If you are a local boxer your life might well depend on the interpretation of one word. The slippery word is ”may” and it appears in the rules that govern Boxing South Africa (BSA). It is in the clause that deals with the cancellation, or suspension, of boxers’ certificates of registration following excessive ”punishment” in the ring.
According to the BSA rules, a supervisory official ”may” — rather than ”must” — suspend a boxer’s certificate of registration for a period of 60 days if that boxer has suffered serious injury through an early technical knockout or multiple knockdowns. In the case of a clear knockout, the suspension ”may” be imposed for 90 days. The clause is meant to protect injured boxers from re-entering the ring before their injuries are healed. It also bars them from participating in any gym activity involving potentially harmful physical contact.
But concern is growing in local boxing circles about the gap between ”may” and ”must”. Recently, eyebrows were raised when BSA sanctioned a world title match between former International Boxing Organisation (IBO) junior-lightweight champion Zolani Morali and Mlungisi Dlamini for the vacant IBO lightweight title. Many boxing experts felt that Morali, who had been technically knocked out by Korean pugilist Ji Hoon Kim on September 12, should have been barred from further bouts for 60 days, as stipulated in the rules. Instead, he returned to the ring to face Dlamini on October 31 — less than 50 days after his last technical knockout.
In the IBO title fight, which was part of the Damocles tournament at Emperors Palace, Morali was again knocked out. The pundits questioned whether he should have appeared at all.
But BSA’s acting chief executive, Loyiso Mtya, defended the decision to allow Morali to return to the ring and denied allegations of negligence. Mtya told the Mail & Guardian that BSA rules give officials room ”to exercise discretion” in such matters and said that ”two doctors at ring-side both agreed that this fighter [Morali] should be allowed to fight”. He said their opinion was endorsed at a subsequent meeting between boxing officials.
Mtya maintains that Morali was ”more tired than punished” after his bout with Kim in September. He said BSA would have ”denied Morali an opportunity to earn a living” if they had imposed the anticipated 60-day ban. Boxers survive on what they earn in the ring because they do not receive monthly salaries, he said.
Dr Jon Patricios, a sports physician at the Centre for Sports Medicine, does not accept this argument. He believes that BSA rules are not sufficiently stringent to protect local fighters from long-term physical damage. ”In boxing the aim is to inflict the most neurological harm upon your opponent to win,” he told the M&G.
Patricios believes boxers should have a ”thorough neurological examination after every fight” and that BSA rules should be amended accordingly. Such examinations, he said, should check for cognitive functioning, loss of balance and ”other irregularities”, which may not necessarily show up on a computer scan. He also urged boxers to undergo annual clinical tests and described it as ”alarming” that so few do.
Boxers who have experienced multiple knockouts, said Patricios, are likely to take longer to recover. BSA rules should recognise this and should define suspension periods in terms of ”minimum requirements”. Boxing officials should look at each case individually.
It is not only medical experts who are calling for an overhaul of BSA regulations. According to Len Hunt, the IBO’s representative in South Africa, local authorities have to move with the times. Hunt told the M&G that the BSA rulebook makes him ”mad” because it ”does not reflect where the sport is today”. Boxing, he said, has developed significantly in recent years and the rules that govern the sport must evolve too.
Hunt wasn’t just talking about medical issues — he is concerned about the equipment used in the ring. According to South African rules, flyweight fighters are expected to use gloves weighing 170.25g. Hunt said such gloves are ”outlawed everywhere else in the world” because they are ”too heavy” for that weight division.
But what are South African boxers saying about their working conditions? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they are less vocal than the ”experts”. When the M&G spoke to Zolani Morali — the fighter at the centre of the recent controversy — he expressed surprise at the idea of a clinical neurological examination being necessary for boxers. According to the dethroned champion, medical checkups usually happen before a fight, not afterwards. Following his bouts with Kim and Dlamini, a doctor ”only did a doping test and nothing like brain scans”, he said.
Morali lamented that ”things didn’t go well” for him in his previous two bouts. He conceded that he would not have argued if authorities had barred him from the ring after his knockout by Kim. But ”the officials talked and made a decision”, agreeing that he was ”strong enough to fight”.