Death in the Boxing Ring
Between 1890 and 2011, 1,865 boxers died as a direct result of injuries sustained in bouts. Prior to that, there were 266 documented deaths from 1740 to 1889, the era before gloves were introduced and boxers fought bare-knuckled. We know this through the work of Manuel Velazquez and his successors.
Velazquez was born in Tampa, Florida in 1904. In 1938, a friend and retired boxer, Pete (Kid Indian) Nebo, was committed to a mental hospital, judged incompetent because of all the blows to the head he had received in the ring. This prompted Velazquez to start collecting data on boxing injuries. Velazquez died in 1994 and his files came into the hands of Joseph R. Svinth who continued the documentation, but has not updated the information on the web since 2011.
But, the deaths in the ring continue. On October 1, 2016, Scottish boxer Mike Towell, 25, became the latest fighter to die as a result of injuries sustained in the ring. He had been experiencing headaches for a couple of weeks before the bout. After a second knock down the referee stopped the fight, but it was too late for Towell. Severe swelling and bleeding in his brain killed him in hospital.
Ring Deaths Long in the Past
Pankration was a sport in Ancient Greece that was a combination of wrestling and boxing. Apart from biting and gouging eyes any form of weaponless attack was allowed; unless you count fists and feet as weapons.
In 564 BCE, Arrachion of Phigalia defended his Olympic Games title. It was to be his last bout as his curiously unnamed opponent managed to choke him to death. But, before he expired Arrachion dislocated his adversary’s toe causing him to give up at the same moment as the champion died. Arrachion was declared the winner even though he was dead.
Simon Byrne was an Irish prizefighter known as “The Emerald Gem.” In June 1830, he fought the Scottish champion Alexander McKay. In the 47th round of the bare-knuckle contest (yes, that’s right, the 47th round) Byrne felled McKay with a punch to the throat. McKay died later that day.
Three years later, Simon Byrne was matched against James Burke for the title of champion of England. On May 30, 1833 the two men pounded each other for an astonishing three hours and six minutes. Both fighters were completely exhausted and, in the 99th round, Simon Byrne collapsed and could not get up. He clung to life for three days before earning the rare distinction of killing a man in the ring and being killed himself in the ring.
Making Boxing Safer
“Boxers die - not as often as they used to, thanks to more stringent safety regulations and medical supervision, and shorter careers, and fewer rounds. But they die nonetheless.” That’s Greg Bishop writing in The New York Times (November 2013).
Using Manuel Velazquez’s research, Bishop notes that “More than 230 boxers died in the 1920s, and 103 died in the 2000s…”
The World Boxing Federation has a set of rules aimed at protecting the health and safety of boxers. Annual medical examinations are a must before professional fighters can get a licence. They are also given a work up prior to and following each fight. If a boxer is knocked out, he may not box or engage in contact training for at least 60 days.
Rules such as these are in place in North America and Europe and still boxers die; the regulations may not be followed closely outside of those jurisdictions.
The Latest Victims
In April 2013, Jonathan Brown wrote in The Independent that “Michael Norgrove was known as a crowd-pleasing boxer – his fights were regular ‘all-action humdingers,’ former club mates recall.”
Zambian-born Norgrove was known as “The Zambezi Hitman.” In only his sixth professional bout he appeared unwell in the fifth round. The referee stopped the fight but Norgrove died in hospital from a blood clot on the brain.
Peter McCabe of the brain injury association Headway told The Independent “the ultimate aim in boxing is to knock your opponent out by repeatedly and deliberately striking their heads. Until this sport is banned, more young lives will be tragically lost.”
Mexican boxer Frankie “The Little Soldier” Leal was carried out of the ring on a stretcher after being knocked out in March 2012. However, he returned to fight again. In October 2013, he was clubbed to the canvas by Raul Hirales in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He died a few days later.
In September 2015, Australian Davey Browne Jnr. and Carlo Magali of the Philippines pounded each other for 12 rounds in a super-featherweight regional title bout. Thirty seconds from the end of the fight in Sydney, Browne took a crashing blow to the head. An eyewitness said “… he was out cold before he hit the floor. The doctor gave him oxygen and an ambulance was there in seconds.” Browne died four days later from brain trauma.
Roman Simakov is killed by a seemingly mild blow in 2011
A Personal Experience
At the private school I attended in England in the 1950s boxing was a compulsory subject.
All boys received instruction in the “manly art of self defence” and had to pair off with someone of roughly the same size in gym class. We were taught to fight by the Marquis of Queensbury rules: no punching below the waist, on the back, or the kidneys; all very gentlemanly and character building. I hated it.
I was selected to fight in the inter-house boxing competition: not because I possessed any pugilistic skills but because I was the only one light enough to qualify for the lowest weight class. My opponent was Billy Marshall. My close friend Billy Marshall. Club-footed Billy Marshall. So, I was supposed to try to pound the crap out of a cripple. Very honourable.
At the end of the first round the referee warned Billy and I that neither of us had scored a point and he wanted to see some aggression unleashed. I must have tapped dear old Billy gently a couple of times because I was declared the winner.
Later, a couple of bigger lads went at it and one was knocked cold and spent three days in hospital. The school finally came to its senses and halted the boxing program; reasoning that having youths bash each other in the head was not a good idea and might have a negative effect on fees collected from parents. It’s a shame the world can’t come to the same conclusion about adults knocking each other senseless.
In November 2013, Russian Magomed Abdusalamov took on Mike Perez of Cuba in a bruising heavyweight contest in Madison Square Garden. Abdusalamov was beaten to a pulp but he was still standing at the end of the 10-round fight. A doctor examined him and detected no neurological damage.
A couple of hours later, Abdusalamov was in a medically induced coma in the Roosevelt Hospital. Brain surgery followed, there were multiple strokes, and his coma lasted for weeks.
Abdusalamov has never regained the ability to walk or speak clearly. Lawsuits are working their way through the courts.
After the Perez-Abdusalamov brawl, Filip Bondy wrote a plea in The New York Daily News to ban boxing: “The damage was done by a legal pounding inside the ring … James Dolan (President of Madison Square Garden, where the fight was held) must understand that he has been the host to something vicious, cruel, and potentially fatal.
“Boxing has seen its time, and thank goodness that primitive era is done.”
The Dangers of Boxing
Should boxing be abolished?
“Death under the Spotlight: The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection.” Joseph R. Svinth, Journal of Combative Sport, October 2011.
“An Obsessive Chronicle of Deaths in the Ring.” Eben Pindyck, New Yorker, December 22, 2015
“Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games: Arrachion and Creugas.” Robert H. Brophy III, The American Journal of Philology, Autumn 1978.
“Reconciling a Sport’s Violent Appeal as a Fighter Lies in a Coma.” Greg Bishop, New York Times, November 20, 2013.
Michael Norgrove: Another Death from Boxing Puts the Sport Back in the Dock.” Jonathan Brown, The Independent, April 8, 2013.
“Francisco Leal Dies of Brain Injury.” Dan Rafael, ESPN, October 23, 2013.
“The General Medical Guidelines for WBF Championship Contests.” Dr. Adam Balogh, World Boxing Federation.
“Perez Speaks; Abdusalamov ‘Stable.’ ” Brian Campbell, ESPN, November 4, 2013.
“It’s Time for New York to Give up the Fight and Ban Boxing.” Filip Dolan, New York Daily News, November 30, 2013.