By David Fong
July 25, 2014
GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — It was the first bout of the boxing competition at the Commonwealth Games. Within minutes, Mathew Martin of Nauru had a large lump on his head from a punch. Northern Ireland’s Michael Conlan, who won unanimously on points, had blood streaming down his face.
That’s what fighting without protective headgear can do.
In a decision last year, the International Boxing Association stopped the use of headgear in male bouts, citing medical experts who said it would help reduce concussions.
Benson Njangiru of Kenya, who won his bantamweight fight Friday, said going into the ring for the first time without headgear was “scary.”
“You have to be more worried about cuts,” said Njangiru, who won a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. “But the change affects both fighters the same way.”
His coach, Albert Matito, said they’ve trained without headgear for about six weeks and it was “terrible at first, but now we are getting used to it.”
While female fighters and younger boxers will still use headgear, the boxing association cited medical studies that wearing headgear diffused blows to the head and allowed boxers to sustain more head shots — and potential brain damage — for longer periods of time.
The association also changed the scoring system — a pro-style 10-point format — for bouts such as those held at world championships, the Commonwealth Games and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, trying to align it with the pro ranks.
The biggest complaint, by far, has been the scrapping of headgear.
“I am certainly not in favor of it, there were two guys cut in the first fight,” said Harry Hawkins of Belfast, Northern Ireland, coach of the four-man Mozambique team.
“These guys will be getting hit far too often. It is OK in a one-off competition, but these fighters will have five bouts in 10 days. And an unlucky cut to the head might mean the best boxers don’t win.”
He said the best boxing he’s seen in the amateur ranks was at the 2012 London Olympics — when boxers still wore headgear. Hawkins hopes they are reinstituted before the 2016 Games.
Not everyone is against the change.
England boxing team leader John Hallam said he’s heard nothing but positive comments about the move, and said the style of fighting in amateur bouts will change as a result.
“I think the boxers are now here to box, to keep their head out of the stance,” Hallam said. “We believe that with the headguards on, you tended to lean in, to take the punch. We all feel that won’t be a problem now.”
And blood in the ring?
“Unfortunately it happens, doesn’t it?” Hallam said.
British pro George Groves told a boxing website last year that the rule change doesn’t make sense.
“They need the protection headguards give at this stage of their careers,” Groves said. “I get paid to get hit in the head. These kids don’t.”
But Paul Johnston, coach of the Northern Ireland team, said he’s confident that the research used by the association to cite fewer concussions is sound. He also points to a positive side benefit — a more spectator-friendly sport that allows boxer’s faces and reactions to be seen by the fans.
“It will enhance the spectator experience, and anything that increases the participation of the sport can only be a good thing,” Johnston said.
Daniel White, a spectator from Mansfield, England, who was draped in a flag and had his face painted red and white, doesn’t agree.
“They should still be wearing headgear,” White said. “It’s an important part of the safety equipment. It’s all about limiting brain damage.”