While this might seem like an obvious one, the question of how dangerous boxing is is worth exploring. Boxing rules and regulations nowadays are designed to protect fighters, but they can only provide so much protection from the other guy wanting to punch you in the face. It’s unfortunate that many fighters experience severe injury, and others experience long-lasting cognitive effects right into their old age.
In this article we are going to take an unbiased view of the dangers boxing poses to people participating in the sport, as well as review some notable examples of boxers who have experienced some of these injuries.
It’s worth saying that if you’re someone who just wants to spar in the gym once per week, you should still take note of the below, but when we talk about boxers experiencing brain damage and death, we’re talking about extreme cases. We’re not saying you shouldn’t be aware of it, and if you decide that it’s too risky then that’s an entirely understandable position to take, but it’s not something that you should lose sleep over. If you’re an aspiring pro boxer, however, you should be aware that this is a very real thing and one you should take note of.
Yes - boxing is dangerous
Let’s put this to bed right away - yes, boxing is dangerous. Anyone that thinks a sport where you are hit repeatedly in the head by trained fighters isn’t dangerous has probably taken a few too many uppercuts to the chin themselves. Let’s be absolutely clear that when you put yourself in a ring, whether just a sparring session, an amateur or a professional fight, you are putting yourself, your cognitive functions and your long term health at risk.
This does not mean that every boxer who ever takes a punch to the head will be condemned to a life of slurred speech, poor memory and impaired mental function. This also doesn’t mean that every boxer will experience the same kind of after-effects of boxing. You could end up like George Foreman, a boxer who took punishment from some of the hardest hitters ever involved in the sport, and still end up with sharp mental capacity even in your 60s and 70s. You could also end up like Gerald McClellan, a former middleweight champion who after being knocked out by Nigel Benn in 1995 is now 80% deaf, blind, confined to a wheelchair and suffers with memory loss. And this doesn't just go for fighters who get knocked out - even those who go the distance to a decision can suffer long-term effects.
Each individual is different. Your brain and your body is different to everyone else’s, and everyone has limits on how much of a beating they can take. Now, if you’re a defensive master like Floyd Mayweather Jr, this matters slightly less, as you’re less likely to get yourself hit by your opponent’s hardest shots if you’re good at getting out of the way. The fact of the matter is, unfortunately, all it takes is one punch sometimes - and even the most defensively sound fighter can get caught out.
Before we go any further - a reality check
Let’s step back from this for a moment. As I mentioned previously, yes, boxing is dangerous, but it does not mean that every boxer who ever stepped into a ring now suffers long-term brain damage. It does not mean that getting into a ring for a sparring session is going to result in you being taken away on a stretcher.
Most sports are inherently dangerous. If you look at some of the worst injuries that come out of the NFL, from rugby, F1, rally, bike racing, mountain biking, etc - all of these sports have participants who have suffered horrific injury, and even death. Robert Kubica, a Polish F1 driver, was severely injured in 2011 in an accident that left one of his arms partially severed. Ayrton Senna was famously killed in his 1994 crash at Imola.
Danger doesn’t stop at sports. You risk severe injury or death every time you get behind the wheel of your car. You risk severe injury every time you use a kitchen knife, or every time you walk on a tiled floor with wet feet - the risk of hurting yourself is present with almost everything you do.
Does that mean you should lock yourself away and never leave your home again? Absolutely not. Does this mean that you shouldn’t box? Well, as long as you are aware of the risks, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t box as long as you take sensible precautions. Let’s put this into perspective - all the examples we’ve given are professional sportspeople and boxers who do this for a living. If you’re sparring one round once per week in your local gym, you’re not subjected to quite the same level of risk as what’s discussed in this article. It’s still a risk, but it’s probably not as great as you might think.
Has anyone died or suffered brain damage from boxing?
