From Cuba on Boxing & Head Gear

Yusimi Rodriguez

Cuban Boxer. Will the head guards be on in London? Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, June 11 — Last week I heard on the news that they are discussing the possibility of eliminating protective head guards for boxers in the 2012 London Olympic Games. The thinking is that this will make the event more exciting. And that’s exactly what spectators at the Olympics pay for – a good show. Watching two people hitting each other, with the risk of producing permanent damage, seems to be what constitutes a good show. In fact, the principal mission of sports (and of the athletes) is to entertain.

I used to love boxing precisely because I found it so entertaining. I still guard my memory of the first time I saw Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba knock out a competitor, a Black American, and neither of them used head protectors since these weren’t yet required in amateur boxing. I don’t remember the year or the event, but the blow was left indelibly imprinted in my mind even though I couldn’t have been more than four or five. I admit that my memory, though pretty good, has received some help. Over the years I’ve seen that moment of combat repeated time and time again on Cuban television.

Later I got used to seeing Felix Savon, who was also hard hitter and could knock out most of his opponents. I liked his fights because they hardly ever made it to the last round. When he or any other fighter in our country made it to the final round without a clear advantage, our sports narrators would say that they would have to fight their way out, or more clearly, they’d have to look for a blow that would define their actions. I used to wait for the redeeming blow in complete suspense. To see one of our boxers unleash one of those devastating shots against another fighter, leaving them dazed and incapable of recovering, was simply the maximum.

With time I realized that it wasn’t a sense of patriotism that made me watch, but boxing in itself. I reveled in seeing the body shots, the knockouts and people dropping to the canvas unable to get up. Then, if they somehow managed to make it to their feet, I would thrill in seeing them routed again. I also liked boxing movies, the famous ones like “Rocky” or “Raging Bull.” Recently I saw “The Fighter,” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.

What all these movies have in common is that at the end their main characters have face to a superior opponent – perhaps younger, in better physical condition or a favorite to win. The main character receives a beating, they’re gushing blood, being turned into pulp, but they don’t give up. They continue to take the blows like a martyr, to the point that we start feeling pity. When it seems that they’re about to pass out or lose an eye, the protagonist lets loose a right or a left from out of nowhere and they leave their opponent planted on the canvas, and that fighter gets none of our pity. That’s the moment in the movie we’ve been waiting for the whole time.

Yes, I used to love boxing, at least up to 2004 when I saw the film “Million Dollar Baby.” The main character winds up a paraplegic; and then, because of gangrene, she has to get her legs amputated. The saddest thing is that she doesn’t suffer from the fact that she won’t be able to walk again, or perhaps get married and have children, or simply value herself for herself. What she complains about is that she won’t be able to box again, because thanks to boxing she had become “someone.”

In that moment I had a mental flash back and I remembered the trainer (Clint Eastwood) yelling at her in a previous fight urging her to hit her opponent “right in the tits,” one of the most vulnerable areas for a woman. That was because what’s involved in boxing is doing damage. You can’t win a fight and you can’t be successful in that sport if you’re not willing to do the most damage possible, as well as receive it.

And us, civilized human beings of the 21st century, so removed from barbarous practices of the Roman coliseums where the gladiators faced each other (or other beasts) with their lives, we continue to enjoy watching two people beating on each other.

I therefore decided to stop watching boxing. It began to scare me that I had enjoyed for so long, ever since I was a little girl, watching two humans exchanging blows to demonstrate who was better than the other. A friend told me that it was an exaggeration on my part to compare modern boxing to the fights of the gladiators. Those were waged at the expense of another person’s life and they could be left mortally wounded in the sand.

In boxing today, one knows that in the end both of the contenders will be alive; one may be taken away in a stretcher, but they’ll still be alive. They still haven’t given the public the authority to decide the fate of boxers with their upward or downward-pointing thumbs. No one climbs into the ring to fight for their life.

They fight to get out of misery, to evade mediocrity, to reach some type of success, to have money, a car, a luxury home, recognition, fans, to be “someone”… which means they’re fighting for their lives. My friend told me that perhaps I was right on that point, but that at least amateur boxing wasn’t as savage as professional boxing; the gloves were softer, the fights much shorter and they also used head guards. So he was right … until recently.

It’s curious that just recently I read a comment on the Internet from a boxing fan who recommended the mandatory use of protective head gear for professional boxing, though he himself recognized that the competition would be less “spectacular.”

What’s not spectacular doesn’t make money, and the most important thing in sports — professional or not — it that it’s a spectacle. Baseball has now been excluded from the Olympic Games because the duration of the game makes it less attractive. The public doesn’t want to spend more than an hour and a half hour waiting for a home run, the catch of an opportune ball or an error that decides the game.

The Olympic Committee will have to make the decision in support of boxers’ protection or the excitement of the sport. I only hope that in the desire to make this competition more attractive, it doesn’t occur to anyone (with the power to decide) that the fights should be a little longer and the gloves smaller.

And what do the boxers have to say? In professional boxing, the risk of receiving serious cerebral damage from a blow seems insignificant in comparison to the money obtained since so many people want to become professional boxers. In fact, it’s the ultimate dream of many amateur fighters.

If this new regulation is approved, the separation between amateur boxing and professional boxing will become increasingly narrow, to the point that the only thing keeping them apart will be the money. It goes without saying that amateur boxers don’t get paid, so wouldn’t it be ridiculous if they ran the same risks as professional fighters and on top of that they did it for free?