LEADING ARTICLE: Why we buy fewer rounds

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On Saturday night, the public battle for victory in the boxing ring became another sort of struggle, this time in the terrible privacy of the operating theatre. After his 10 rounds with Nigel Benn, the American Gerald McClellan was fighting for his life.

Despite this young man's agony, it will not help to be po-faced about the weekend's events. If boxing were not so attractive it would not have survived this long. An estimated 12 million people watched the fight on television. At its best, boxing is supremely dramatic, testing the wills and physical resilience of two individuals, with whom the spectator can (in comfort) identify. Although it is violent - far more so than the cameras ever manage to convey - great boxers are also athletes capable of precision and subtlety. Boxing speaks to a human need to experience physical combat at its most direct.

None of this, however, will still renewed appeals for boxing to be banned and even the most avid fan will have recoiled in horror from the outcome of Saturday's spectacle. Should something more be done?

There is no doubt that those who favour a ban have more logic on their side than those who argue that boxing is no more dangerous than other sports; that banning it would force the sport underground and that a ban would be a violation of individual freedom.

The first two arguments are spurious. Boxing is not like, say, rugby or football. The objective of a boxer is to knock his opponent out. Getting knocked out is bad for your health - conceding a goal is not. Nor is there evidence that a ban on boxing would lead to an explosion of dangerous underground prize fighting. Stripped of the big money, most boxing would die out. What remained would be a rump, conducted in disused warehouses for small money, like cock-fighting or pitbull baiting.

The third argument, however, is more serious. Boxers are not forced to fight, nor are they duped into it. They do it because they want to. Those who watch them enjoy the sport and harm no one else in the process. Although there are self-destructive acts which the law seeks to prevent, such as the possession of dangerous drugs, these cases are rare in the domain of sport. We do not ban mountaineers from Ben Nevis in the winter "for their own good", nor pot-holers from dangerous caves - and we are right.

The occasions on which society seeks to restrict the individual should be kept to the smallest possible number.

It may be that the Ben-McClellan fight will prove a turning point in this argument. That a fight judged to have attained the peak of sporting excellence and conducted according to the most up-to-date arrangements for medical support should have inflicted such a devastating injury lends weight to the abolitionist case.

The only effective response that the boxing authorities can make, short of throwing in the towel, is to take serious steps to make professional boxing less lethal - for example, by drastically reducing the number of rounds, as is the case in the amateur sport.

This would significantly reduce the risk of substantial brain damage. It would also significantly reduce the spectacle and the earnings of those involved. It is, however, short of abolition, the only response to the fate of Gerald McClellan that stops short of hypocrisy.