LEADING ARTICLE: Boxing: the final blow?

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The Independent Online
On Friday night a man was pummelled to death watched by hundreds of people, including rows of black-tie diners and crowds of chanting drunkards. As he fell to the ground, a riot broke out, and several members of the audience smeared their chests with the dead man's blood.

With concern visibly mounting with each new death or maiming, it is difficult to believe that boxing can survive unscathed. The outright banning of boxing would be hard to justify in the face of the enthusiasm of the boxers and their audiences, but those who support the sport should think carefully about the price of their continuing fun.

The dead man, James Murray, was a consenting adult. He knew he faced pain and injury, and risked brain damage or death, but he walked into a boxing ring nevertheless. High risk in itself is not enough to justify banning someone from doing something - so long as they are aware of exactly what the dangers are. But boxing is not just one more dangerous sport like mountaineering and motor racing, where the aim is to achieve something in spite of the risk of injury. In boxing, injury itself is the objective. The very aim of each move is to harm - to punch a man so hard that he can't stand up again.

Boxing's enthusiastic audience - though distressed by the weekend's events - will defend the sport to the hilt. It is a highly skilled encounter of attack, feint and counter-attack, spotting the opponent's weaknesses and disguising your own. It is a test of immense bravery and of physical endurance under round after round of beatings.

But no matter how much you admire the skill of the fighters, or how much you romanticise the story of each fight, the fact remains that these are two men trying to inflict serious injuries upon each other, and far too often succeeding. The question for boxing's advocates is whether the positive side of the sport justifies the negative, or whether elements of the game should be sacrificed to make it safer.

There are several possibilities. The art and skill of the ducking and diving would be preserved in a three- or five-round fight. Even a 10-round fight, rather than the present 12 rounds, would reduce the chance that exhausted boxers will receive damaging blows to the brain. It is true that these kinds of reforms would remove the test of endurance involved in fighting to the bitter end - but that may be a necessary sacrifice. Another possible change would be to outlaw punches to the head. Again, this would alter the sport in a fairly profound way.

As yet there is little sign of waning support for boxing. Yet the outcry is growing tangibly with each new tragedy. After watching 11 championship fights in the past 10 years end in serious brain damage or death, it must be time to change the nature of the sport - what would be lost is not worth people dying for.

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