Since 1939 there have been approximately 360 deaths throughout the world as a result of professional boxing and each time there are renewed calls for its abolition.
Supporters of boxing claim that many other popular sports are potentially hazardous and that the nine or ten deaths worldwide each year due to professional boxing are low compared with them. It is further claimed that boxing is organised under strict medical supervision and that if it was banned then unlicensed fights would flourish without such stringent controls and the risks for boxers would be greater.
To claim (correctly) that the fatality rate for boxing is lower than for a number of other sports disguises the fact that injuries in sport usually result from accidents or breaches of the rules, but injuries in boxing arise from the application of the rules. Boxing differs from other sports in that the contestants engage in an activity — fighting which is normally considered to be illegal. Indeed, in the early days of prize fighting the legal position of the emergent “sport” was precarious.
In the old prize ring days the sport survived not only because there were not enough police to subdue it but because it was supported by so many influential people. Indeed, the position was slightly ludicrous, for although the sport was banned by law and scorned upon by the church it was never surprising to see a few church dignitaries or Parliamentarians at the ringside. (Golesworthy. M.  Encyclopaedia of Boxing. 7th Edition. Robert Hale. London, p. 142)
Professional boxing has been legalised in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and most of the United States. But the ability of boxing to flourish in Britain without legal backing is typical of the way that the law can be conveniently ignored when business interests are involved and also how powerless the law can be when confronted with overwhelming public demand.
Bare knuckle prize fights continued until about 1895 and the conditions under which many of them were fought were quite barbaric. Fights often lasted for several hours and prize fighters were shamelessly exploited to provide money for promoters and profits from gambling. In May 1833 James Burke fought Simon Byrne in a contest which lasted three hours and six minutes before Byrne was defeated. He died three days later; Burke was tried for manslaughter but acquitted. Earlier, in 1741, when George Stevenson died in a contest with Jack Broughton, a charge of manslaughter was not brought against the winner but, as Golesworthy points out, Broughton’s backer was the Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II, whose influence was used to override the law.
The use of gloves to protect the hands became increasingly popular towards the end of the last century but little else was done to protect boxers, who continued to take part in very long fights. In 1893 Andy Bowen and Jack Burke fought a contest, wearing gloves, of 110 rounds lasting seven hours and nineteen minutes, which was declared no contest because neither boxer was knocked out.
Gambling has always been an integral part of boxing and this has led to a number of attempts to manipulate the results of contests. The earliest record of a bribe being taken to fix a fight was when George Meggs was beaten by Bill Stevens in March 1761 and admitted that he had accepted money to throw the fight. During the 1920s boxing in the United States was controlled by the Mafia who made large sums of money from gambling. As a consequence many fights were fixed according to the betting and in 1930 the New York State Athletic Commission was forced to introduce the “no-foul rule” which prevented boxers from winning bouts because of being struck low blows. Before this many boxers had lost by fouling their opponents but safeguarded the racketeers’ money because bets were not paid out on fights ending in disqualification. Although fortunes were made by mobsters, promoters and managers in the early days of boxing many professional boxers struggled to earn a satisfactory living even for the few years that their careers usually lasted: Digger Stanley died in poverty in 1919 in spite of being British bantamweight champion in 1913.
The number of bouts fought by some boxers was remarkable: Abraham Hollandersky is believed to have had 1,309 contests between 1905 and 1918; Battling Levinsky fought three contests in one day – 1 January 1915; Tommy Burns defended his world heavyweight title twice in one day on 28 March 1906, against Jim O’Brien and Jim Walker in San Diego. The New York State Athletic Commission was formed in 1920 and the British Boxing Board of Control in 1929 because it was recognised that over-exploitation of boxers could ruin profits. Professional boxers, particularly if they had championship potential, were valuable and needed to be protected from overmatching and unnecessary physical injury. It must also be remembered that as boxing had no legal recognition in Britain concessions had to be made to the pressure of the abolitionists.
Professional boxing in Britain is probably the most stringently controlled in the world because of its precarious legal position and the need to be able to claim to be “safe”. But there has been an anomaly in the operation of boxing booths in fairgrounds for, although the boxers are licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control, the booths are owned by members of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain and there are no checks made on people who try their luck against the professionals.
Racial prejudice has also been an ugly feature of boxing throughout its history. Golesworthy states:
Several notable coloured boxers who might well have become world champions never even got a chance to fight for the title. It is also a well known fact that many of the coloured men who did achieve world honours had to be satisfied with smaller purses than their challengers. (p.59)
Coloured boxers, although eligible for Empire titles, were prevented from competing for British titles until 1947. when the British Boxing Board of Control lifted its ban. Racial tensions were deliberately exploited, to boost attendance at fights, by dubbing white boxers, particularly in the heavyweight division, as “great white hopes” when matched against coloured boxers.
Supporters of boxing would claim that most of the exploitation and barbarity of the early days no longer apply; punch-drunk boxers are rarely seen because of stricter medical controls; mobsters no longer control the betting; racism is not now condoned by boxing’s controlling bodies; boxing champions have chances of earning vast amounts of money. But although controls have certainly improved there are still a lot of problems: the British Medical Association states unequivocally that all forms of boxing are dangerous and that even participation in amateur boxing, which is very strictly regulated. leads to brain damage. Besides brain damage a form of Parkinsonism, with slowing down of movements, difficulty with walking, slurred speech, memory lapses and personality changes – boxers risk cuts and bruises, eye damage and fractures and osteoarthrosis of the hands.
The business interests of professional boxing has led to less stringent controls being applied there than in amateur boxing and, consequently, professional fights are of longer duration and less likely to be stopped because of cuts or knockdowns. The longer the bouts that professional boxers participate in, the fewer boxers are needed to provide an evening’s entertainment. With fewer boxers to pay, the higher the profits for promoters. Gambling remains as prominent as ever in boxing and, although Mafia involvement has been kept in check, bookmakers’ profits are expanding.
Racism and nationalism remain firmly entrenched; white boxers are still regarded as “great white hopes” when fighting coloured boxers and although boxing’s controlling organisations no longer officially support racism they manage to turn a blind eye while such attitudes continue to sell tickets although recently they had to take disciplinary action (because of the risk of being discredited) when two boxers went too far and brawled in a London street over racial abuse each had voiced against the other.
A few top boxers earn enormous amounts of money – but this is true of the elite of any sport. At amateur level and the lower echelons of the professional ranks boxers are not only encouraged, but trained, to risk their health and that of their opponents by engaging in a brutal and dangerous occupation in the hope of earning glory and big purses from trying to injure their fellow workers.
The lack of legal status has not prevented boxing from flourishing. When abolitionists appreciate that any activity, however barbaric or dangerous, can be condoned under capitalism as long as it is profitable then perhaps they will abandon reforms.