November 1982 was a lousy month for boxing. On the 18th, South Korean lightweight Kim Duk-Koo had died following a brutal fight with then-champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in Las Vegas. And eight days later heavyweight champion Larry Holmes bludgeoned a badly overmatched Randall "Tex" Cobb for 15 rounds in a fight announcer Howard Cosell called "as brutal a mismatch as I think I've ever seen." All of sudden the sweet science seemed indefensible, a relic from a barbaric and more violent age.
Less than two months later, boxing woke up to an existential catastrophe. In the January issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, numerous doctors and medical professionals, citing scientific studies along with the recent death of Kim Duk-Koo and the travesty of Holmes vs. Cobb, called for a ban on boxing. Still reeling from its calamitous November and facing a public relations nightmare, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) responded with an absurdity: From that point on, the group declared, all amateur boxers, including those fighting at the Olympics, would be required to wear headgear. At the time it seemed like the best solution to an intractable problem: If the public was losing its taste for boxing's brutality, boxing would respond with a humanizing solution. The problem was their solution was merely a cosmetic one, a public relations move designed to cover up a problem rather than solve it. Surely no one could complain that boxing wasn't doing enough to protect fighters when boxing was now forcing fighters to wear foam padding around their faces. Headgear looked safe so it must be safe, science and humanity be damned.
Today, more than 30 years after the first Olympic boxers donned protective headgear (at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles), we can happily report that one of boxing's greatest self-delusions is no more. Yesterday in Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee executive board declared that the IOC would not stand in the way of a 2013 AIBA decision to remove headgear from amateur boxing and therefore boxers at this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will not be wearing headgear.
Their reasoning was simple and decent and rational and measured and based on research and statistics, everything the AIBA's panicked decision back in the 80s was not. "AIBA provided medical and technical data that showed the number of concussions is lower without headgear," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said yesterday. "They have done a lot of research in the last three years. The rule will go ahead for Rio."
The data Adams spoke of came primarily from two studies published in 2013 by the AIBA and the British Journal of Sports Medicine, both of which found that headgear not only doesn't decrease the chance of concussions and lasting brain trauma in fighters; it increases it.
In the AIBA study, Charles Butler, the chairman of the association's medical commission, studied 15,000 boxers, half of whom had competed with headgear and half of whom had competed without. He found that in the 7,352 rounds that took place with boxers wearing headgear, the rate of concussion was 0.38 per cent, compared with 0.17 per cent in the 7,545 rounds without headgear. The study found that headgear's protective padding can cause extra jarring to fighters' heads, give them a false sense of security, and make it more difficult to see punches coming, all of which can lead to brain damage.
"There's no evidence protective gear shows a reduction in incidence of concussion," Butler said. "In 1982, when the American Medical Association moved to ban boxing, everybody panicked and put headgear on the boxers, but nobody ever looked to see what the headgear did."
Butler's research was backed up by a concurrent study conducted by the British Journal of Medicine, whose research determined that there was "no good evidence that mouthguards and helmets ward off concussion." While researchers agreed that such precautions could help prevent often-serious facial cuts and head injuries (the introduction of headgear at the 1984 Olympics reduced both the number of lacerations and the number of fights referees stopped due to injury), they found "no good evidence that they can help prevent concussion, and paradoxically, they may even encourage players to take greater risks."
It turns out that just like those giant pillows planted on boxers' hands in the late-1800s by worried promoters looking to make their sport more acceptable to a "civilizing" world, headgear has been giving fighters a false sense of security all along, convincing them through now-longstanding tradition that headgear was not only keeping them from getting cut (both during fights and while sparring in the run-up to fights) but protecting them from brain trauma as well.
It was all just another lie agreed upon in a sport lousy with superstitions, another medical mass delusion marring the good name of fighting, like weight-cutting and abstaining from sex before fights. Another fantasy mercifully swept into the dustbin of history.
Still, for those hoping that yesterday's announcement by the IOC would be signaling a clear and immediate end of the dark ages and the beginning of a new era of enlightenment, we have bad, but hardly surprising, news. As of right now the AIBA's ban on headgear in amateur fights and at this summer's upcoming Olympics only extends as far as male heads. For now women fighters will continue to fistfight the old-fashioned way: with a giant, blinding delusion fastened to their vulnerable heads.
The ABIA's reasoning, according to group President Ching-Kuo Wu, is simple: There just hasn't been as much research done on the effects of headgear for women boxers as for men. "We have to do this step by step," Wu said. "Once everything is proved … then we can start to have some test and consider it in future for women."
So just sit tight, ladies. We'll get to you one of these days.