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Soup of This Day #296: T’ain’t No Big Thing, The Toll Of The Bell

February 27, 2013

Tasmanian devil
This Tasmanian devil has scarring next to its left eye – The result of fighting. The main threat to this feisty marsupial carnivore though isn’t the odd scrap or set-to. Instead it is a horrible disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) that has destroyed as much as 50% of the wild population. With DFTD being uncurable, they need some serious science in their corner of the world if they are to go 12 rounds with this opponent – Photo: Wayne McLean, 2005. Wayne McLean is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

The Australian Medical Association of Western Australia (AMA(WA)) does not support the sport of boxing. This is because they believe that participants are:

‘…at a high risk of developing major neurological problems so that is problems like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other memory problems and [it’s] a major problem for people who are involved in boxing.’

Which to a medical layperson like me makes sense. It doesn’t feel good when I take a blow to the head and it’s not a great mental leap from there to lasting damage if you sustain knocks upstairs on a regular basis.

And lasting damage to the old brain is a life sentence – There’s not a lot of coming back from there and there’s a probability that being a victim is not limited to the folk with the gloves on – There’s their families too – I can’t imagine having a parent forget your name or require your help to go to the toilet is the kind of legacy most people would want to leave.

So boxing looks like an unsafe sport. It smells bad too – Often it has the stink of corruption competing with the sweat and liniment. I’m not into wrestling, with it’s lurid costumes, lame acting and over-the-top showmanship but at least they’re honest about who’s driving the story. By contrast boxing can often feel like it’s got pre-determined plot-lines, but they aren’t out in the open – Instead they are lurking in a back alley, taking a pay-off from some guy with a bullet head and a tattoo that says, ‘I love my Mum.’

He could have been a contender Adrian. Or a raging cow. Or something.

Even as I write all of this though, I can’t let go of something that cuts through the arguments like smelling salts:

Boxing can be compelling. That’s not politically correct of me but there it is – My script is transparent and it charts a 12-act play. Boxing is skilful, technical and exciting – It ain’t called the sweet science for nothing.

As exemplified by an all-Australian fight from the end of January to decide the holder of the IBF middleweight title. The fight featured 2 of this country’s best; Daniel Geale, the holder; and Anthony Mundine, the challenger.

Daniel Geale is a 32 year old orthodox middleweight. He’s a technically adept boxer, by-and-large devoid of a big punch, preferring to use his speed and skill to out-fight opponents.

And it’s worked pretty well for him – The Tasmanian won the IBF middleweight title in 2011 and the WBA middleweight title in 2012 – The latter via an impressive split decision in Germany over the local favourite Felix Sturm.

All of this was achieved with a minimum of fuss, for Geale isn’t much of a showman, seemingly preferring to do his work quietly.

Unlike his opponent, Anthony Mundine.

Known as ‘The Man’ (respectfully) and ‘The Mouth’ (less so) Mundine is a man of words, only some of which make sense. A former rugby league star in Australia, the orthodox middleweight turned to boxing in 2000 amid the glare of celebrity. Which does seem to be to his liking – The Man has stuff to say and shadow-boxing in the quiet corner isn’t for him. As an Australian Aboriginal sporting star, he’s been vocal about the plight of his people, taking an often confrontational approach to issues.

Like claiming that a competitor couldn’t be Aboriginal because:

‘I thought they wiped all the Aborigines from Tasmania out.’

and then following it up with:

‘He’s got a white woman, he’s got white kids. I keep it real, all day every day.’

Daniel Geale was clearly not impressed at having his heritage questioned. Or that of his kids.

And so the fight was not between friends. Nor was it between equals – Mundine is 37, with his powers seemingly on the wane. Although he had controversially beaten Geale in 2009, that had been the Tasmanian’s only career loss. This time around Geale was thought to be quicker and smarter, capable of nullifying Mundine’s big punches, while maintaining a wearing offence on the mainlander.

That’d be how it played out. The opening 2 rounds were split, Mundine edging the 1st and then Geale narrowly shading the 2nd. From there though the younger man opened up a lead, landing heavier punches consistently and easily beating Mundine for footwork and general movement. Rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6 easily went to the defending champ – Mundine was hanging in but looked to need a knock-out to take the contest.

He didn’t get it.

Geale took 7 and 8 and although Mundine gained confidence the longer he stood upright, at best he took 3 of the last 4 and none of them with the kind of margin that he needed to unseat Geale.

Still, Mundine would not concede – Not even after the final bell when almost every judge had a comfortable win against him. He jumped up on the turnbuckle like Kate Winslett in Titanic and claimed a victory that he seemed to believe was rightly his. He even went so far as to say into a camera something along the lines of, ‘If I don’t win it was because I was robbed.’

A minute later and he should have called the police – The score-card showed a unanimous 116-112, 117-111, 117-111 win for Daniel Geale and Anthony Mundine stormed out of the ring without a word of congratulations for the victor. It was a sour end to the fight and possibly Mundine’s career. Geale meanwhile ignored the snub and gloried in the win and in an upcoming task that he claimed was even bigger than the fight he’d just dominated.

The next day was his daughter’s 1st at kindy, where they ring an entirely different bell to start up an education.

Which was a reality check for me. This was a handful of days before The Noah’s 1st day in kindy. My boy was going to school and the thought of missing that and other milestones would fill me with dread. Geale, Mundine and every other boxer out there have families – People who will be hurt tremendously by those punches, maybe not today but almost certainly down the line.

And this is not unique to boxing either. Over recent years, American football players, particularly those who use their heads as battering rams, have been shown to be equally as vulnerable. Likewise, some hockey players, and not just those designated with ‘fighting’ duty. Even soccer players, who routinely header a ball, can suffer long-term neurological consequences.

That’s a horrible trade – 1 that is hard to reconcile in a modern world. There is an imperative then to find a way to make these sports less damaging to the human brain.

Better head gear helps – But that is only a fraction of a solution because the brain already has its own protective shell – It’s called the skull and it is unable to stop the brain from bouncing in the event of an impact to the head.

Head contact can also be legislated out of American football and maybe even soccer. Hockey can give up the fights and make slamming your opponent’s head into the glass a serious offence. Purists will be outraged and some fans will be lost, forever left to sit on park benches opining that the modern players are soft.

So are their brains. Soft and phenomenally sophisticated.

And this leaves us with boxing. Cutting out head contact leaves something that is less than boxing. I’m guessing though, that for the families and friends of those aged sluggers who shake and shudder with Parkinson’s, or stare without recognition at loved 1s, that it is an easy choice.

It is for me too – Until they find a way to make boxing safer I’m no longer a fan – From now, I’ll be taking the gloves off and sitting in the AMA’s corner.

T’ain’t No Big Thing, The Toll Of The Bell

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