More safety for the fighters - Loyisa Mtya

Boxing had just emerged from the recent Samora Msophi debacle, bruised and battered after being subjected to relentless and brutal flurries of punches from the media and public. The attacks came in opinions and questions ranging from what could have been done better, what could have been avoided, to recommendations as to who should take the blame and be banned from the game - when another incident happened.

Thousands of people at the venue and in their homes watched silently and helplessly as Amon Baloyi took two steps towards Patrick Malinga and collapsed before taking another punch that could have thrown South African boxing into perhaps the darkest chapter for our beloved game ever. Those two incidents must surely be a wake up call to Boxing South Africa and all its stakeholders.

Maybe it is time to own up and take collective action. Our first move may well be to consider whether our current regulations are still relevant enough to keep the game safe and remain attractive to the mainstream culture of the new South Africa and the rest of the world. Whether by keeping things as they are, we are not shooting ourselves in the foot. While making the game hundred percent safe will always remain a dream, measures must be introduced, analyzed and implemented so that any defects in our system will be located and eliminated.

Some of these opinions are guided by positive and passionate attitudes that look at what and how much must be done to improve the safety of boxers in the ring, and need to be investigated with urgency. What also is clear to the comfort of us boxing people is that this attention demonstrates how much boxing still occupies the minds of our society. While we are striving and struggling to survive the toughest competition against soccer, rugby and cricket, we just never seem to be lost and forgotten.

Could it be us who are not doing enough for people to reach out to us? Our we as boxing people sitting out there in a far corner like unwanted orphans when the rest of the society is trying to reach out to us? If that be the case, we must stretch our hand out of the mud. Maybe we will make things much easier for ourselves. We therefore have to introduce measures that will not only keep boxing floating within the momentum, but be big enough to not only survive, but to triumph.

Boxing in its nature is a sport where the object is to knockout and even beat up your opponent to win. The contestants must outbox in terms of skills, outsmart, outthink, outfox, and outpunch the opponent. All of those attributes lead to actually punishing your opponent. Historically boxers are known to go to extreme levels to hone their skills and abilities, both physically and mentally.

As sports and technology have improved over the years, so have been the rewards in terms of fame and fortune. This phenomenon has seen athletes taking massive measures to hone to themselves to near inhuman levels of mental and physical conditions. These results can be achieved from video tape to computer analysis and medicine – both scientific and traditional. endless.

The effect of the punches in a boxing contest can mean the difference between life
and death to one contestant. The volume and effect of punches may be enough to catch the attention of the judges to win on points, or they may be so effective as to injure, maim, render senseless or even kill. Some effects emerge later in the careers or after their lives in the ring. Careful measures have to be taken to protect them.

The Referees

Maybe this is the area where boxing authorities including BSA should intervene by
allocating more manpower with responsibility to stop fights. As things stand now only three people have the power to do that - the referee (the soul arbiter) being the one with the final say. The corner of either boxer may indicate to the referee by throwing in the towel as is more customary, or walk up to the ring apron, wherein the referee may wave the fight over. The doctor may also recommend that the fight be stopped because of injury or cuts. But nowhere does it allow the doctor in without being requested by the referee. This is where the soul decision lies, and
where the buck really stops.

As the soul arbiter of the fight, the referee is the one empowered to control traffic, i.e., that the boxers including their corners stick to the rules of the game, that the time keeper and the judges are in place and ready to do duty. But the most important duty is whether both boxers are still healthy enough to continue.

He is empowered to seek the expert opinion of the doctor, and can even stop the fight himself if he is of the opinion that one boxer has gone beyond what is physically capable without risking his or her life. The rules for allowing fights to continue or stopping them are there, and referees are trained to equip them for make formidable rulings.

There are however, so many grey areas that in the end it comes to the discretion of the person concerned to actually make the decision. The people empowered with such an important duty should be highly trained and be of a certain level of education as to make intelligent decisions.

To give a few examples, some of the symptoms that the referee must recognize for stopping fights, are conditions where the boxer has either taken punches without fighting back, hanging helplessly on the ropes, tottering around the ring senselessly, the neck moving side to side with each punch, having taken a bad fall, the eyes losing focus, having taken a lot of punishment over a long distance without really staging an effective resistance, turning his back to his opponent, having gone down three times or more etc. The list is endless.

There are however, examples of boxers from every country and continent who, after having taken so much and even shown one or more of those symptoms, have still come back to win fights. In those cases the referee has been lambasted for not stopping the fight, only to be praised for experience and insight once the assaulted returned to be the assailant and eventually won. Even then medical inclinations still worry about the long term effects of that kind of punishment.

The referees always find themselves in that sticky situation of stopping fights too early or too late. A good example is that of Jozsef Nagy from Hungary who came back from a brutal assault in which he took an assortment of some of the hardest blows one can catch, fell three times - badly - only to refuel, pressure and stop Zack Mwekassa of the Congo in the sixth round to win the WBF Cruiserweight title. Had referee Wally Snowball stopped the fight earlier in favor of Mwekassa, no one would have blamed him. But with hindsight he would have robbed Nagy of a world championship.

Snowball would also have robbed South African boxing fans of one of the greatest
comebacks in the ring. Boxing always prides itself of producing the fittest specimen in the world. It is the only sport where one cannot hide in numbers and still win. In rugby, soccer, cricket etc, they are able to select less prepared players without compromising the result of the game. In boxing it is one for one. One is the hooker, scrumhalf, fullback and captain all in one. The reason why boxing is
called the noble art is its ability to condense together, art, science, conditioning and bravery.

This brings us to the human nature of the referees. They are as human as all of us, but find themselves – by their own choice anyway - in the uncanny position of making life, death and career defining decisions in a split second. They do not have the time we have at home on TV to preview and review, nor do they have the privilege of slow motion, to change the decisions they make.

They must fully justify their decisions, by being fair and firm. Their minds must be focused to the job at hand and not be intimidated by the depth of the occasion, nor be swallowed in by the electric atmosphere.

Most of all they must go out of their way to empower themselves by learning and knowing everything about their game. In that way, decisions they make will, whether questionable or not, will be of high integrity.