Boxing: Measures that can take weight off boxing's mind

Bob Mee examines the impact of another fight to end in soul-searching
FOR those who saw Spencer Oliver carried unconscious from the Albert Hall, the image is likely to remain for as long as we can remember. Mercifully, the 23-year-old from Barnet is recovering, following surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain. I have seen too many ring tragedies now; whether I like it or not, their sufferings will form what I am.

There was Akeem Anifowoshe, a Nigerian who emigrated to Los Angeles in search of a better life. He collapsed after a world title fight in San Antonio, Texas, in 1991. As he was carried from the ring the locals set up a revolting celebratory chant: "DOA... DOA..." That's DOA as in Dead on Arrival.

Thankfully, he wasn't. I followed the ambulance to hospital and watched Akeem brought in, saw his wife in her own trauma, did my job and waited until there was nothing else to wait for. Akeem recovered after a fashion, but his life fell apart. His marriage ended and he was deported as an undesirable. He returned to Nigeria and died in mysterious circumstances.

There was Michael Watson, who has fought his way back with the grim determination which characterised his ring performances. There was Gerald McClellan, who is blind and deaf. There was James Murray, whose life could not be saved. A few feet from them all, I saw these men collapse. I suspect it takes its toll on us all.

It should also be said, lest it be considered unfairly that boxing's achievement is the sum of its tragedies, that injuries are statistically rare. There were 200 world-title fights last year. In none was there a traumatic injury. Around 700 professional fighters work each year in Britain, some of whom have only two or three contests, while others compete at least once a month. There are five active British professionals with more than 100 fights behind them, "led" by Dean Bramhald, a former hairdresser from Doncaster, who has had 161 in 14 years.

Boxing is comparatively safe. Abolitionists fail because their argument is principally a moral one, and the audience interest has remained high enough to suggest that a great many of us remain sufficiently attracted to boxing to ensure that it remains viable. Maybe the fact that it goes so close to the bone, that it is the fiercest reflection of the life and death struggle, draws us in. But as we must when tragedy strikes in any form, we paw over the details, and seek out explanations.

Nobody knows what caused Oliver's injury beyond the obvious fact that he was hit on the head. His backroom team deny any weight-making problems, but I believe the process by which boxers make weight is the most useful target area for the British Boxing Board of Control.

At present, boxers must weigh in below the relevant championship or match limit 24 hours before the contest, a time gap which is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous. The logic of holding it then is that it gives boxers time to recover if they have struggled to make the weight. It doesn't. It allows them time to put on weight, but according to latest medical opinion not to rehydrate fully. While they may feel strong, if their body comes under physical stress, then they may be at risk. It also encourages them to box in a lower weight category than they should, because they think they have 24 hours in which to recover from the weight-reducing process.

Experiments in the US in 1994 illustrated that the 24-hour weigh-in fails in its most basic aim: to ensure a match in a certain weight category. For example, when James Toney and Roy Jones fought at the 12st super-middleweight limit in Las Vegas in November 1994, both made the weight at the weigh- in, 27 hours before the bout. The Nevada Commission weighed both again on the afternoon of the show - Toney was 13st, Jones 12st 10lbs. The experiment was abandoned, because nobody really knew what to do with its results.

Neurologists say it takes a week to rehydrate. But a weigh-in a week before a fight is pointless. I would suggest that to ensure fighters do not attempt to box in weight divisions below which they can operate safely, weigh-ins should be held at lunch-time on the day of the show - as they used to be. This is radical and not without risk. Its success would rely on a tight monitoring of a boxer's weight in the lead-up to a championship fight.

A serious campaign to educate fighters and trainers on how weight should, and should not, be reduced is also vital. Three weeks ago the WBO super- middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe took weight off in the sauna, directly against the Board's standard advice, after failing to make the weight against the challenger Juan Carlos Gimenez.

Last week, the former three-weight world champion Duke McKenzie admitted that before his last contest, in which he was knocked out in round one, he did not eat or drink for four days. Another champion, Paul Ingle, tested positive for a diuretic following a fight last October and was fined pounds 2,000. The Board accepted his explanation that he took the drug, which cannot be purchased over the counter, to combat a swollen foot and ankle.

If experienced competitors are ignoring guidelines, then whether or not Oliver's injury was weight-influenced boxing has a significant problem to address.