Why corporate boxing is getting people killed

Yesterday corporate boxer Kain Parsons succumbed to a brain injury sustained in a charity bout on Saturday night. He won’t be the last, writes Don Rowe. 

Content warning: suicide

In November 1982, Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim was killed in his championship bout with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini after collapsing in the 10th round. Four months later, Kim’s mother Yang Sun Nyo drank a bottle of pesticide. Another four months after that, referee Richard Green died by suicide. As the saying goes, you can play all kinds of sports, but you can’t play boxing.

On Saturday night an untrained man in his late 30s stepped into the ring against a former professional athlete and now he’s dead too. He leaves behind a wife and three children, all irrevocably traumatised, an opponent with blood on his hands and a referee left wondering if the blame rests on him.

Kain Parsons was not a professional fighter. There was no belt within his grasp, no million dollar pay cheque, no place in the hall of fame. There probably wasn’t even another fight in his future. Parsons was fighting for charity, putting on the gloves for a spot of ‘corporate’ boxing, a full step below even the most amateur of events but an increasingly popular form of competition.

For your average corporate, finishing a 5k fun run is a monumental achievement. Competing in a sport where the explicit goal is to do as much damage to your opponent as possible, after only the bare minimum of training, is laughably obscene. As we learn more and more about the lifelong and irreparable consequences of brain injuries, these events are revealed as totally unconscionable. 

Corporate boxers, by definition, have little to no idea what they’re doing when they get in the ring. There’s no head movement, no footwork, no defensive nous, nothing whatsoever to take the sting off a punch. They are worse than amateur. By contrast, it’s perfectly possible to kill someone with only the barest modicum of technique. Twelve weeks may be enough time to learn how to punch but it is nowhere near long enough to learn how to box. There is no room for mismatched weekend warriors in this environment.

As with every horrific incident like this, commentators are calling for bigger gloves, better headgear, more stringent fitness testing. But there’s very little that can be done when a former professional rugby player is matched up with a sedentary project manager with insufficient medical screening. Height and weight mean almost nothing in circumstances such as these. And it’s well-known that headgear does little more than make the head a bigger target; amateur boxing at an Olympic level has removed headgear for that reason. There is no way to make boxing risk free, but restricting it to people who have committed to more than a few months training is a good start.

Parson’s death is not the first corporate boxing-related tragedy in New Zealand. On September 24, 2016, 49-year-old Hamilton man Neville Knight was also killed during a charity boxing match. In August of this year, Boxing Alley, home to Monty Betham, indefinitely cancelled it’s corporate boxing nights after a fighter suffered brain damage following a bout. Another boxer on the card said the incident was ‘sort of hushed up’, and left other fighters traumatised and hesitant to compete. That same month, Auckland man Joel Rea, who had an undisclosed brain injury, suffered a severe concussion and was hospitalised for four days.

Today Boxing New Zealand announced it will cease all involvement in charity boxing, saying in a statement it has long had “‘very real and grave concerns over the safety of participants.”

“Whilst most promoters run these events very professionally, we cannot impose the same level of restrictions and guidelines, we would place upon organisers of amateur events.”

“The amateur sport itself is heavily regulated and conducted under very strict rules, where the care and protection of our boxers is paramount. We expect the highest standards from our coaches, referees, judges and officials, all of whom must be qualified to participate fully in the sport. The boxers themselves must be registered with Boxing New Zealand and undergo annual and pre bout medical checks and are matched as closely as possible, according to age and weight categories.”

Boxing is a craft where the slightest misstep can have severe consequences even for professionals. That’s why it captivates the masses. That’s why names like Muhammad Ali transcend the sport. But so long as we continue to treat it as a social game, people will continue to die.


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