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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

Perils of the Boxing Ring

Perils of the Boxing Ring.

Various suggestions have been made, following on the death of Stan Jenkin after a boxing contest in Wellington, to make boxing safer for the participants. Some time ago I ran foul of prominent boxing administrators and boxers by drawing attention to the heavy toll paid by boxers, but I feel that the time is opportune to write plainly.

The tragedy of the boxing ring is not the number of boxers who have died following on concussion—it is the large number of men and boys who have suffered mental disturbance or failing eyesight. Among boxers themselves and those who follow the sport, page 62 page 63 the term “punch drunk” is used with abandon. There does not seem to be any doubt, even among the participants, that participation in boxing contests will bring about a state of mental disorder that may vary from insanity to partial paralysis or bad eyesight. But year after year they come forward, as one American sports writer put it, “like lambs to the slaughter.”

If world champions cannot escape this blight of punch-drunkenness what chance have amateurs, many of whom have little conception of how to defend themselves? Without delving too deeply into the subsequent history of former world ring champions, a most dazzling and discouraging list is unearthed.

These men were world champions—but they fell victims to punch-drunkenness or blindness!

“Terrible” Terry M'Govern, one of the greatest featherweights of all time, died in a mental asylum; Ad Wolgast, former lightweight champion, trained for several years for a fight he had already fought and lost. Now an inmate of a mental home.

Billy Papke, former middleweight champion, murdered his wife and then committed suicide. At the inquest it was revealed that the one-time great boxer had suffered from punch-drunkenness.

Frankie Neill, who won the bantam-weight title when M'Govern graduated to the featherweight class, is now in a mental asylum.

Pete Herman, former bantam-weight champion, is now blind in both eyes. Fidel La Barba, another former champion, lost the sight of one eye as the result of injuries received in boxing.

Mike Gibbons, recognised as world middle-weight champion in America when Australians were claiming the title for Les Darcy, is blind in one eye.

John Henry Lewis, light-heavyweight champion, was barred from fighting in England because of total blindness in one eye and failing vision in the other.

Tiger Flowers died from the effects of boxing after losing his eyesight; Sam Langford, one of the great negro heavyweights, is now totally blind; and Pancho Villa, who brought the Philippine Islands to the fore in boxing, died from an infection received in boxing.

This list is by no means complete, and I do not propose to labour the point. In a paper read before the New York Pathological Society, Dr. Harrison S. Martland stated that a fighter who fights long enough is almost certain to become punch drunk.

Jack Dempsey, still the idol of boxing fans although he has long since retired, recently stated: “Now, we all kid a lot about the punch-drunk fighter. We say he is on his heels, or slap-happy, or goofy. Every young fighter sees them in a gymnasium and training camps on his way to the top. I saw them and was impressed, as any kid must be.

“I made no dramatic resolution never to be one, nor did I get sentimental about it, but I was always aware of the fact that every punch-drunk fighter was one who had taken too many wallops. Those early sights came to my mind after the second fight with Gene Tunney. After his own retirement, a year later, Tunney made a remark for publication that stamps him as wise indeed.

“ ‘But most of all,’ he said in an interview, ‘I wanted to leave the game that threatened my sanity before I met with an accident in a real fight with six-ounce gloves that would permanently hurt my brain’.”

There is no cure for punch-drunkenness! Dr. Martland, when he started on the subject of punch-drunk boxers persuaded a boxing promoter to dig up a variety of well-known ring tragedies. Twenty-three unfortunates, famous in their day, were examined. Their reactions to a series of detailed tests duplicated many of the doctor's bad concussion cases that he had handled as a staff member of one of America's greatest hospitals.

The doctor showed by illustration how a hard punch can so jar the head that a small rupture occurs within the brain. That break, no matter how slight, permits the formation of a blood clot around the artery which is separated from the brain cells by resting in a fluid. When this ring-shaped clot forms within that area of fluid it presses outward, or against the surrounding portion of the brain. By hardening it becomes a tumour or lump and the pressure remains permanently. Usually it is below the surface, beyond reach of the most skilled surgeon.

There are many who subscribe to the theory that the advent of the boxing glove is responsible for the ring malady, but this is a theory that cannot be tested unless we revert to bare-knuckle contests and check the results. In the old days a pugilist was invariably of “no class,” mentally or socially; to-day, a boxer may come from the rank and file or from the “Upper Ten.”

My own belief is that a more searching medical examination should be held before any boxer is permitted to engage in a ring contest. This examination should pay particular attention to reactions to certain well-defined mental tests and a failure in this should bar the boxer for all time. What shall it profit a man if he has the perfect body but is mentally deficient? It is a matter concerning which the Council for Physical Welfare and Recreation might well give consideration. If boxing is undermining the health of young New Zealanders some remedy must be found to remove the evils associated with the sport.