, it seems, can justify anything. Even people having their brains damaged in the name of entertainment.

Good luck to Nick Blackwell. I hope he is able to return to the life he lived before last week. But he won't be the last fighter whose brain bleeds and whose family have to look at him in a coma.

That's entertainment.

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