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Injuries in women's Boxing


Punch in womens boxing

Русская версия


I can understand people who try to talk females out of boxing because we run a risk of injury. And I can understand, but not agree with, people whose thousand or so years of social conditioning make them think that boxing is "unladylike". They think that women should stay in nice, graceful sports full of artistry and music... like figure skating...

Boxing is one of the most dangerous sports. Whenever two boxers step into the ring to compete, they accept a risk of bloody or even broken noses, swollen lips, bruised ribs or concussions. Broken hands, ribs, jaws and cheekbones have been recorded in women's professional fights among novices and veterans, contenders and champions alike. Of its very nature, boxing is going to hurt!

Some who dislike the idea of female boxing have a problem if people pay to see women get battered in public. They say that women's boxing has no place in a society that should be coming to grips with issues of violence against women. They would protect misguided members of the "gentler sex" from injuring ourselves while attempting to follow the mens' lead in a violent sport.

So, there may be two aspects of injuries in women's boxing that we should talk about.

One is the same issue as for the men. How can we reduce the chance of serious injuries by proper training and supervision of women's boxing?

The other is unique to women's boxing. It's the part where society says that it is all right for men to batter each other in public competition, but that there is something intrinsically wrong if women do the same thing.

It is because boxing hurts that it has been said to "build character" in men. Is this inappropriate for women? I am feminist enough to reject the paternalistic view of women's boxing out of hand. If a woman wants to test herself by competing in the ring, stand aside, please, and let her "build her character" the tough way, too. Don't be squeamish or over protective just because she is female.

Just as for male boxers, the most important issue about safety for a female boxer is whether she has been properly prepared for what she has got herself into. Don't focus on the hurt of a boxer just because she happens to be female, focus on the fact that she was willing to compete and to test herself against another well-prepared athlete. And be ready to deal with the female "character" that such willingness produces!

So, now I've got that said, I will go back to the main issue. What are sensible precautions to take to reduce the chances that serious damage is done when women box?

For a start, let's realize that the most common boxing injuries are minor ones: bruised hands, pulled muscles. Also, if novices start sparring before they build up basic avoidance skills, unintentional head-butts can cause damage when fighting inside. Elementary precautions such as wrapping the hands, warming up properly, learning to execute the basic punches correctly in front of a mirror, and wearing headgear when sparring, can head off many of these problems.

Some people worry about facial damage ... scars and broken noses. One of the more emotive issues standing in the way of accepting female boxing is whether to encourage a "sport" that can disfigure a female face temporarily or permanently.

I'd like to point out that broken noses can and do happen in any contact sport. There have been plenty in women's basketball, for example. Rebecca Lobo had her nose broken in an NCAA game, and played for weeks with a ferocious looking black noseguard. But nobody would suggest that basketball is an unfit sport for women because Rebecca broke her nose.

One difference is that in basketball, a broken nose is just bad luck, an accident that is rare enough to be an acceptable risk. But in boxing you're going to get punched in the face on purpose, all the time. I think the risk of getting a broken nose in boxing is more like that of getting a torn anterior cruciate ligament playing basketball. There's a serious chance of it even for a star performer just from the mechanics of the sport. But it's up to you to decide whether the risk is worth it for the benefit you get from the sport.

We don't ban motor racing or skydiving because participants sometimes get killed. We don't stop sports involving horses because riders can break their necks. We don't outlaw skiing because of broken legs (or worse), or women's basketball because of the number of ACL injuries. So if a woman decides that she wants to box despite the chance that she'll eventually get her nose or some other bone broken, let's not get extra upset just because she's a woman. If she's willing to take the risk, train her out of bad habits that make the injury more likely, prepare her well for competition, supervise the action properly, then let her go for it!

It's really important that we train female boxers properly in the fundamentals of the sport and bring them along slowly before they start sparring. This is just the same as for the men. In the USA right now there's a rush to get women into the pro ring, to add variety, novelty and excitement to a male sport that is in deep trouble at the box office and outside the ring. This should not short-cut training in basic boxing skills for female boxers.

