The Old And The New

Boxers die.

It happens. In the amateurs and in the pros, in the ring or in the hospital, by hemorrhage or by hematoma: Every year, boxers are killed or seriously injured by fighting.

“You can play everything else, you can’t play boxing,” says Bernard Hackett, who was coaching his 12-year-old son, Durnell, at the Junior Golden Gloves National Championships in Nevada. “Boxing is a sport you don’t play.”

Young boxers and their coaches and parents know the immediate risk. As with football, hockey, gymnastics, lacrosse and rugby, they weigh it against so much else, and take comfort that catastrophic injuries are rare.

But, there is another danger: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The disease, which rots brains from the inside with a protein called tau, has been blamed for the death of at least one high school football player, and it’s been found in the brains of at least five others. It’s even been found in athletes who hadn’t previously been diagnosed with concussions. And it’s left some athletes’ parents absolutely terrified.

In recent years, peewee football leagues in Texas have eliminated tackling. Youth hockey and lacrosse leagues have prohibited checking. Even youth soccer leagues have done away with head balls until players reach adolescence.

Yet youth boxing’s rules remain unchanged.

For kids as young as 8, sparring remains mostly unregulated, the number of fights unlimited, gyms unmonitored by the sport’s governing bodies, and aggressive fighting styles encouraged: “showmanship,” the ability to entertain with aggression, fast hands and flashy style at the expense of defense, is widely understood to win favor from judges and, later, promoters?

What’s more, there are no national standards for ringside physicians. Only last month, USA Boxing, which sanctions amateur fights and fighters, announced it would begin requiring its youth athletes to obtain annual physicals.

Yet, USA Boxing Interim Executive Director Mike Martino insists, “it’s as safe as we can make the sport at this time.”

Brain experts disagree.

Pint-size pugilists might now rank among our nation’s most vulnerable young athletes, they say. But the depth of the danger remains unknown.

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On brain tests given to prizefighters, “the people who started the youngest do a little worse,” says Dr. Charles Bernick, associate medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which is studying professional boxers.

And it’s the lighter hits, the kind dished out by amateur lightweight and middleweight fighters, that seem to do the most harm.

“Getting a lot of lighter blows is not good,” Bernick says.

But with so much else still unknown about CTE, let alone its effect on children, it’s difficult to establish a standard or give coaches and parents any tools to protect their young fighters.

“We don’t have precise guidelines to tell us right now how much trauma is too much trauma,” says Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine.

But we know enough, they say — about young brains, young physiology, blows to the head in general — to at least bring about change. Not to ban boxing, but to reform it.

The question is, who will drive those changes?

Football, lacrosse, hockey and soccer – bastions of the suburbs – boast platoons of well-connected parents. Boxing, which is dominated by athletes who often hail from the inner-city, has become a fringe activity, little watched and therefore little studied.

In those three rings beneath the big top in the Mojave Desert, 10-year-old Bobbie Pettigrew and 221 other boxers put their brains on the line — and it seemed like no one knew how much was at stake.

Subconcussive Blows

In theory, headgear works like your iPhone case:

“When the impact of the strike lands on the headgear, the headgear is designed to absorb the shock,” says Chad Coppenbarger, product development manager for research and development at TITLE Boxing, one of the sport’s biggest equipment makers. By absorbing and dispersing that blow, it supposedly “reduces the risks of, you know, the long-term build-up.”

But our heads are different than our devices: our brains, suspended in fluid, move within our skulls, no matter what protection there might be on the outside.

“It is not probably as valuable in the format of preventing concussions,” James Beasley, executive director of Golden Gloves of America, which oversaw the Nevada tournament, says of headgear.

In fact, scientists say, headgear may actually increase the chance of a concussion — or make brain damage worse.

“Headgear, especially on a youngster, can be arguably detrimental because you’re adding more weight to the head,” Cantu, of the CTE center at BU, says. “So now when you put that head in motion with this very weak neck not able to stop the motion because now it’s heavier, it’s now a greater amount of motion that’s occurring.”

Other protective equipment may also magnify, not mitigate, the risk of brain damage.

The oversize gloves child boxers wear — nicknamed “pillows,” and designed to decrease the force of a punch— are in fact so large they shield young boxers’ bodies, effectively steering more blows to the skull.

“It does turn boxing into sort of a head fight,” says Dr. Robert Voy, a ringside physician for Golden Gloves. “The younger classes, of course, they just don’t have the defensive skills. They haven’t learned them yet.”

The result: “They’re in sort of a slugfest.”

The Pros and Long Odds

“Protect yourself at all times” — it’s the cardinal rule of boxing.

