Are WBC’s women title rules sexist, vulnerable to legal challenge?

Imagine being a world-class boxer. An Olympian. A gold medalist. Turning pro. Climbing the ranks. Fighting for a world title. And being told you have to fight two-minute rounds.

Imagine looking around and seeing Jake Paul, a YouTube celebrity with no boxing background, granted a pro license and making millions fighting other untrained boxers. As professionals. Fighting three-minute rounds.

You are treated as less. They are treated as more. The only reason is you are a woman. They are men.

Many high-calibre women boxers are turning to mixed martial arts, a sport that has adopted the identical ruleset for men and women, because of the better financial opportunities the sport provides women.

The World Boxing Council (WBC), one of the leading title sanctioning bodies in boxing, insists that women fight two-minute rounds. They will not approve a championship bout with three-minute rounds as they do for men.

They claim it’s for safety publishing the following:

The WBC is determined women’s fights will remain at two minutes per round, and ten championship rounds, because safety is the number one priority.”

Boxing is dangerous. Less boxing is safer than more boxing. This holds true for women and men. But where is the data to show that women boxers are exposed to greater health risks by competing in three-minute rounds compared to men being allowed the greater duration? Absent valid science, the rule is sexist. Plain and simple. And the WBC has been unable to point to any compelling boxing-specific scientific data behind their views.

In fairness to the WBC, there is data speaking to women suffering sport concussion rates greater than men with more prolonged symptoms as well. The WBC use this to justify their position.

When it comes to boxing specific data, however, one study concludes that “Male boxers were significantly more likely than female boxers to receive injuries (3.6 versus 1.2 per 100 boxer-rounds, P = 0.01). Male boxing matches also ended in knockouts and technical knockouts more often than did female matches.

The WBC are, in essence, assuming that women will have greater injury rate per minute boxing than their male counterparts from non-boxing-specific sport studies while ignoring a boxing-specific study that concludes the exact opposite.

This is where a legal challenge can scrutinize the practice.

Just to take my jurisdiction, British Columbia, human rights legislation prohibits a service provider from discriminating in the service based on various factors including sex and gender. If a legal challenge was brought scrutinizing the practice of forcing women to compete with lesser rules, this would likely be viewed as discriminatory. This would shift the focus to the sanctioning body to justify their rule and its scientific basis. The lack of peer reviewed data and articles backing up their position would likely not bode well for someone trying to justify the rule difference. A mere statement that the rule is based in safety without data would not go very far before the Human Rights Tribunal.

I have reached out to the WBC for comment on what boxing specific studies they can point to substantiating their position. I will update this article if/when they reply.

Several jurisdictions (New York, California and Nevada) have allowed 3 minute rounds for women where both competitors agreed to the rule set. Data does exist if the WBC wishes to get their hands on it. There is no need for speculation.

If you are a championship woman boxer and are denied the right to compete under the same rules as men and wish to do something about it, carefully review the legal landscape of the jurisdictions where you compete. If you face this type of discrimination in BC feel free to contact me. I would have my firm take this case on a pro bono basis.


Update May 3, 2021 – After sharing this article on twitter and reaching out to several ringside physicians, some valuable feedback was received. The Journal of Combat Sports Medicine, Volume 3 Issue 1, published earlier this year, tackled the issue of round length for women’s boxing exclusively. No novel data was published in the Journal but several learned physicians had valuable feedback on the topic as follows:

Dr. Margaret Goodman, neurologist, former chief ringside physician in Nevada and founder and CEO of VADA noted as follows:
My impression is that the WBC is relying on old data and incomplete data…Exposure to head blows isn’t good for anyone. We know that. The less the better. One minute rounds would do less damage than two minute round. With three minute rounds for women, there would be more damage. That’s a given. There would be less damage in men’s boxing if rounds were cut from three minutes to two.

Dr. Charles Vernick, director of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic and oversees the most comprehensive study of brain damage in fighters to date notes:
If you take a woman fighter and matched her up to a male who has the same number of fights, the same age, the same education, we don’t really find much difference looking at the brain itself or even how they test out on certain reaction time and processing speed and so on. You can always find some differences, but they’re not huge. Nothing has come out that women are more prone to long-term changes. The biggest risk factor is the number of blows you’re on the receiving end of. Anytime you reduce that, you’re going to, in some sense, improve the safety of that sport. But I don’t know if it’s really been established yet that, for women, that’s going to make a big difference. It’s making a policy change based on indirect evidence. It certainly can’t hurt from a safety standpoint. But how much it’s going to help, I don’t know.

Dr. Michael Schwartz, Co-chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee for the Association of Boxing Commissions notes as follows:
The two- versus three-minute rounds is still very controversial, however. For example, in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) contests, women fight a minimum of three (3) five-minute rounds while some even fight five (5) five-minute rounds. Thus far, anecdotal evidence suggests no obvious increase in concussion rates. Although MMA and boxing are different disciplines, they obviously share many similarities. As such, many people ask why we continue to limit female fighters to fight two minutes and not increase the duration to three minutes…Nonetheless, without more compelling evidence, it is difficult to emphatically state that the risk between two- and three-minute rounds would absolutely increase a woman’s risk of serious injury. The only answer is to obtain more medical data and the only way to get more useful information is to increase the round duration to three minutes and compare injury rates….MMA has already made the change and it has not seemed to significantly increase the injury rate in these sports. Although I currently agree with the two-minute round recommendation, I would not be averse to exploring the possibility of increasing the round duration to three minutes given the success and documented safety seen in MMA bouts.

Dr. Nitin Sethi, Neurologist and Chief Medical Officer of the New York State Athletic Commision had the following views:
One does not need a neurologist to opine that limiting round duration to 2-minutes protects the boxer’s neurological health with respect to both acute as well chronic neurological injuries associated with boxing. Limiting the number of total rounds in a bout and the duration of each round protects the neurological health of the fighter irrespective of sex…The issue of 2-minute versus 3-minute rounds in women’s boxing though needs to be debated, scientifically studied, and decided purely on medical grounds based on concrete evidence-based medicine whether women partaking in professional boxing are more susceptible to concussions as compared to men and how the duration of the round alters the risk for both acute and chronic neurological injuries, not just in women but also in men.

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