Boxing in Merced

The risks: Injuries versus social benefits

By Brian Covert and Mike Blaesser

The medical profession versus the sport of boxing: it’s fast becoming the fight of the century.

In one corner are the boxing promoters and prizefighters — past, present and future — defending the sport’s financial and sociological benefits.

“I’ve never seen any boy really get hurt in amateur boxing in all the years I’ve been in it,” said Merced Boxing Club’s Frank Poma. “[T]hey have a cup, headgear and very few of them get hurt.”

Mondo Cavazos of the Home Avenue Boxing Club echoed similar feelings: “They all get hurt out in the streets, not in here.”

The boxers, more intent on training than talking, dismiss the controversy with sentences such as “You have to duck” or “Watch out for the punches.” Said 18-year-old Joe Andrade: “If you watch the punches, you’ll be okay.”

In the other corner is the
California Medical Association (CMA), which is currently calling for the abolition of boxing on grounds that the sport is physically harmful to its participants.

The San Joaquin Valley is home to aspects of this rising controversy as various members of the social science, medical and boxing communities have much to say on the subject of injury or death in the boxing ring.

The medical questions

Dr. John T. Bonner, a Fresno neurosurgeon, backs up the push to abolish boxing altogether. Bonner also stands behind the California Medical Association’s recent push for legislation that would, at the very least, allow ringside physicians to stop a boxing match at any time during the fight if a boxer seems to need immediate medical attention.

The CMA, Bonner noted, is also pushing to establish a nationwide network of intensive research that would be stored in a computerized registry and called up at a moment’s notice, if needed.

“I am sympathetic with the CMA on this,” he said. “I think this is the ideal.”

But Bonner also believes that boxing is here to stay.

“Although I personally think boxing is going to exist no matter what, I think it would be better to have the legislation the CMA has supported concerning physical examination with the boxers, and at various times allowing ringside doctors to control and stop the fights and examine if necessary,” said Bonner.

“I think that should be done,” he said, “but I doubt if we’re going to get rid of boxing.”

Although Bonner has never personally treated a boxer inflicted with injuries, he said he is nevertheless familiar with the neurological dangers of the sport. And therein lies the hidden danger of boxing.

“If my kids get cut in the ring, I just stop it,” said Cavazos. “It’s not worth the trophy.”

“If I see my boy going real bad, I throw the towel in,” said Poma.

What the medical profession is concerned about is not the visual damage that makes coaches like Poma and Cavazos throw in the towel, but the unseen damage that a blow to the head inflicts.

Bonner noted that head injuries are the most commonly suffered injuries in the ring. He said the extent of those injuries could range from mild concussions to severe bruises, from short-term symptoms to fatal injuries or immediate death.

When a boxer receives a blow to the head, the sudden movement causes the brain to slam against the inside of the skull, stretching and snapping blood vessels. The weight of the protective headgear may actually cause more movement and consequently, more damage.

“The most recent injuries we’ve read about have been from blood clots on the brain — blood clots that press directly on the brain and compress the brain,” said Bonner.

The rupture of veins near the brain is one cause of severe blood clotting, said Bonner. Blood clotting and loss of nerve cells can also be caused from “bruises” on the brain.

“You can get bruises from the blows and the brain oscillating back and forth, striking the inside of the skull. The back of the skull is very uneven, very ragged, so when the brain flaps against this area, you often get bruises at the back of the brain.”

Bonner said bruises can “cause scars on the surface of the brain and cause seizures in the future. You lose nerve cell bodies — neurons — and you can end up with intellectual deficits of nerve cells. It can cause bleeding, just from the bruises, and that can interfere with the circulation of the spinal fluid.”

The trade-off question

In one corner is a young student, having problems in school, getting into street fights constantly. In the other corner is a young man who has turned that aggressive energy into rewards in the ring. He’s still throwing punches, but now the situation is more controlled.

A common thread runs through the story of the boxers at the two Merced clubs: most of the young fighters have had problems in school; they used to fight a lot.

If Cavazos is proud of any one aspect of his club, it is that he gets kids off the street and out of fights. He knows about that way of life. He, too, was once a “brawler,” he said.

Poma tells a similar story: “What I do is keep these kids off the streets — they don’t get in trouble.”

But Bonner said the anatomical risks of boxing far outweigh any social benefits a fighter may derive from being off the streets.

Jack Dackawich, a sociology professor at California State University, Fresno, agrees.

“Anyone who’s been with boxing any period of time suffers brain damage, and deformities are very common,” Dackawich said. “Without a doubt, it’s the most harmful of the contact sports.”

A sociological aspect of boxing was touched upon in “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” written in 1964 by the late civil rights leader:

“On June 27 of that year, 1937, Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock to become the heavyweight champion of the world. And all the Negroes in Lansing (Mich.), like Negroes everywhere, went wildly happy with the greatest celebration of race pride our generation had ever known. Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber.”

Dackawich remembers that day well. He grew up, he said, in the white Detroit slums near the black ghettos where
Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis grew up. Dackawich said Louis provided a role model for youngsters who wanted to make it out of the ghettos and onto the road of glory. It's a tradition that continues today.

But that idealized road to glory, Dackawich said, most often turns out to be a dead end for young fighters of all races.

“The vast majority of boxers don’t make a success out of it and most of them end up with serious damage if they stay with it any length of time,” Dackawich said. He estimated that only about 50 percent of the boxers ever make it to the top.

Prizefighting, in its most celebrated form, began as an illegal sport in East Coast cities such as Boston and New York. Dackawich acknowledged that boxers have tended to be from the lowest socio-economic classes since the sport began.

“It started out with the early Irish immigrants, then Italians, Poles, Jews, and more recently, Hispanics and blacks,” he said.

Violence, as a matter of survival, is more acceptable in the lower social classes, he added.

“Kids from that setting have learned in their closest experiences with violence, and they are more prone to going into a violent activity such as boxing. Not only that, but some of them see it as a potential success route, and typically, they come from broken families that haven’t been a good support system for their schooling. And as a result, they are beset with educational deficiencies. Boxing becomes an attractive route to success.”

Dackawich thinks boxing in its current state should be abolished and made illegal as it once was up until around the turn of the century. He admitted, however, that it may not solve the problem of youths growing up in violent subcultures.

The controversy on the dangers in the boxing ring may soon affect local fighters: the reputations of San Joaquin Valley amateur boxers are growing very popular at a time when the CMA is raising its voice the loudest against the sport.

In the meantime, both the medical profession and the boxing field are vying for that one vital element — public opinion — that may decide the final outcome of this controversy.