Armed And Dangerous
Are Boxing Gloves Lethal Weapons?
Ask James Cagney
By Bobby Franklin
With the recent publication of Tris Dixon’s book Damage: The Untold Story Of Brain Trauma In Boxing (Hamilcar Publications), a discussion has been reopened about how dangerous boxing is and what should be done about making it safer, or less dangerous. When this excellent book first appeared I thought it would create a much bigger stir as it is an exhaustive study of the years of research into the affects of blows to the head that cause what was once called punch drunkenness, now called CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The book lays bare the brutality of the sport and the severe and permanent damage caused to the brains of those who participate in it.
I was at first taken aback by the lack of conversation over what happens to those who spend years in the ring, but I now realize that the truth is hard to face, especially when it is about something people love. Boxing is a highly emotional sport and those who are intoxicated by its primal attraction find it hard to justify their love for it with the reality of what is actually going on in the ring. It is easier to just shut one’s eyes than confront the truth.
For those who are willing to talk about it, there are those who say it is okay because fighters know the risks when they go into the profession. There are others who acknowledge the dangers and seek ways to better protect boxers. Very few call for an outright ban as that would not put an end to the sport but rather drive it underground.
Though there is much more research concerning brain trauma available now, the arguments over whether or not people should be allowed to beat each other up for the pleasure of spectators has been going on for decades.
In the bareknuckle days most contests were illegal and had to be held while staying one step ahead of the law. That did not deter these fights from occurring and drawing large audiences. Eventually, boxing found respectability when practiced in private clubs when they were billed as exhibitions. But the public desire to watch these matches meant there was much money to be made, and as the 20th Century moved towards the Roaring 20s, boxing began to be legalized in more and more places and promoters built major fights into huge attractions drawing upwards of a million dollars and more.
Boxing gloves are actually a weapon, not a safety device.
It was during this transformation that the boxing glove was introduced and billed as a way of making the sport safer and more civilized. This was the complete opposite of what the gloves did. In truth, they made the sport much more dangerous and lethal. Boxing gloves are actually a weapon, not a safety device. Add to wearing the gloves the taping of hands, and the fists are turned into weapons that deliver much more force than a bare fist could ever come close to. The reason for this is the bare fist will break when making forceful contact with the skull; the taped and gloved hand will not. The glove does not protect the brain, it protects the hand. In fact, if you want to make boxing less dangerous the best way would be to ban the boxing glove and any type of protection for the hand. I have been saying this for years.
Recently, I came across an article by Red Smith published in the New York Times on September 11, 1974. In it Smith writes about a conversation he had with the actor James Cagney about boxing. He cites a letter from Cagney referring to a time the two met at Champion Ingemar Johansson’s training camp. In it Cagney wrote, “When we met at the Johansson training camp some years back, I struck you a glancing blow, with the suggestion that we take the gloves off fighters to try to eliminate the concussions caused by the padded mitts. The expression on your face was wonderful to behold, and I kind of had an idea that you were looking at a guy with three heads instead of two.”
Cagney, who had brothers who were physicians had learned a bit about brain injuries from them and was onto something about the “padded mitts”.
He also went on to say, “I worked with a lot of former fighters in the picture business, and I saw the results of getting belted about the head. You know, scar tissue once formed after a concussion continues to grow. That’s why it’s progressive encephalopathy.”
Cagney continued, “If you ever hit anybody on top of the head with a bare fist, you wouldn’t try again in a hurry.
Cagey saw what many of us who have spent a lot of time around boxers have seen, but most do not want to face, boxing causes irreparable brain damage. Cagney continued, “If you ever hit anybody on top of the head with a bare fist, you wouldn’t try again in a hurry. You would learn boxing and body‐punching, and, that’s what I’m after. Gloves sacrifice the brain to preserve the metacarpals. Did you read about the last days of Lew Tendler, that great old lightweight, in a wheelchair with the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?”
Notice how he mentioned Tendler showed the classic “symptoms” of Parkinson’s, not that he had the disease. It is now known that fighters do not develop Parkinson’s Disease from boxing, but rather something described as Boxing Related Parkinson’s Syndrome. This is caused by blows to the head.
It is interesting that a movie actor speaking in the early 1970s would have this knowledge, but it makes sense for a few reasons. First, Cagney had been around boxers all of his life and witnessed first hand the effects of the sport on them. Second, having doctors for brothers he was in tune with the medical aspect of what happens to the brain when it is repeatedly hit, and third, Cagney, being an actor, was an observer of human behavior as well as a highly intelligent man who could look beyond the surface when thinking about such matters. It’s hard to argue with his comments.
The boxing glove has allowed the sport to become extremely punishing to the human brain.
It is often said boxing is the most basic of sports as it pits two opponents against one another with nothing other than their fists. That is hogwash, it pits two well trained athletes against one another with lethal weapons in both hands. The boxing glove has allowed the sport to become extremely punishing to the human brain. For those who are looking for a way to make boxing less dangerous, listen to James Cagney. Let’s focus on protecting the brain, not the hands.
To read a review of Tris Dixon’s book go to: