Every death that occurs in a boxing ring is a death too many. For the family and friends of 25-year-old Scottish boxer Mike Towell, who recently succumbed to injuries sustained during his fight against Dale Evans in Glasgow, the knowledge that he died doing something he loved will likely be submerged by the ocean of pain they are suffering over his loss, with the fact he leaves behind a partner and baby only compounding the tragic circumstances of his death.
I have been writing and commentating on the boxing long enough to understand that it exists in a parallel universe in which those involved willingly substitute fantasy for reality, evidenced in the way we bandy around words like ‘warrior’ and ‘heart’ and ‘durable’ and ‘iron’ (as in Iron Mike Towell), when describing a given fighter’s attributes. This has the unwitting effect of dehumanising the young men who step through the ropes buoyed along by an ocean of pride, discarding the human frailties we all possess, every last one of us, in service to a sport and culture in which to acknowledge them is tantamount to blasphemy.
Writing these words while visiting Los Angeles, where for the past week I’ve been visiting Freddie Roach’s famed Wildcard Boxing Club in Hollywood, a gym that is a magnet for fighters from all over the world, it is hard to comprehend how a sport that has done so much to improve people’s lives can now be on trial within a mainstream that could never come close to understanding it? On any given day here you are privy to ‘ring wars’ — sparring sessions that most fans would happily pay money to watch. Even with the 16oz gloves and protective headgear fighters wear when sparring, the intensity and ferocity involved in two determined and fit young men in their prime going toe to toe can be frightening to behold. The fact it is also exhilirating is evidence of the extent to which boxing taps into something primal in our make-up. It is a sport that exists closer to nature than any other, an honest yet brutal contest of courage, aggression, tenacity, and skill between two evenly matched opponents.
The revelation that Towell had been complaining of severe headaches in the lead-up to, this, his last fight, and that his sparring had been cut short as a result of those headaches, leaves no doubt that serious questions need to be answered over the specific circumstances surrounding his death. Plainly and simply, if he was unable to spar because of a headache the fight should never have been allowed to go ahead. But stopping a fight so close to the date takes a different kind of courage on the part of trainers, managers, and promoters, especially when we consider that ring fatalities are extremely rare relative to the sheer number of bouts that take place up and down the UK on any given weekend — amateur, professional, and white collar. Moreover, injuries in boxing are so common it is rare to come across a fighter who isn’t carrying one than one who is. Yet, even so, a severe headache should always automatically set alarm bells ringing, regardless of how tough, durable, or brave the fighter concerned may be.
Calls for boxing to be banned go back almost as far as the sport itself, and cannot be so easily dismissed. Yes, statistically, there are other sports in which fatalities are more likely than in boxing. This we know. But there is just no getting away from the fact that in professional boxing the primary objective is to render your opponent unfit to continue via repeated blows to the face, head, and body. With the brain the most sensitive and vulnerable inner organ we have, and with the medical evidence inarguable when it comes to the trauma involved in taking a hard blow to the head, there is an element of Russian roulette involved when any fighter gets into the ring. While improvements in the medical facilities and procedures within the sport have been enormous, they can never completely eradicate the danger and risk of a tragic outcome to any fight.
So the question of boxing’s legitimacy is not a medical but an ethical and moral one. The incompatibilty of boxing with the norms of polite society is both obvious and one of its main attractions. There is nowhere on earth more honest than a boxing ring, a place where the human condition is stripped bare of all pretense and distilled into three minute rounds. The sense personal accomplishment in managing to face and overcome the fear attached to walking facing another man in unarmed combat is so monumental the adrenalin rush garnered is addictive for those who do. Fighters exist to experience this rush, to enjoy the sense of glory and pride that accompanies them wherever they go. It is also why poverty and boxing walk hand in hand - why it has always been a sport of the working class, allowing those with nothing to transcend their material circumstances and be something more than those circumstances dictate they should be.
Fighters know and willingly take the risk that come with boxing in the belief it will never happen to them. The call for it to be banned, while it cannot be dismissed on medical grounds, is one that is and will continue to be answered by the laws of nature. For no matter the edifice of civilisation we construct, how far we attempt to raise ourselves above our natural instincts, we can and will never be able to completely escape them. And nor should we try beyond a certain point.
The truth is that as modernity increasingly renders our existence a sterile and sanitised affair, boxing fills a need-both actual and vicarious-far greater than most of us would like to admit.