BARRY McGuigan defends his World Boxing Association featherweight title tomorrow in Belfast, bringing Protest ant and Catholic communities together in a gathering that makes them forget momentarily about the troubles.
This young Catholic fighter, married to a Protestant, unfortunately unites the tribes around a sporting ritual proven so dangerous that many religious leaders, doctors and politicians are calling for a ban.
McGuigan, himself, is painfully aware of the moral, ethical and medical issues surrounding his sport. Last June when he was declared WBA featherweight. champion, while 25,000 fans cheered wildly in the stadium and millions worldwide watched on television, he spoke his thanks to the BBC TV cameras and then surprisingly dedicated his victory to a fighter he had killed in the ring in the same city, London, three years earlier. He burst into tears.
His knockout of Alima Nustafa (Young Ali) from Nigeria has dogged his sensational boxing career. "I'll never forget what happened and I would not want to, it must stay with me for the rest of my life," McGuigan said. The Irish-horn tighter had knocked the black boxer senseless with a flurry of blows to the head and he never regained consciousness. He died when the life support system to which he had been wired for several months was switched off.
Today McGuigan's concern about death and damage in the ring extends to himself as well as to his beaten opponents. "I intend to retire before 1988," he said in June, "because my style involves taking a certain amount of punishment."
An aggressive "American-style" has made the 24-year-old Irishman "hot property" in the fight world. There are parallels with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini from Youngstown, Ohio. Like McGuigan, Mancini is a young Catholic fighter who has killed an opponent in the ring. In November, 1982; Mancini defended his title against Duk Koo Kim, a Korean challenger in Las Vegas. The brawl ended in the fourteenth round with Kim being knocked out.
Kim was lifted unconscious from the canvas and placed on the stool. He slid to the canvas again, oblivious of efforts to revive him. Ile died in hospital four days later without regaining consciousness. Hours before the fight the Korean boxer had scrawled on a lampshade: "Kill or be killed," in a chilling prediction. For those present at the Las Vegas arena and for the vast TV audience, the questions were raised about the suitability of a sport that can lead to sudden death when a contestant savagely punches his opponent's head.
The medical and moral questions were raised again as they always are when a boxer is killed before a vast -audience. Most boxers who are killed in the ring have drastically fewer witnesses. Since 1945, 345 have died from boxing injuries. Many thousands of others have suffered brain damage and serious eye injury in this most dangerous sport.
New medical evidence from many quarters has proven brain damage in boxers. The damage comes not only from heavy punches to the head that lead to spectacular death from haemorrhage, but from lesser, accumulative blows to the head sustained over the years.
Enough evidence is already in to give a clear medical and ethical judgment against professional boxing. Muhammad Ali's TV appearances are part of the medical evidence most accessible to the public. The fast-talking commentary from former heavyweight world champion ("float like a butterfly, sting like a bee") is punctuated with hesitancy.
His condition has been diagnosed as Parkinson's syndrome, most probably caused by brain damage from punches to the head during his 100 amateur and 61 professional fights. His speech before his final fight was so slurred that BBC cancelled his radio interview.
Two years ago he gave a TV interview in which he sat in front of a fireplace in his Los Angeles home. He seemed distant and grim. His speech was again slurred. When asked whether he might have suffered brain damage from his 21 years as a professional boxer, he replied softly, "it's possible."
The connection between boxing and brain damage is direct, separating it from the rest of sport. It has led the American Medical Association and the British, Canadian and Australian Medical Associations to condemn prize-fighting and to call for its abolition.
Doctors from the 32 nations that comprise the World Medical Association, meeting in Venice in October, 1983, demanded that it be stopped. This broad medical consensus across the world to ban boxing because of brain damage includes Czechoslovakia and Poland.
To get firsthand evidence about the case against boxing I interviewed doctors, fighters and theologians in London, Toronto, Chicago and Warren, Ohio. John Connery SJ, has been a teacher of moral theology since 1948 it the Jesuit School and Loyola University, apart from six years as a Provincial. He put the moral case against boxing succinctly. "There is no way you can justify doing damage to another unless you can show some compensating good. For example, you may amputate a leg to save a life, but there is no good that comes of boxing," the priest argued. Neither should you expose yourself to the possibility of being damaged unless for a sound reason and boxing isn't a good enough reason. It causes physical brain damage and there is simply no justification for it. Just to make money isn't a good enough reason.
As the medical evidence of brain damage CATHOLIC HERALD, Friday, 27 September, 1985 3
from boxing becomes clearer, the moral argument against it becomes stronger. The proof of accumulative brain damage would seem to rule out any blows to the head (above the clavacle) for the sport to be moral.
In addition to his basic fifth commandment argument, Fr Connery said there were added circumstances that made boxing morally objectionable. These included the corruption involved in the fight game and a general unsavory ■ atmosphere. Fixed fights were part of the corruption.
The fact that most boxers end up abused and broke and taken advantage of is another contributing circumstance to its immorality. The September issue of Boxing Scene, for example, has an article, "Kid Gavilan: Bitter and Broke", about the legendary Cuban world welterweight champion who today lives alone and destitute in the slums of Miami.
The moral theologian gave a final added circumstance in the moral case against boxing: it caters to the worst in people the blood-thirsty fans. A chilling photo of the mortally wounded boxer Kim lying flat on the canvas beneath Ray Mancini also shows a number of people at the ring side with their fists balled up. The boxing crowd has always called for blood. Three arguments are often put forward to justify boxing. Firstly it allows men from under privileged backgrounds to gain self respect and success. Secondly it provides a controlled outlet for aggression and plays a role in character-development for youth. And finally it is better to have it regulated than driven underground. These benefits from boxing were cited by the Methodist Church's Council on Health and Healing
'Its special working party examined the social evidence for and against boxing. It concluded: "the case against boxing is stronger than the case for it."
Dr Alan Hudson is more direct about it. "Boxing is absolutely indefensible," he said. "It's a case of making money out of organised brain damage."