Sadly, yes. There are a few notable cases of boxers dying as a result of injuries sustained in the sport - a very famous one we have discussed in other articles involves Korean fighter Kim Duk-Koo, who died shortly after a 14th round knockout by Ray Mancini in 1982. A more recent example is American boxer Patrick Day, who died four days after a 10th round knockout by Charles Conwell in 2019. In 1947, Jimmy Doyle died hours after being knocked out by Sugar Ray Robinson in a welterweight title fight. It’s estimated that since the Queensberry rules were implemented in the 1880s, roughly 500 boxers have died as a result of injuries sustained during fights.
Severe brain damage is also unfortunately not unheard of - some notable cases of this include boxer Michael Watson, who was knocked out by Chris Eubank in 1991 and as a result of his injuries lost most of his motor skills, including the ability to speak and write. Watson was also confined to a wheelchair. It’s largely thought that Watson’s injuries were made worse by the fact that there was no medical intervention and Watson was not seen to by a doctor for at least eight minutes following the knockout - and it’s worth mentioning that the sanctioning body (the BBBofC) was sued by Watson for this.
Boxing doesn’t necessarily just cause immediate, traumatic injury - it’s thought that the cumulative effect of being punched repeatedly over many years fighting and sparring can cause longer-lasting conditions that afflict fighters well into old age. Joe Louis, for example, suffered with dementia later in life. Sugar Ray Robinson experienced Alzheimer’s disease. Mickey Ward, a boxer famous for his vicious trilogy with ring legend Arturo Gatti, has been diagnosed with what may be CTE, and suffers regular serious headaches many years after he has hung up his gloves.
What are the other long-term negative health effects of boxing?
While the potential negative cognitive effects of boxing are well documented, it can have other long-term repercussions. It’s not unheard of for teeth to be knocked out in a fight, for example. Fighters are required to wear mouthguards, but they don’t always protect against the hardest of blows. Boxing can also cause long-term joint pain, hastening conditions like arthritis which can come from repeatedly being hit and having to move around.
It’s also worth considering the bodily injuries that boxers may experience - and when you’re doing something that can cause as much damage as boxing can, you can expect to receive your fair share of bodily injuries. Whether this is broken hands, broken ribs, internal bleeding - all of this is unfortunately feasible when you get into the ring.
It’s important now to note that the above has been pretty well documented by the commissioners and sanctioning bodies of the sport. While we’ve established that boxing absolutely has inherent risks that aren’t going to go away no matter how many precautions you take, there are precautions and rules in place to ensure the safety of fighters. Referees are trained to spot when a boxer is taking undue punishment and to stop the fight. A very famous example of this is the famous 12th round KO of Pernell Whittaker by Julio Cesar Chavez, when Whittaker was knocked down, got up, but the referee felt him unfit to continue the fight (a fight that he was clearly winning) with seconds to go until the final bell. This shows that once a referee feels the boxer is unfit, he will stop the fight.
Amateur boxing is even more strictly regulated, and goes even further in terms of rules established to protect fighters. For example, the AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) specifies that if a fighter is knocked out (and this can be so much as failing to get up from a 10-count in time, or even the referee determining the fighter is unfit to continue), the fighter is not allowed to box or even train in the gym for a predefined period (usually four weeks.) Boxers are also required to go through a strict medical screening process, which involves an ECG and lab tests. A ringside doctor conducts a physical examination prior to each fight and if they feel the fighter is not fit to box, they will not allow the fight. If a fighter experiences an injury, there are specific procedures that must be followed to ensure the boxer’s health, including immediate admission to hospital and a requirement to be examined by a neurologist before being allowed to fight again.
None of this, however, takes away from the fact that a boxer risks severe injury when they get into a situation where someone else wants to punch them in the head. As we mentioned, though - you’re also risking severe injury every time you play a game of rugby, every time you drive your car and every time you walk out of your front door. It’s up to you what kind of risk you’re willing to take, and unless you’re a pro boxer who’s planning to embark upon a 50 fight career, and as long as you take sensible precautions, it’s not likely that you’ll experience the kind of severe injury we’ve discussed in this article.
Hopefully this was helpful for any aspiring boxers out there - if you liked this one we have lots of other boxing content to share. Check out some of our other articles!
This article is part of our Boxing Info series.