As you discover and explore your aggressive side in the boxing ring it's tempting to focus only on developing fitness and endurance, punching power and offense. But it's dangerous to do this without also building the defensive skills. Boxers should learn how to manage the space between them and their opponents to avoid being hit hard, to move in quickly to deliver their own punches and how to take punches on their shoulders, arms and gloves instead of to the head. Headgear can protect against minor injury such as cuts and bruises for amateurs and while sparring. But pro boxers must learn to avoid taking hard shots to the head as much as possible by slipping, or blocking, punches.

Because avoidance skills are harder to teach and learn than punching skills and offensive moves, I am concerned for the safety of women who are encouraged to become pro boxers without learning good defense. The "exciting, aggressive action" that attracts many fans to women's boxing should not come at the price of taking too many head punches. Throwing inexperienced fighters into the professional ring too early as "spice girls" for cards in a sagging sport is asking for big trouble.

The greatest danger in boxing comes if you are knocked out. Any time this happens, you have a concussion, a brief loss of neurological function. It usually involves (minor) damage to the brain by setting it in motion relative to the solid bone of the skull, then abruptly stopping that motion. No one is certain how many times this can happen to you before there is irreversible impairment. Headgear doesn't protect against this. In fact, by making the head heavier and also a larger target, headgear may increase the risk of damage from punches that rotate the head violently. Some research has suggested links between concussions early in life and the later onset of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

The worst possibility of all is that punches that jar the brain sufficiently cause an intracranial bleed. That is very serious business, often leading to permanent impairment. No moments of glory in the ring are worth it. The frontal lobe (emotions and motor function) and the temporal lobe (memory) are most susceptible. This is why fights must be stopped quickly if a boxer is unable to defend against heavy blows to her head. This problem is not restricted to the heavier weight classes. The large number of punches landed before a knockout in lighter weight divisions can be just as dangerous as one heavy blow. Women's boxing needs just as careful supervision as men's to minimize the risk of serious head injury.

Everyone remembers the tragic circumstances of the fight between Sumya Anani and Katie Dallam in 1996 that caused Katie's disability.

Lack of proper training, poor judgment by her trainer and by a referee may all have contributed to an injury that put Katie Dallam's life at risk. She depends on others for activities of daily living after a professional "fight" that wasn't sport. It was a serious head injury waiting to happen.

Trainers have responsibility to ensure that boxers are well prepared. Managers and matchmakers should have responsibility not to set up dangerous mismatches for those in their charge. But once two boxers are in the ring competitively, the onus is on the referee and ring doctor to ensure that fights do not continue if a serious injury seems imminent. People who are as experienced as those in charge of men's boxing and who can make critical judgments in front of a sometimes hyper-excited crowd must supervise women's boxing. The current rush to promote women's fights and the emphasis on aggressive offense before good defense may put an extra premium on intelligent supervision of female action by experienced officials.

Finally, there is one strictly female issue: the danger of taking punches to the breasts. Many women wonder if this may increase their risk of breast cancer. My doctor (who is unhappy about boxing in general but does understand the many benefits of women's sports) says there is no good evidence for an increased risk to boxers. Trauma to the breast can however cause a condition called fat necrosis, in which part of the tissue dies and becomes a hard lump. (Fat in other areas apparently does not react this way, so the effect may be hormone-related). Fat necrosis is non-cancerous. In that sense it is harmless. However, you may have to contend with the emotional shock of finding a lump, and the possibility that it could conceal or complicate diagnosis of a more serious condition. Breast protection can and should be worn by women boxers, but it must be admitted that its effectiveness is limited. Women who box must simply weigh this risk, among many others, against the improved feelings of self-esteem and control, and greatly enhance overall fitness, that comes from boxing. Fear of breast cancer should not be, all by itself, a reason not to box. This is an issue that may require much more study, however.

Please also remember that I am not a doctor. I have simply talked to some doctors and have read about these issues and I am writing about my understanding of them as a layperson.

Julie Morgan.
From the article "Attitudes to Women's Boxing. The Good, the Bad and the (Really) Ugly".



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