Yet aggression — more than safety, more than defense — often wins title belts.

“The dominant boxer is the one who manages to be the ‘effective aggressor,’” says Beasley, of Golden Gloves. “The aggressor is going to get the decision because he carried the bout to the opponent.”

For kid boxers like 12-year-old Durnell who seek “money, fame” and “fortune” through boxing, it isn’t only about winning. The aggression that clinches fights is a means to another end: “showmanship,” a quality that professional promoters value as much if not more than actual talent.

“The more aggressive they are, the more entertaining they are, the bigger shot they have, says Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank, one of the boxing world’s premier promoters.

“People will pay for what they really regard as entertainment.”

And it’s not aggression alone. A fighter’s “marketability,” Arum says, includes other qualities that run counter to safety: a willingness to soldier through pain — and yes, concussions — to make sure fans and promoters get their money’s worth.

“It’s a tough sport,” Arum says.

So even while promoters don’t start recruiting amateurs until about age 17, young boxers and parents seeking riches in the ring start their training early — from Durnell’s “triple-hook” to the kids’ flashy fight clothes and shiny boxing shoes.

“That is how you get paid. When you get them to say, ‘Ooh, ahh,’” Hackett says. “I want my son to be mentioned in the same context as a young Michael Jordan, a young Wayne Gretzky.”

The approach isn’t universal. Bobbie’s trainer, Greg Dyer, called the tournament slugfests “barbaric” and “savage.”

“We don’t teach our kids to go and just throw punches in, because that’s going to leave them brain dead when they get older,” he says. “The name of the game is boxing: you hit, but don’t get hit.”

Instead, he and Bobbie soon learned, the kids got hit plenty — and Bobbie’s training, emphasizing defense and movement and grace, came up against three, one-minute rounds of harsh reality.

Where Are The Studies?

In sports, there may be no greater — or more tortured — cost-benefit analysis than in boxing. It’s a sport that that offers so much to so many – an escape from the street, friendships with kids and mentors, healthy activity and an education in self defense – but a single punch – or thousands over time –can just as easily snatch it away.

“If they weren’t doing what they were doing, these kids would really be in dangerous situations,” says Dawn Sanchez, who organized the Nevada tournament.

What’s more, anyone of any size can succeed.

“You could be a big, big star, such as [Manny] Pacquiao or Mayweather, weighing 147 pounds,” Arum says.

At the tournament, every boxer took home a new backpack filled with school supplies. They had a movie night, an afternoon playing BINGO for prizes like new boxing shoes, a day with a free catered lunch, and, overall, four days at a sunny desert resort, replete with a pool, arcade and, for the parents and coaches, room rates that didn’t exceed $100 a night.

“This is what drives them to do better in school, to have a better performance, and to achieve other goals even outside of boxing,” Sanchez says.

And yet, the question remains: At what cost? In light of how much and how little we know about the risks, how much do we stake?

Some, such as Dr. Barry Jordan, chief medical officer of the New York State Athletic Commission, or even insiders like Arum, say kids should be barred from sparring or fighting before they reach their teens.

“There are a lot of exercises you can do in relation to boxing without actually punching each other in the head,” Jordan says. “Speed bag, shadow boxing, heavy bag.”

Cantu contends youth boxing could eliminate head blows altogether — a suggestion Voy found laughable.

“If you’re just allowed to hit each other in the belly,” Voy says, “there will be some serious problems with that.”

But there may be other forces for change: After class-action lawsuits wrung multi-million-dollar payouts from the NFL and NCAA, lawyers have started casting their eyes toward other contact sports, including boxing.

“We think there are other sports, or other areas than just the NCAA, where this issue needs to be dealt with,” says Joseph Siprut, a Chicago-based attorney who helped win a $70 million settlement from the athletic organization in July. “There’s a potential for liability anytime your strategy is, ‘There really isn’t any proof of that.’ Anytime you take that approach you’re playing a dangerous game.”

Any study that might prove how youth boxing affects the brain, however, would take decades and require hundreds of participants, experts say. Bernick’s study at the Lou Ruvo Center, alone, involves 450 volunteers, and the program is still seeking 200 more.

And even if that study were cobbled together, what do we do with our young fighters in the meantime? Do we surrender them to the ring for lack of any other opportunity? If we do, what does that say about our society?

“I don’t believe we’re on a time bomb of a great many more people having problems than already have problems,” Cantu says. “But I think we’re going to have a better recognition of it, at just how many there are — that’s probably going to surprise people.”

Here are some images from the Junior Golden Gloves National Championships in Nevada.

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Additional contributors: FUSION Interactive, FUSION Live