Dooley Noted: Boxing, Consent and Sadomasochism

By Terence Dooley

I used to go to parties, what my old housemate used to call “Gatherings of like-minded individuals”, usually former students hooking up to all agree on broadly the same, invariably left-leaning, topics and issues.  Like most liberals, they are extremely illiberal if they happen to hold deeply-rooted beliefs and you disagree with these beliefs—everyone is entitled to an opinion as long as it is a certain type of opinion.

Invariably, you bump into someone you have never or rarely spoken to.  Chitchat gets made and then the moment comes that most boxing fans will recognise, you get asked about the things that you are interested in, reply “Boxing”, and are told that it is a “Barbaric sport that has no place in the civilised world”.

In polite circles most subjects are treated sensitively until a friendship is formed and views can be freely, bluntly aired and challenged yet boxing fans are challenged constantly and consistently about their sport by people who want to drag us kicking and screaming into the light

Something about it unleashes their inner pilgrim—if Christianity and Catholicism can be forced upon tribespeople around the world then surely it is easy to convince some ignorant oik that their sport is a disgrace and should be outlawed, right?

Wrong.  In most cases I am happy to politely and succinctly explain that at that one point the word ‘Barbarian’ was a catchall phrase to describe anyone who lived outside a civilised state or those who lacked a faith or worldview shared by all, that barbarians were deemed uncivilised because they did not follow the norms and standards of the wider societies that sat in judgement of them.

Boxers, on the other hand, are governed by strict rules and procedures, and they also help provide the money required to ensure that there are medical facilities on hand during a boxing bill.  Moreover, they usually show a lot of mutual respect and sportsmanship.

In fact, in a “civilised” age of drones bombing people, with the invariable collateral damage, terrible atrocities committed in the name of religion and the various mass crimes against humanity reported on the news, you could feasibly argue that two men stripping to their waist and fighting for money in front of a baying crowd is the most civilised thing in the world.

Plus it is as well-governed as it can be here in the U.K.—the lack of official acknowledgement of the issue of mental health aside—and that there are far worse pursuits to focus on.  After all a fox has no say whatsoever when being chased through the countryside.  No, there are other things to consider before we move on to boxing.

If I’m feeling particularly gnarly, I point out that it is poor etiquette to ask a stranger what they are interested in then denigrate it right off the bat.  I direct them to various, freely available, books on etiquette and how to act in a civilised manner when out in public, which usually serves as an end to the conversation.

Sometimes, though, I ask them a question: “How would you go about banning boxing and what are the precedents you would use to make a case?”  The answer is usually a repeat of their earlier claim, “It is barbaric and should be banned”, rather than a cohesive argument.

I don’t like answering a question with a question, but at times like this I find it useful to reiterate my earlier question, if only for the sheer f***ery of it.  I always get the same repeated answer, so I ask a further series of questions: “Do you know what the houses of Parliament are and do?  Do you know how legislation works?  Are you aware of case law?”

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t—more often than not they think they do when they don't though, don't they.  In reality, banning something is a massive task, it cannot just be done with a click of the fingers.  We are governed by laws and Acts, lots and lots of them, and Acts have to go through a lengthy process before they are given Royal Consent, a commencement date and are passed into law.

Furthermore, parts of them may need to be tweaked as the law and language moves apace, so in that case they are partially altered by subordinate legislation, Statutory Instruments that add or amend words or bring part on an act into place.

So far so dry and boring; however, it is an important thing to consider when you meet someone who thinks a ban is a good quick or long-term fix.  You see, you would have to have some form of an argument beyond “They are hitting each other” due to the thorny issue of freedom and consent—you know, the things that people cherish as part of our civilised society yet want to do away with in this and other instances.

A boxer is not forced into the ring, in fact many of them love it and do it despite the poor money on offer lower down the rungs.  Once known as “bare knuckle fighting” or “prize fighting” the sport as we know it today came into being when it was schematised and given the title “sparring”, now “boxing”, which means a display of skill, and the rules have become layered and safety second-to-none (well at least in the U.K.) over time.

Yes, tragedies happen, as we saw with Mike Towell last year, yet the sport is as safe as it can get, certainly safer than many others, and lessons have been learned.  Abolitionists, though, do not care about reasoned debate or timing, they pop up when the dangers of the sport are highlighted by an injury, use the fallen fighter’s body as a bloody pulpit for their own ends then disappear back into their chattering walls of obscurity leaving, most importantly, the family of the fighter and the sport to carry on.  They deal in polemics and the modern-day trend of making arguments that are utterly devoid of premises and a conclusion yet somehow see themselves as civilised crusaders protecting poor, invariably working-class, men and women who cannot help themselves.


