Arguments against professional boxing are usually based on medical or ethical premises. There is little doubt that competing in boxing or other combat sports involve some level of health risk. However, medical research does not provide unconditional or unquestionable proof that the health risks of boxing are significantly greater than in other full contact sports such as ice hockey or American football (see studies by Bianco et al., 2013, Gessel et al., 2007, Loosemore et al., 2007 and Viano et al., 2005).
Ethically, the management of these risks is a matter of consent. As stated in LFHV’s manifesto, when men and women enter into boxing matches or engage in sparring, it is not without expecting to be hit in certain ways and with specific degrees of force. In other words, boxers consent to these “violent” acts of fighting. This holds true for both AIBA boxers and professional boxers. However, there is an important distinction between AIBA boxing (e.g. Olympic boxing) and professional boxing.
While AIBA boxing, like sport in general, is based purely on a meritocratic principle; athletic achievement alone should decide who the champion is, and the competition should (at least in principle) be open to everyone. This is the case in AIBA boxing and most other professional sports. Through European, Asian, African, American and World Championships, you have to qualify to compete in the boxing event of the Olympic Games. However, in professional boxing this meritocratic principle is absent. The reigning champion does not automatically face the number one contender in their weight division. Their opponent is often decided by a number of factors, such as which opponent can generate the most commercial interest and revenue, or who the champion (or their management team) sees fit to fight. In professional boxing, athletic performance is not the only criteria, but is just one of many other influencing factors. In this sense, professional boxing is not organized in the same way as other elite sports.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mark Turley – the author of “Journeymen”, states: “People assume boxing is a sport, and it isn’t. It is a business”. In his book, he describes the story of journeymen in professional British boxing. These are modern-day boxers who lose professional fights for a living. For every young boxer with an impressive fight record, there are at least a dozen journeymen lurking in the shadows. The implicit understanding is always that the journeyman is not fighting to win. Journeymen in professional boxing exist to help build impressive winning statistics of fighters who boxing promoters are looking to turn into ‘the next big thing’. Consequently, should the journeyman happen to win, boxing promoters might stop booking him/her, meaning they might lose their livelihood as a professional boxer. For instance, British journeyman Johnny Greaves fought 100 times in his career. He only won four of his fights. In order to survive as a journeyman, professional boxers like Greaves must learn to fight and lose without getting hurt. As Greaves states when interviewed, “There is a way to lose, believe it or not. You can lose well, or you can lose badly”. Losing badly means being knocked out in a fight; a knock out means that the journeyman is not allowed to fight for four weeks, which could cost him much-needed income. Knockouts also imply greater risk of head injuries, damaging the career as a professional journeyman.
The entertainment logic and commercial principles of professional boxing makes this part of professional combat sport more showmanship than true sporting competition, at least when comparing it to the AIBA boxing based on the principles of the Olympic Movement. Unsurprisingly, there are no journeymen in Olympic boxing.
Discussing the ethical differences between sport-based fighting and violence, the journeymen of professional boxing represent something of a grey area. Journeymen can fight as frequently as once a week, and while many appear to successfully manage a career in losing fights, this aspect of the sport has produced some brutal tragedies. Deaths in the ring, or shortly after fights, have long been a part of professional boxing. While deaths also have occurred in Olympic-style boxing, these are, alongside serious injuries, more frequent in professional boxing (see Gems, 2014 for an historical overview). When journeymen are fighting more regularly than other professional boxers are, it stands to reason that their risk of developing traumatic brain injury is higher, simply because most sport injuries occur in game/competition scenarios.
While professional journeymen consent to being hit, just as any other boxer does, the competition is not always fair and their boundaries are not always respected. In this sense, their fights do not always constitute mutually respectful competition. The journeymen’s stories are often purposefully ignored, yet they represent the reality of the boxing business. Is it fair competition when a champion-to-be faces a boxer who knows he is booked to lose? When uneven fighters are matched against each other in professional boxing, it is problematic because it poses an increased health risk for the journeymen. These practices also challenge the notion of professional boxing as ‘sport’, because the match-making appears to be based more on commercial interests than on athletic achievement, skill and performance. Yet the practice of using journeymen to advance the careers of up and coming fighters is widely accepted as a part of professional boxing.
Writing this post, my main point has been to draw attention to these ethical, and sporting distinctions between professional boxing and AIBA (Olympic) boxing. My experience as an Olympic style competitive boxer is that generally, people have little knowledge of these differences, although they have large-scale consequences for the athletes participating in these different forms of competitive boxing. For me, Olympic boxing represents a sport in line with the LFHV campaign and manifesto, while professional boxing is just as much entertainment and business, as it is sport. More research is needed on the ethical and moral implications that the use of journeymen has for professional boxing. There is also a need for knowledge about how the frequent fighting patterns of journeymen – as well as their intention to lose – relates to health risks in the ring. On that note, I would like to end this text with a quote on the darker sides of professional boxing by the American author Thomas Hauser:
“The business of boxing… is the red light district of professional sports, an area marked by greed and corruption, rife with shifting alliances and private wars; a world where promises take funny bounces, and one is best to heed the referee’s warning – ‘protect yourself at all times’” (Hauser, cited in Heiskanen, 2012: 44)
Originally published on lfhv.org