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Safety in Boxing: Who is Responsible?

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Nick Blackwell entered the ring on 26th March 2016 as the British middleweight champion. He left the SSE Arena on a stretcher, before being taken to a nearby hospital and put into a drug induced coma.

The challenger, and new British champion, Chris Eubank Jr had dominated the contest – leaving Blackwell with a bloodied nose and a grotesque swelling above his left eye.

After 10 viscous rounds, the ringside doctor was asked by referee Victor Loughlin to inspect Blackwell’s damaged eye. Following a brief examination, the bout was called off. 

The aftermath has sparked a debate about safety in boxing, with several reports in mainstream journalism focusing on the referee, and how the fight should have been stopped earlier. 

Indeed, it was a one sided afair, and at times Eubank Jr landed at will as Blackwell was stuck on the ropes. However, Blackwell kept his defences up and would often throw one or two punches back – somewhat justifying the continuation of the fight. Loughlin would have been wary of the fact that this was an important fight for both men, and had to trust his professional judgment. 

Nonetheless, there is a clear case for the the contest ending sooner, but the referee should not share the entire burden. Many fights have followed a similar path, where fighters absorb punishment but manage to keep their hands up and throw back, thus suggesting to the referee that they are fit to continue. Referees walk a thin line between allowing a boxer to have a chance and protecting their health – all without the benefit of hindsight. 

Another topic of debate has been the actions of Eubank Jr and his father, and the responsibility of the aggressor in such situations. Eubank Sr – who was in his son’s corner on the night – instructed Jr to avoid punching Blackwell in the head. Chris Sr made it clear to his son that the fight shouldn’t carry on, and that Blackwell’s health was at risk. Such concern on behalf of Eubank Sr shouldn’t come as a surprise, as his victory over Michael Watson in 1991 saw the loser suffer severe brain damage and subsequent physical disabilities. 

Chris Jr has since backed up this sense of worry in his corner that night, as he has claimed that he eased off on Blackwell as the fight went on. Although the Eubank’s trepidation is a refreshing perspective in what some consider a barbaric sport, it really wasn’t up to them to make a judgment on the health of another fighter. In fact, easing off on an opponent would make a stoppage less likely. The responsiblity most definitely shouldn’t rest at the feet of Eubank Jr, who is quite simply doing his job in the ring.

One key facet of the debate has been largely ignored in the mainstream media – the role of Nick Blackwell’s corner. Whilst the corner team would like to see their man get the win, they too hold a great deal of responsibility in regards to their fighter’s safety. 

The corner are able to have a much closer look at their fighter in between rounds than referees; they have the power to call the fight off by throwing the towel in; and they are able to converse with their boxer to establish if they are fit to continue. These factors, as well as being close to the action at ringside, means the corner team are well qualified to make a decision on whether a fight should be called off. 

What cornerns me is the notion that responsibility rests with one person. Corner teams may well argue that the decision to end a fight is that of the referee. However, they too must look out for the safety of their boxer, and not defer all responsibility to the referee. Likewise the referee must remind himself that the safety of the boxers is his first priority. 

Despite a tragic ending to the night, hopefully their will be a fresh approach to similar situations in the future. I would like to see a reviewing of boundaries for stopping fights, and an acceptance amongst fans and fighters that contests may have to be stopped earlier than they have been in recent times. Furthermore, I hope for a greater sense of a shared responsibility amongst those with the authority to end the contest. Corner teams must ensure that their fighter’s health is their main concern, regardless of their desire to win.

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