Immediate gratification. Not only can you read the results of a fight after the final round, but you can physically feel the consequences of your actions, good and bad. If you duck left when you should have moved right, you’ll see lights. On the other hand, if you time it just right and fire fast enough, you’ll feel your opponent’s face connecting with your gloved fist.
Boxing is a sport based on immediate gratification. Even if you’re insurmountably behind on the scorecard with an ‘L’ sitting one round away, one clean punch and it quickly turns into a ‘W’ as the other guy falls face first to the canvas. The immediate gratification of fighting allows people to forget about the past and overlook the future. One of boxing’s biggest lures may be its biggest curse.
Charlie Mohr, University of Wisconsin’s prized boxer, died 54 years ago Thursday from traumatic brain injuries following a championship bout. This immediately prompted a ban on the sport at the university, followed by an NCAA-wide ban just weeks later. The ban was semi-lifted last December, as UW’s first organized boxing club was started by finding a loophole in the prohibition that failed to list club boxing as part of the ban.
“We got the ban, printed it out and there was nothing that bans boxing as a club sport,” said Chandler Davis, the UW sophomore who started the club.
Davis explained the bureaucratic circus that he endured to start the club, running in circles with the different executives from the oftentimes overlapping committees. Eventually, the club was approved and Davis found a cozy spot tucked behind the Natatorium pool to hold practice two days a week.
However, the approval of a boxing club by the university doesn’t make the sport any less dangerous; it just allows people to participate in the danger. A right hook to the temple is just as destructive to your brain today as it was to Charlie Mohr’s in 1960.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, getting hit with a straight punch from an average middleweight boxer has a force of 2,625 Newtons, about the same force of a wooden baseball bat striking an 85 mph fastball. Manny Pacquiao, who just regained his championship belt Saturday, has gone through 395 rounds in 63 professional fights. Do the math on how many times he’s basically been cracked over the head with a wooden bat.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement saying that boxers are “at risk for dementia pugilistica, a chronic encephalopathy caused by the cumulative effects of multiple subconcussive blows to the head.” The Journal of the American Medical Association released an editorial in 1983 stating, “Boxing should be banned in civilized countries.”
The chronic traumatic brain injuries that are reportedly caused by boxing share symptoms with other degenerative brain diseases. Symptoms often seen in Alzheimer’s patients, such as memory loss and loss of motor functions, are also seen in some boxers. Ocular damage is also reported, as well as the development of other mental diseases.
Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest” boxer and inspiration to many, now lives with the struggles of Parkinson’s Disease. About 20 percent of professional boxers experience these symptoms or ones similar to them in their lives.
“I think it has risks just like any other sport,” Davis explained. “If you’re willing to take the risk, that’s your decision and your choice. I understand there are risks, but with headgear and mouth guards and coaches always around, the risk is reduced.”
The medical world seems to be in agreement that boxing is not a safe sport. So why do we continue to embrace it as competition and entertainment?
At the newly formed University of Wisconsin Boxing Club, no one is forced to fight. Self-defense training, for exercise, for fun—all are acceptable reasons for showing up to practice.
“It should be made aware to everyone that there are risks. I think there will be brain injuries in the future but there will be with any aggressive sport, any sport that involves physical contact,” explained Davis. “We had the head of neurosciences come to speak to the club. Part of what we offer is that you don’t have to compete if you don’t want to. You can just come and work out. We’d like to make the risks known to everyone and we do everything we can to minimize the risk.”
Of the roughly 12 people at practice Saturday, only four were approved to spar; the rest spent time on the various bags hanging around the room.
It’s easy to see boxing’s draw. It’s an excuse to hit something without ramifications, which is something a lot of stressed college students secretly—or not so secretly—desire.
If you’re sparring, the response of your actions is taken to an extreme. You connect your punches or you get hit in the face. If you’re competitive and adventurous enough to try boxing in the first place, these results take shape as reinforcements and punishments, encouraging the boxer to continue.
Simply put, boxing is fun. You’re participating in an alternative sport that’s glamorized by the likes of Rocky Balboa.
“There’s aggression involved. A lot of people like to express their aggression through sports,” said Davis. “It’s very physical, very aggressive, and it’s an individual sport. Whether you fail or succeed is based on your own merit.”
The thirst for immediate gratification stems from the inherent warrior attitude of boxers. Kill or be killed. And it’s becoming frighteningly reminiscent of the gladiators who fought and died in the Roman Coliseum. Boxers like Duk Koo Kim, Pedro Alcazar and, most recently, Frankie Leal, died in the ring as warriors, as opposed to people.
The viewing public doesn’t respond to reinforcements and punishments in the same way that the boxers it’s watching do. Boxers die. We mourn. We bill the next fight.
The sport takes on a “shake it off” attitude. “Get back in there” is an accepted response to “Coach I can’t see straight.” Concussions are referred to as “punch drunkenness,” paralleling how post-traumatic stress disorders used to be treated before we fully realized their health implications.
There’s something to be said about the irony of having a designated place for boxing in college, a sport that has been proven to potentially decrease brain function, on a campus for higher learning. For those who love the sport, the new boxing club will be a haven, the first time they’ll be able to participate in boxing in an organized manner on campus since Charlie Mohr’s death in 1960. And what Davis said may be true: Who has the right to tell someone they can or can’t box? But the question that needs to be asked is one that still has yet to be truly answered. Why fight?