Between sanity and vanity
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There is much that is top of mind at the ongoing Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea—Yogeshwar Dutt’s superheroic wrestle, Mary Kom’s return to familiar arc lights, Khushbir Kaur’s exuberance after silver in the 20km walk; and that empty athletics stadium night after night.
Now while boxing headgear is not quite top of mind, it is in the region thereof and gives rise to a question. Why have men stopped wearing headgear in elite competitions but the women still do? Are women’s brains more worthy of protection than those of men? Boxing folk laugh and counter with jokes about how it’s actually about protecting beauty, etc. But boxing headgear, let’s be honest, tends to look after both brain and face.
The answer about the gendered headgear question lies somewhere in between. In March 2013, the International Boxing Association (Aiba)—“amateur” was dropped from the name in 2007—ruled that male boxers will not be allowed to wear headgear in elite international competitions from 1 June onwards.
Headgear first showed up in the Olympic boxing competition in 1984 at a time when the sport was in danger of being banned from mega events. This turnaround, 29 years later, was announced backed by scientific and medical reasoning and rooted in tough, business logic.
The science is compelling: The chairman of the Aiba medical commission, Charles Butler, a ringside doctor himself, has been heard on various platforms referring to a study about the rate of concussions over 15,000 boxer rounds featuring boxers with and without headgear. The rate of concussion for boxers wearing headgear—0.38% of 7,352 rounds—was greater than boxers without headgear—0.17% of the 7,545 rounds.
Protective headgear has made sports like cricket, hockey and ice hockey safer and helped cyclists and motorbike racers walk away unscathed after tumbles and crashes. In full-contact sport, however, there is no clear verdict on whether it reduces injuries. There has, for example, been an increase in cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other concussion-related brain injuries among former American football players (who play wearing helmets). More than 4,500 players sued the US’ National Football League (NFL) over such injuries and in August 2013, the NFL settled the case with a payout of $756 million (around Rs.4,600 crore), the largest award of this kind.
Boxers’ own opinions on headgear differ. Britain’s Amir Khan, Olympic medallist turned pro, wants it back. Indian Olympian Akhil Kumar prefers fighting without it; he says the guard can feel heavy and soak in water doused around a fighter’s head in between rounds. Rule makers say taking away headgear ensures that boxers will not instinctively be able to use their heads as butting rams. Coach Venkatesan Devarajan, an Olympic boxer himself, calls banning headgear a “bad decision” driven by the world body trying to jazz up the amateur game.
If you go with the science and believe that it is safer for boxers to not wear headgear, why must women still wear them? In this case, the women fighters are slotted in with junior and less experienced fighters. Fewer fights, fewer rounds, lesser chances of concussion? It’s all very confusing.
The truth is that boxing is not really sure. It is trying to bridge the gap between amateur and professional, or to use Devarajan’s definition: the boxing of money and the boxing of medals and find its middle ground.
Poonam Beniwal, national champion and a competitive boxer from 1995-2005, summarizes it perfectly. Taking away headgear from elite men is not only about telegenics—putting faces and identities to names in the ring—but also about creating a certain symmetry to the three “formats” of competitive boxing set in motion by the international body in recent years. From 1 June 2013, elite male fighters in all three formats box without headgear.
The new formats aim to keep the best boxers on the Aiba side of the sport—Olympic qualification running hand in hand with earnings—and away from the alphabet soup of various pro-boxing bodies.
What’s on in Incheon forms part of Aiba Open Boxing (AOB), which includes the vast universe of the amateur sport. There is also a pro-style national team franchise competition called World Series of Boxing (WSB) competed over 10 weight categories, leaving boxers open for Olympic qualification. On 24 October, an individual ranking event called Aiba Pro Boxing (ABP) will be launched with qualification berths available for 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Never mind no headgear in WSB or APB, there’s no vest there either. As for those annoying cuts, there’s even a compulsory 3M Cavilon “double barrier” cream that must be applied—twice—before every bout to prevent the skin on a boxer’s face from breaking.
The rule around headgear is in motion and Abdellah Bessalem, Aiba vice-president, told news agency Associated Press: “I don’t think we can go back. It’s impossible to go back.” Like many others, Beniwal, a Sports Authority of India boxing coach at the NSNIS Patiala teaching faculty, who also happens to be Akhil Kumar’s wife, believes that the rule may eventually work its way into the women’s game. Even as more and more girls step into the ring feeling protected by the padding their headgear provides.
The amateur game has until now offered meagre rewards but its devotion to rules keeps its youngest safe. The professional game produces the stars, the biggest single- day pay cheques in the world of sport, the dazzling lifestyles that keeps reeling contenders in, despite blood on the face. The headgear question is boxing’s attempt at finding the right balance somewhere between sanity and vanity.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo.