It’s a sport that celebrates the knockout and punches to the head, but boxing is one of the safer contact sports.
When it comes to dealing with concussions, amateur boxing has a long and successful history of success, thanks in large part to an extensive education effort to inform coaches, trainers, referees and judges about the dangers and symptoms of head trauma.
Spokane neurosurgeon Dr. John Demakas has long volunteered his time as ringside physician for amateur boxing events and has handled similar duties for a number of professional fight cards. Considering his specialty, who better to help safeguard young pugilists?
“For every bout, there are a number of officials who have the power to stop the fight,” he said. “You have the referee, you have ringside judges and you have a ringside doctor all with eyes on each fighter. They’ve all been very well-educated on what to look for and how to spot when a fighter is in trouble.
“That’s the big thing. Amateur boxing invested in education early on and I think that’s made the biggest difference. That’s something every sport can learn from.”
Amateur bouts also have what’s known as the “standing eight count.” If the referee suspects a boxer might be injured or in trouble, he or she can stop the round while counting to eight. During that eight-second respite, the referee will check for signs of injury. Professional boxing has no such rule.
Amateur bouts require boxers to wear protective headgear and mouthpieces to help prevent head injuries. Amateur gloves, too, contain more padding than professional gloves for the same reason.
“They’ve decided to do away with mandatory headgear for elite level boxers,” Dr. Demakas said. “At that level, at the Olympic level, it can actually help prevent concussions by taking away the headgear. It can block peripheral vision in some cases. At that level of competition, I can see it helping.”
Stopping the first concussion isn’t an attainable goal, he explained. Concussions happen all the time and with proper treatment, an athlete can recover completely.
The goal is to stop the second concussion.
“That’s what we have to prevent,” he said. “That’s what used to be the problem with professional boxing. You had guys who made their living boxing. They’d get knocked out in one bout, use a different name and fight again a few days later in another town or in another state.”
The accumulated head trauma became evident over the years. Amateur boxing addressed that problem by requiring proper recordkeeping nationwide.
“Every amateur boxer has a passport,” Dr. Demakas said. “Wherever they go, wherever they fight, they have to present that passport. If they’ve been injured and haven’t gotten their medical clearance, they’re not going to fight.”