by Frank Warren
The volume of modern day fighters whose careers are temporarily - or sometimes permanently - derailed due to damaged hands is both a mystery and a worry.
Back in the middle decades of the last century, leading prizefighters of the day routinely fought more times in a year than several contemporary boxers fight during their entire careers.
The old timers wore significantly smaller gloves and the duration of championship fights back then were noticeably longer. Nevertheless their hands somehow seemed to hold up.
By way of contrast, far too many of today’s elite fighters are having their careers interrupted and are being forced to forfeit opportunities because they incur serious hand injuries. Top fighters I’ve been involved with who’ve had trouble have been Joe Calzaghe and Naseem Hamed, and more recently Billy Joe Saunders and Frankie Gavin, who were top Team GB amateurs, Liam Smith, Bradley Saunders, Liam Walsh, Derry Mathews and Joe Selkirk have all recently suffered problems.
After centuries of bare knuckle combat – dating back to the Ancient Greeks – ‘mufflers’ were introduced in the late nineteenth century. However, the intention was primarily to safeguard the recipient from facial injuries rather than to protect the dukes of the striker. Back then, gloves weighed as little as two ounces, even for heavyweights.
From the early part of the twentieth century, boxers in and beneath the (10st 7lbs) welterweight division fought with six ounce gloves and those in the heavier categories wore eight ounce gloves. Quite recently, as an added safeguard against brain injuries, an additional two ounces of padding was mandated. Padding back then was horse hair, nowadays it’s a manmade product.
Latterly, however, glove manufacturers have also altered the weight distribution of the glove, moving the cushion away from the knuckle region and up towards the wrist. Consequently there is less protection around the point of impact.
Due to scientific developments in nutrition, and strength and conditioning training, today’s average middleweight, for example, is a significantly bigger and better conditioned fighter than they were back in history.
Given that modern athletes run faster, jump higher and throw further, is it logical to expect that today’s fighters will punch harder? But the increased impact comes at a cost. It is no coincidence that the sport’s heaviest hitters are those most susceptible to injury. And a propensity for damaged hands is an impediment to a fighter’s prospects as being susceptible to cuts or a glass jaw.
The human hand and wrist is made up of 27 bones; including some of the smallest, most delicate in the body. Hands, of course, were designed for picking things up and not for smashing against bone.
Post fight bruising of the hands will heal naturally once ice with regular icing and a short period of abstention from punching. However, bone fractures and, most poignantly, ligament damage can lead to prolonged inactivity and requires specialist medical attention.
The most common injuries are tears to the extensor hood which runs at the back of the knuckles and damage to the carpometacarpal joints which link the hand to the wrist. Both require significant surgery and many months’ rehabilitation.
Until recently, these problems often caused a fighter to retire prematurely. However, modern advances in diagnosing and treating the conditions have prolonged many careers. The ‘go to’ guy in this field is Mr Mike Hayton, an orthopedic hand surgeon based in the north-west, who has successfully operated on several champions.
So what are the causes and what can be done to negate the problems in the first place?
In my opinion, the introduction of computer scoring in the amateur code over the last generation is partially to blame as it results in poor technique.
With the emphasis on evasion and ‘nicking’ points, too many young amateurs are encouraged to just ‘flick’ rather than rotate their bodies and punch through the target. When they later advance to professional boxing where they usually throw fewer but sometimes harder punches – and where gloves are significantly smaller with no head guards to cushion the impact – problems can occur. The career of a leading boxer – amateur and professional - would span somewhere in the region of 20 years and there will naturally be a degree of wear and tear on the hands.
Schoolboys begin to compete from as young as 11 yet too often they are left to bandage their own hands unsupervised. Some simply don’t bother. Sometimes bad habits develop and once a youngster develops hand injuries they are liable to constantly re-occur.
Unlike in the pros, tape and gauze are banned in amateur competition yet top internationals might be forced to fight four or five times in a week at the major tournaments. Often the young boxer’s hands will be a mess before they even join the profession.
My former matchmaker Dean Powell and legendary Detroit trainer Emanuel Steward – widely acknowledged as the doyens of wrapping hands – are sadly no longer with us. However, the governing bodies in both the amateur and pro sectors run courses for coaches and it’s paramount that trainers assume responsibility for their fighters.
Boxers can help themselves by ensuring their hands are adequately protected for every gym session.
Given that a fighter’s hands are effectively the tools of their trade, they have a responsibility to take every possible precaution to care for them.
Hearing about the rumoured $10 million dollar bet that Floyd Mayweather Jr. put on the Denver Broncos, who going in were the heavy favourites against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl Final, reminded me of a similar story with Naseem Hamed.
Naz asked me if I could put down £1m for him on Mike Tyson to beat Evander Holyfield in their epic first fight back in November 1996 - with Tyson being 10-1 on to beat the big underdog - which I talked him out of doing.
Before the fight came on in the early hours of the morning, Naz was on a high after a spectacular second round stoppage of Argentine Remigio Molina to defend his WBO World Featherweight title at the then Nynex Arena in Manchester.
As we sat watching the fight on a big screen at a hotel and it was dawning that Holyfield was going to pull off an incredible upset, a worried looking Prince asked me if I placed the bet on for him. I turned to him and said “yes” and it was more incredible seeing the color drain away from him instead of the drama that was unfolding in the fight!
Luckily I didn’t put it on, with Holyfield grinding down Tyson to stop him in the eleventh round, saving him a hefty bill. Defensive master Mayweather later tweeted that he did not lose £10m as he didn’t place a bet.
Mayweather will be the heavy favorite if he does go ahead with his showdown against Brit Amir Khan this year.
A professional boxing career is tough enough, but rising talent Steve Collins Jr. also plays pro rugby for National League One side Rosslyn Park.
The son of the super-middleweight great appears next on my Copper Box Arena show on Saturday 15th February and takes on Tommy Gifford over four-rounds.
Collins, 23, wasn’t allowed to watch his dad’s epic fights against Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank or do any boxing training when he was young, instead he was encouraged to play rugby which he had a great talent for.
Despite only taking up boxing in April last year and with no amateur experience, cruiserweight Collins has racked up three wins so far and is taking his career at a steady pace allowing him to develop.
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Tags: Frank Warren