Cautionary tale for MMA: Olympic boxing drops headgear, adds 10 pt must scoring

Sunday, March 24, 2013

In 1983, the Journal of the American Medical Association called for a ban on boxing. The editor, Dr. George Lundberg, called boxing an “obscenity” and said it “should not be sanctioned by any civilized society.”

For long-time devotees of mixed martial arts, the parallels with Sen. McCain’s infamous and now withdrawn “human cock fighting” remarks are inescapable.

In response, the International Amateur Boxing Association, the governing body for amateur boxing worldwide, made mandatory the use of headgear in amateur boxing contests.

Then at the 1998 Seoul Olympics, Roy Jones Jr was denied a gold medal in boxing by corrupt, bribed judges. At the time, the 10 Point Must judging system was in place, familiar to all fans of MMA – winner of the round gets 10 points, loser gets 9, or in the case of a shellacking, 8, or even conceivably less.

In response, the IABA instituted a computerized scoring system, that was believed to be harder to fix. Judges are provided controllers, and have to simultaneously press a button to indicate a clean blow has landed.

The system may have reduced the odds of corruption, although jailing the people on both end of gold wrapped in a handkerchief seems like a more appropriate response. What the computerized system did unquestionably was dramatically changed the play of the game, forcing boxers to avoid body shots, or combinations, or, too often, fighting.

After 30 years, the IABA is moving to restore the old rules. Headgear has not proven to reduce concussions, and the scoring system was so bad it made fighting boring.

“There’s no evidence protective gear shows a reduction in incidence of concussion,” said Charles Butter Butler of the AIBA. “In 1982, when the American Medical Association moved to ban boxing, everybody panicked and put headgear on the boxers, but nobody ever looked to see what the headgear did.”

“Boxing isn’t bean counting. The thing that makes (the computerized scoring system) dangerous is if you’re a boxer, you know you’re not going to get a point for a body shot, so what are you going to do except punch the head? There were no points given for combinations. You might get one point. If a kid was a counterpuncher, you’d lose.”

The use of headgear will remain for female and youth boxers.

The changes to the rules in boxing provide a cautionary tale for mixed martial arts.

Many of the changes to the rules of boxing enacted to make it safer actually made it more dangerous. For example, the addition of gloves meant that the concussive power of a punch was enormously magnified (a bare fist cannot hit hard for an extended period of time). The standing-8 count only meant that a hurt fighter could recover enough to suffer further injury. And so on.

Mixed martial arts still receives criticism from uninformed lawmakers on a regular basis, and still is not legal and regulated in every state, notably New York. Whenever a well-intended figure in power proposes changes to make the world’s fastest growing sport safer, we have to proceed with extraordinary care, as the history in combat sports so strongly shows that “safety” rules, as a rule, do more harm than good.