This story is over 5 years old.


"Tonight We Made History" – Meet the Disabled Boxers Fighting For Paralympic Recognition

The Sweet Science is currently excluded from the Paralympic Games, but the Adaptive Boxing Organisation – who recently held their inaugural fight night in Warwickshire – are determined to change that.
All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

"I was involved in a car accident when I was three years old," says Sean Bramley as he interlaces his tattooed fingers. "My back was broken from the T6 to the T10 vertebrae and my spinal cord was severed – I'm paralysed from the chest down. There are things I can't do because of my disability, that's a fact, but when other people's judgement and perceptions limit me that's different. I can fight, I want to fight, so I'm going to fight."


The 25-year-old from Leicester was competing in the inaugural Adaptive Boxing Organisation (ABO) fight night at Rugby College in Warwickshire. The first competitive event of its kind for wheelchair and amputee boxers, participants had travelled from as far afield as Italy and Brazil to be involved.

Rafael Rodrigues was in attendance alongside coach Rocian Gracie, progeny of the legendary martial arts family, whose Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym he trains at in Sao Paolo. "We've crossed the ocean to be here," says the 27-year-old. "I've been on a three-month camp ahead of this fight. I want to write my name in history."

A T10 paraplegic with full use of his upper body, limited core movement and paralysis of his lower body and legs, Rodrigues ultimately dreams of participating in mixed martial arts bouts. He has been training at Gracie's academy for six years and honing his boxing skills for four years beside Angel de Oliveira, son of Servílio de Oliveira, the first Brazilian to win an Olympic boxing medal.

The Italian team, which included the event's sole female fighter, Erika Novarria.

Boxing is currently excluded from the Paralympic Games as it's considered too difficult to codify. The ABO's aim is for inclusion by 2024. To get there, it needs to first be recognised as a sport by the International Paralympic Committee. This involves having a written constitution, filing financial accounts for three years and developing a long-term strategic business plan, among a slew of other administrative hurdles. Only then can the sport apply to be in the Paralympics, at which stage it will need to show that it is widely and regularly practiced in 32 countries and on at least four continents.


Under the ABO's codification, wheelchair bouts take place over three three-minute rounds with fighters wearing head guards and 12oz gloves. There are six weight divisions and a points system, ranging from 1.0 to 4.5, ranking disability based on mobility and trunk movement. As is often the case in other forms of boxing, matchmaking is a challenging process.

READ MORE: Is it Time for the Olympics and Paralympics to Merge?

In the ring the contests can be brutal. With footwork removed from the equation and shorn of the opportunity to hold, fighters raising their gloves to defend themselves for too long become sitting targets. Attack is the only alternative form of defence and, as a result, bouts swing back and forth in a pendulum of frantic exchanges.

Rodrigues was fighting Jonathan Spinelli of Italy and, under the halogen lights of the sports hall, the Tuscan wilted in the face of a formidable opponent. A series of heavy blows from the Brazilian forced an eight count within a minute of the first round, before the referee stopped the fight when another succession of jarring blows left Spinelli visibly distressed.

The Brazilian fighter Rafael Rodrigues

* * *

The ABO was founded by Colin Wood, a complex character who has been promoting the sport's cause for the past decade. Originally from Woolwich in London, Wood has a degenerative eye condition which means he is slowly going blind. The driving force behind the event, on the night he flitted between stage-management, repairing and adjusting equipment and occasional forays into the ring to laud the competitors.

"The bullshit has been the biggest challenge," says the 44-year-old former rugby league coach. "People say they've got a big heart, that they support what we're doing, but mostly they're full of shit. These kids have been told their whole life what they can't do, now I'm telling them what they can. It's about inclusion; we're doing this for disabled people around the world."


In the night's first amputee bout, Dario Ercolano from Livorno took on Oxford's Luke Milligan. The fight almost didn't go ahead after disagreements between the English and Italian camps at the weigh-in. Ercolano was competing with a blade on his right leg from above the knee, while Milligan wore two prosthetic lower legs adorned with grim reaper tattoo effect. The Italian's blade weighed 10lb, taking him above the agreed lightweight category, while his opponent remained below 135lb in his carbon fibre prosthetics. Despite both sides threatening to pull out, it was eventually agreed that their respective appendages would not be included in the fighting weights.

Ercolano takes on Milligan in a fight that almost didn't take place.

When the fighters stepped between the ropes the action was frenetic. Both were rocked in the first round as they took turns delivering a succession of ferocious combinations. As the fight wore on it was the younger Milligan who started to dominate, flooring his opponent three times as the unrelenting pace caught up with Ercolano.

Erika Novarria was the only female fighter in attendance and had flown over from Milan, even though organisers were unable to find a suitable female opponent. The I.T. consultant boxed prior to losing her right leg below the knee in a motorbike accident in 2009 and took up adaptive combat two years ago. "In Italy they won't let disabled people fight, it's impossible to get a license," said the 27-year-old. "To come here and see that it is possible makes you dream. This is a special day."


READ MORE: The Story of Paralysed Former Boxing Champion Paul Williams

At times the event ran less than smoothly. The wheelchairs used for the fights were custom built by Wood with cambered wheels, anti-tip and a variety of belts, straps and buckles. Even so, they struggled to endure the rigours of combat sport, with repairs being made between, and sometimes during, fights. A number of those involved expressed their frustration with the equipment and the resulting delays in getting into the ring, having prepared themselves both physically and mentally.

Nad Adbdoolakhan describes himself as an "actor/model who does a bit of security". He was born with phocomelia resulting in a left-arm much smaller than his right and, in lieu of a suitable disabled competitor, the 31-year-old from Cambridge took on local able-bodied fighter JP Withers. Kept at bay by a meticulous jab and mercilessly countered with a succession of crushing body shots, Withers was forced to retire on his stool at the end of the second round, paramedics entering the ring to apply an oxygen mask as he struggled to regain his breath.

Nad Adbdoolakhan took on and beat able-bodied fighter JP Withers

Bramley lost his fight against friend and fellow Leicester Tigers wheelchair basketball teammate Danny Higgins. But when the lights had gone down and the ring was being dismantled around him he remained sanguine. "Disabled people have physical limitations, but what we're trying to tackle are the mental ones – both their own and other people's. For some people there will be few better ways of dealing with the stress and trauma of becoming disabled than getting in the ring.

"It's my life goal to show what can be done… tonight, we made history."