Boxing administration is called into question after fatalities, but if the sport is to survive fighters will have to bear greater responsibilit y

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The Independent Online
A worrying implication of new safety measures introduced by the British Boxing Board of Control yesterday is that many professional fighters choose foolisly to ignore the perils of dehydration.

The Board's decision to call for random appearances on the scales springs from the knowledge that, despite repeated warnings, boxers world-wide continue to take alarming risks with the potentially dreadful effects of dramatic weight loss when preparing for championship contests.

That most tragedies occur in the lighter divisions may be explained partly by the effort of staying beneath natural weight in order to secure championship opportunities.

Significant in this respect is that while the results of heavy blows to the head are evident in Muhammad Ali's sad condition, and Joe Louis died miserably before his time, more than 30 years have elapsed since a heavyweight lost his life as the result of injuries received in the ring.

When fatalities happen, boxing administration is inevitably called into question, but if the sport is to survive into the next millenium fighters will have to bear greater responsibility. "They need to be more honest with themselves," Henry Cooper, the former heavyweight champion, said on television this week.

As there are plenty of examples historically of men barely being able to stand up on the scales, it is inexcusable when fighters today abuse the advantage of weighing-in at least 24 hours before a title contest which from now on will be mandatory throughout British boxing.

Announced at a pound inside the super-middle limit of 12st for a title contest against Roy Jones in Las Vegas earlier this year, James Toney agreed to be weighed again by Marc Ratner of the Nevada State Athletic Commission shortly before entering the ring. Heavier by 19lb, he had not regained the strength lost in reaching the stipulated limit and was easily beaten.

The Board are to be commended for making dehydration a priority issue but little confidence can be held in the tentative proposal to call off championship bouts unless both contestants achieve stipulated weight targets during preparation.

An immediate conclusion is that even the threat of a fight not taking place would be unacceptable to the television networks who fund the sport, and interfere seriously with the world title prospects of British boxers other than those at work in the heavyweight division.

When the Board's general secretary, John Morris, said yesterday: "There is a great deal to be considered, but I think that it [a report drawn up by an independent panel of neurosurgeons] will make sense to anyone who is prepared to look to the future of our sport," he may have been thinking internationally.

This applies probably to the sophisticated Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans all British boxers will be required to take at the risk of losing their licence.

It may be thought that the Board have not gone far enough in addressing the perils inherent in a sport that has come under fresh attacks since the death of James Murray two weeks ago in Glasgow, but there is always the problem of legality. Preventing a boxer from going to the ring on the grounds that he is not sound medically is not as simple as it may sound.

However, recommendations that will be put to licence holders at the Board's next annual general meeting are at least a step in the right direction.

A big problem for the sport's administrators generally is that they are always coming up against market forces and that extravagant television presentation persuades viewers to suppose that they are watching just another form of cartoon violence.

Boxing is nothing of the sort, as a colleague once realised when first watching the sport live. "I didn't realise just how hard professional fighters hit," he said. "The terrifying impact is lost on television."

It is in that context that professional boxing considers nervously the understanding that there are sure to be further tragedies. No matter how much is done to ensure that fighters get the best care possible, there does not seem to be a way of protecting them from themselves.

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