Boxing: Inadequate rules on weight loss give cause for grave concern

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The Independent Online
NEWS that Spencer Oliver is likely to make a full recovery from the brain injury he sustained at the Royal Albert Hall last Saturday ought not to suggest that everything possible has been done to lessen the perils of boxing.

Medical safeguards put in place seven years ago after Michael Watson was left paralysed following a violent defeat against Chris Eubank were unquestionably critical to Oliver's welfare when he collapsed in the ring after being knocked out by Sergei Devakov in defence of the European super- bantamweight title.

Of course, it is impossible to make the hardest sport entirely safe, but as Oliver is the third fighter to be seriously hurt in a British ring since June last year there is room for even closer scrutiny.

Oliver's relieved manager, Jess Harding, who cannot be held accountable, insists that the 23-year-old from Barnet experienced no problems in making the stipulated super-bantamweight limit of 8st 10lb despite being a few ounces over shortly before he went to the scales last Friday.

However, it is unlikely that Oliver found himself entirely comfortable at the poundage and was, in common with many of his contemporaries, perhaps fighting lower down the weight scale than caution advises.

Acting on the established link between dehydration and brain damage, plenty of people in boxing believe that the British Board's guidelines on weight loss are inadequate. Certainly, no more important issue should have been on the Board's agenda when it met yesterday.

To my mind, it is no coincidence that heavyweights, for whom an appearance on the scales is a mere formality, are seldom involved in the kind of incident that again brought deep anxiety to the ringside last Saturday.

The manager who told me this week of fighters and trainers attempting to cheat on weight was speaking of a matter that should be be addressed urgently by the sport's administrators.

Some of the stories are frightening. In 1990, after a hard contest against Chris Eubank for the World Boxing Organisation middleweight championship that saw him stopped in the ninth round, it was revealed that Nigel Benn was 5lb overweight 48 hours before the weigh-in; this in the week that a communication from the Commonwealth body had warned managers of the dangers associated with dehydration.

If the introduction of "junior" or "super" championships enabled boxers to avoid the weakening affect of trying to come in below their natural weight, the problem has not been eliminated. Responsibility rests with the boxing authorities but an important truth is that the fighters themselves cannot be trusted.

Taken long before big changes in the administration of British boxing, a famous picture shows the former world flyweight champion, Jackie Patterson of Scotland, after being knocked out in the seventh round by Rinty Monaghan. Looking as though just released from a concentration camp, Patterson had spent the night before the contest sitting next to a boiler wrapped in a blanket.

A world-wide decision to move weigh-ins back 24 hours has alleviated the most serious problems in weight making (fighters often enter the ring considerably heavier than they were on the scales) but the damage may already have been done by miscalculation. One fighter admits privately that he got within weight for a title contest only by starving himself for the final two days of preparation and taking a laxative.

The terrible injuries sustained by Gerald McClennan in 1995 when defending the World Boxing Council super-middleweight title against Nigel Benn brought about stricter monitoring of weight before championship contests. What this suggests is that some boxers and trainers are culpable.

As I stated in the aftermath of last week's disturbing experience, some of us who have been around boxing for many years and think it to be the most basic, natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions have been given cause to wonder whether it is worth the candle.

This is not to suggest that Oliver and his associates took chances. But those who do must be punished with the utmost severity.