Boxing’s endless debate

Filipino Manny Pacquiao knocked out British boxer Ricky Hatton in the second round of their IBO light welterweight world title fight last night in Las Vegas. The short, brutal contest is unlikely to change many opinions about the validity of boxing as a sport.

Pacquiao’s achievement is not in doubt. In 46 fights during a 12 year professional boxing career, Hatton had previously lost only once yet his defeat this time was swift and emphatic. Some commentators, including his trainer, are now calling on Hatton to retire.

Boxing has always provoked strong reactions. Along with one or two less well-known combat disciplines (such as the gruesome UFC), boxing is one of few sports in which an athlete who was super-fit at the start of the event regularly ends up unconscious as a direct consequence of the sporting competition (without any rules being broken or an accident happening). Effectively, the objective for each fighter is to inflict brain damage on the other. 

Amateur boxing, as seen at the Olympic Games, is fairly well-regulated with short bouts, protective head-gear and a scoring system which, while still imperfect, is much more objective than it used to be. The high degree of skill, fitness and bravery required are self-evident. In addition, the stories of amateur boxers who emerge from humble origins are frequently inspirational: Muhammad Ali was unquestionably one of the most important sporting figures of the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, amateur boxing mainly exists as a route into the professional game, which as even a dedicated fan would admit, is an ugly mess. The most recognised international sanctioning bodies are:
- World Boxing Association 
- World Boxing Council
- International Boxing Federation
- World Boxing Organization
- International Boxing Organization

…but there are plenty more at world, continental and national level. That means there are up to five world champions at any one time in each weight category, which obviously devalues the currency. How has this come about? There are several reasons:
- It’s easier to sell tickets (or pay-per view TV subscriptions) for a fight involving a world champion
- Boxers have short, precarious careers and their promoters don’t want to risk their prime assets losing unless there is a lot to be gained
- The administration of professional boxing has always been controversial and highly political

The net result is a professional sport which is largely discredited, poorly understood and (arguably) declining in popularity.

Boxing is not going to go away. The British Medical Association, the professional association for doctors, has called for the abolition of amateur and professional boxing in Britain since 1982 without making much visible progress. Many would argue that abolition would lead to illegal, unregulated fighting, which could be much more dangerous. In defence of the professional sport, big improvements have been made in recent years in medical attention for boxers. 

Every fighter dreams of being able to win a world title and command big money at the box office. They may sometimes be exploited by promoters and hangers-on but ultimately they are responsible for their own actions. Boxing will continue as long as it has an audience. It’s your choice whether or not to watch.

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