Nick Blackwell is getting better and boxing is moving on. The coverage of his medically induced coma that followed the fight against Chris Eubank Jr made front-page news in the U.K. but did not become a debate over the existence of boxing.
It would be tempting to reason from this that the sport’s moral standing is secure. That such a serious incident provoked few calls for abolition does prove the weakness of the opposition. Several neuroscientists were vocal but it was noticeable that they were not supported by a broader coalition. It matters when scientists point out the dangers but they sound isolated when they are not supported by prominent figures from other walks of life. To my knowledge, only one politician responded by calling for reform.
The most damaging criticism came from one of boxing’s own. By openly accusing a referee of endangering a fighter’s safety, Chris Eubank, Sr. had, perhaps unintentionally, asked a question of much broader significance: are referees able to fulfil their role as protectors? One of the greatest British fighters of all time was questioning one of the sport’s fundamental tenets. British boxing closed ranks rapidly. While few openly criticised the elder Eubank, very few supported him. Boxers, trainers and promoters queued up to defend Victor Loughlin’s performance because to defend him was to defend the sport. The emphatic refrain was that he had followed the rules.
Peter Hamlyn, the neurosurgeon who operated on Michael Watson, thinks it’s these rules that are the problem. He has argued that eventually “the Boxing Board will lower the threshold in its guidelines to referees.” Chris Eubank, Sr.’s criticism was driven by his belief, shaped by the same tragic experience as Hamlyn, in a lower threshold. More often than not, referees do now act quickly to stop one-sided fights. Yet it is trickier when a boxer is taking heavy punishment but remaining competitive. In this instance, there is not a clear answer. If a boxer is able to continue, is being outclassed and the doctor is content, the referee does not have a strong case for stopping the fight.
The lower threshold is, however, not a precise standard but a vague wish. We already demand a lot of referees; to ask them to judge whether a competitive fighter is at risk of future harm is to ask the impossible. The only threshold that would guarantee safety would be to prevent anyone getting in the ring. Serious injuries will happen because they are a necessary evil for the existence of a sport that can never fully sanitise the violence at its core. Referees must play their part but the accountability is never solely theirs. All of us who take part in, make money from or just enjoy boxing also share in its sins. Denial is always appealing. There is an obvious temptation in taking refuge in the myth that we have succeeded in creating a safe sport and then occasionally carrying out a referee witch-hunt when tragedy strikes. But rules should be changed in order to create clarity, not to ease consciences.