Leading Article: Gloves off in the latest boxing bout

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MEN WERE doubtless belabouring each other with their fists back in East Africa when homo more or less sapiens emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The first evidence of boxing as a sport dates from around 1500BC in Crete. The Greeks introduced it into the Olympic Games in the 7th century BC, later combining it with wrestling, and it became an established part of military training in ancient Greece. Initially, soft leather thongs were used to protect the knuckles. Hardened leather later transformed this protection into an offensive weapon - albeit not as offensive as the metal-studded version with which wealthy Greeks and Romans obliged their specially trained slaves to fight, often to the death.

Bare-knuckle fights were the norm in Britain from the first recorded fight in 1681, between a servant of the Duke of Albemarle and a butcher. There were initially no rules: hitting an opponent when he was down was permitted. That changed in the mid-18th century, when Jack Broughton, the reigning champion, drew up some basic regulations which were revised first in 1839 and, with the famous Queensberry Rules, in 1867. Boxing, both professional and amateur, is nowadays tightly controlled. Yet it remains not just violent, but the only sport in which inflicting physical damage on your opponent is the primary aim.

There could be no more poignant reminder of that than the death on Wednesday of 23-year-old super-bantamweight title contender, Bradley Stone, following a fight that was stopped in the tenth round. Once again, as after the damage to Michael Watson in 1991, the call goes up to ban this sport. Although the demand is usually triggered by a fatality or near fatality, the medical case for a ban centres on brain damage rather than death. Compared with many other sports and leisure activities, such as skiing and mountaineering, boxing kills few people. But it damages many. There is undisputed medical evidence that repeated heavy blows to the head cumulatively lead to a condition variously described as pugilistic dementia, chronic boxer's encephalopathy and, more simply, being punch-drunk. Most symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson's disease and senile dementia. Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxer's in history, is a living warning.

After the Michael Watson case, fresh medical precautions were introduced; yet a young boxer has still died. There may now be further calls for protective headgear. Yet that, like gloves, could have the opposite effect, by increasing the amount of punishment that boxers can absorb without reducing the battering effect. Reverting to bare knuckles might, paradoxically, do more good. Short-term damage would increase, and it would not be a pretty sight on television. But there would be fewer punch-drunk ex-boxers being looked after by long-suffering relatives or nursing homes.

There is a social argument, too, for a ban: that boxing is a brutal sport that degrades not just the combatants but spectators, be they at the ringside or watching TV. Boxing enthusiasts dispute the first claim. They see man's desire to fight as something elemental that has been raised to an art in this sport. Libertarians will join them in questioning the state's right to dictate which sports people may enjoy - providing they are not contrary to the common good nor, like dog-fighting, involve cruelty to animals.

This is an issue in which both sides have a good case, but the arguments against a ban are stronger. Every boxer knows that he risks brain damage, just as other sportsmen and athletes risk muscular damage. If a ban were imposed, those determined to box would either go abroad or underground. The urge to regulate and restrain, whether or not reinforced by a predictable misfortune, is very powerful in certain sectors of the community. The key test of whether to accede to it is whether damage is done to those who are not willing participants. In this case it has not. The urge should be resolutely resisted.