Why boxing and cage fighting should be banned – but won’t be

More than two decades after the World Medical Association called for a ban on boxing, knocking a person senseless is still condoned, even celebrated. EPA/Christian Charisius

The death of Queensland professional boxer Braydon Smith last week has re-ignited the debate over boxing as a sport in this country. The 23-year-old collapsed 90 minutes after completing a featherweight bout in Toowoomba on March 14 and did not regain consciousness before his life-support was turned off last Monday. The Australian Medical Association used the case to renew its call to ban boxing.

Boxing Queensland president Ann Tindall responded by saying that the sport is no more dangerous than other contact sports. Braydon’s death was a “tragic accident".

Boxing is dangerous. Boxers face a considerable risk of brain injury every time they step into the ring.

The evidence is not disputed. Highly influential for the supporters of an outright ban was the World Medical Association’s 1983 statement at its World Medical Assembly calling for such a ban. An article six years later in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled Why physicians should oppose boxing: an interdisciplinary history perspective, was equally damning.

Boxing authorities responded by mandating shorter bouts and prescribing strict weight divisions. Protective headgear is now required for all organised non-professional competitions.

The appeal of some modern combat sports is uncomfortably reminiscent of gladiatorial contests at the Colosseum. AAP/Tiberiu Ionescu

An allied phenomenon has reared its head in the Australian sporting landscape. For the last decade, American pay TV has been screening the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Drawing worldwide television audiences, this form of virtually unrestrained human combat is drawing great interest in Australia.

The Australian Fighting Championship was held in Melbourne last weekend after the new state Labor government lifted the ban on “cage” fighting or mixed martial arts (MMA) events. Western Australia is now the only state in Australia to ban cage fighting.

Australian legislators have been reluctant to ban MMA entirely, probably because they don’t wish to be seen as evoking a “nanny” state.

Consent does not alter the consequence

Opponents of bans point to other sports that have a high risk of fatalities, such as horse racing, skydiving, motor sport and surfing. The problem for such advocates is that boxing and cage fighting share a unique characteristic: participants set out to “stop” their opponent, a euphemism for the infliction of harm that renders opponents unable to continue fighting. Knocking them unconscious is the ultimate “stop”.

A person arriving on Earth from another planet would find it difficult to reconcile different outcomes from the same scenario: two people throwing punches at each other with great force. In a boxing ring or cage, hundreds of onlookers cheer them on.

The same two people the following week outside a nightclub attacking each other with the same degree of force would be arrested by police, would spend the night in a lock-up and would be penalised with a fine in the magistrates court the following morning.

We explain the legal difference thus: the former involves the consent of both of the participants, and the latter probably does not (even if both protagonists had agreed to “step outside”). But the distinction would be lost on an alien observer.

The National Committee on Violence in 1990 weighed into this debate when considering the means by which Australians could reduce the levels of violence in our society. The authors of the report stopped short of recommending an outright ban on boxing, although a minority report recommended a review by the appropriate medical and sporting bodies regarding the control of boxing and its ultimate elimination as a sport.

Is it civilised to celebrate aggression?

Given its history, its Olympic and Commonwealth Games status, that it involves consenting adults, and the allure it has for millions of fans, there will be no change to the legal status of boxing in the foreseeable future.

Medical specialists and the mild-mannered among us might have hoped that the sport would have declined in popularity by now, either because of the number of deaths and brain injuries it causes, or through its reputation (especially in the US) for corruption. However, it appears to be as popular as ever. The tragic death of young Braydon Smith might, once again, challenge some participants to reconsider their pastime, but it won’t be the state that says that they have to stop it altogether.

Cage fighting elevates these concerns to another level entirely. The gladiatorial battles that drew the masses in the first century to the Roman Colosseum were a reflection of the cruel society of the day. One might question, watching the UFC channel and any other cage-fighting event, how much more civilised we have become in the intervening two millennia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, himself a well-known pugilist in his Oxford days, in 2010 called for a “kinder, gentler polity".

We should heed Abbott’s words, not only because of the dangers such fighting poses for its participants, but for the way in which it tends to de-sensitise us to the deliberate infliction of harm and to normalise aggressive behaviour in the minds of us all, especially our youth.

While criminologists may stop short of linking organised violence to the more than 400,000 assaults reported each year in Australia, cage fighting has no place in contemporary society.