The argument goes that it is for the good of the fighters themselves, which is a facile one to make as health provisions would dip and fatalities spike if the sport was banned and driven underground.  It is not an argument born out of concern, merely a distillation of the “I don’t like this, it should be banned” mind-set that prevails in some areas of society.

Let us first consider Acts of Parliament, the architecture of our legal system, and boxing’s place in existing ones.  In the Licensing Act 2003, boxing is mentioned in Schedule 1 Provision of Regulated Entertainment, where it states that: ‘The descriptions of entertainment are—(a) a performance of a play, (b) an exhibition of a film, (c) an indoor sporting event, (d) a boxing or wrestling entertainment, (e) a performance of live music, (f) any playing of recorded music, (g) a performance of dance, (h) entertainment of a similar description to that falling within paragraph (e), (f) or (g), where [the following conditions are satisfied (so far as relevant)]. [(1A) The first condition is that the entertainment—(a) takes place in the presence of an audience, and (b) is provided for the purpose, or for purposes which include the purpose, of entertaining that audience’.

This lead us to one conclusion, that boxing is licenced entertainment and therefore regulated by the law, which is one of the cornerstones of a “civilised” world, so the sport has a foothold within the legal system.

There is more, as the Gambling Act 2005 S.6 Part 3, Sport Governing Bodies lists the BBBoC among the likes of the FA when listing the U.K.’s Sport Governing Bodies.  The Board were inserted via a Statutory Instrument (SI 2007/2101, art 2(b) in July 2007), so it was recently passed into the hierarchy of British sporting bodies.  A sure sign that, in the eyes of the lawmakers, it is an official sporting body and consequently boxing must be an official sport—albeit one that divides opinion.

There have been attempts to push through a bill to ban boxing: Lady Summerskills tried in 1962 (losing by 22-27 votes), Lord Taylor of Grye in 1981 and 1991 (losing by 44-77 and 17-20 respectively).  Undeterred, Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton) tried again in 1995 and lost by 60 votes (120-60) in the House of Commons.

They concluded that: ‘Is the House aware of the distinguished membership of the British Boxing Board of Control?  It includes two hon. Members—the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe).  How could it include more distinguished sportsmen?  They are not going to stand by with others on that distinguished board and see people mutilated wantonly—and they will not.’

Concluding: ‘There is no doubt that boxing is a fine, well-supervised sport.  This House would do ill even to contemplate abolishing it.’

There you have it, the figures don’t support a fifth attempt.  Still, I am sure they will give it another go at some point in the future, probably when some poor fighter is fighting for their life.

That is the legislative side of things boxed away, but what about case law?  Does it provide an “in” when trying to argue that boxing should and could be banned?  Not really, no, but first we can look at the broader issue of whether a man who kills another man in the boxing ring can be charged and convicted of manslaughter.

The key factor was the separation between bare knuckle or prize fighting, unlimited rounds and a guaranteed stoppage or KO, and sparring, defeating your opponent using skill.  Going further back, there were isolated successes (a boxer was charged in 1789, crucially during the prize fighting period), and recent cases in which those tasked with providing support were found negligible.

In a 1983 trial, ringside doctor Ezio Pimpinelli was found guilty of second degree manslaughter following Alan Minter’s 12-round TKO win over Angelo Jacopucci in 1978 due to his personal failings.

Over in Australia, the Supreme Court of Victoria rejected an attempt by a boxer to sue the Australian Alliance Boxing Rules body following eyesight damage sustained during a bout (Pallante v Stadiums Pty Ltd (No 1) [1976] VR 331).

The judgement declared that boxing is: ‘[N]ot an unlawful and criminal activity so long as, whether for reward or not, it was conducted by a contestant as a boxing sport or contest, not from the motive of personal animosity, or at all events, not predominantly from that motive, but predominantly as an exercise of boxing skill and physical condition in accordance with rules and in conditions the object of which was to ensure that the infliction of boxing harm was kept within reasonable bounds so as to preclude or reduce so far as is practicable, the risk of either contestant incurring serious head injury, and to ensure that victory should be achieved in accordance with rules by the person demonstrating the greater skill as a boxer’.

The finding is based on consent and the display of skill, with consent being a key factor in boxing’s place within the law.  In the case of Dann v Hamilton ([1939] 1 K.B. 509) boxing was referred to when the discussion turned to the issue of consent, stating: ‘In another class of cases, perhaps more numerous, a man is not courting injury, and wishes to avoid it, but he nevertheless consents to the risk of its occurrence—for example, when he engages in a game of cricket, or a boxing match…In such cases he impliedly consents to the risks ordinarily incidental to those sports, and here again, in the absence of consent, the party who sustains injury would be entitled to sue for assault, or otherwise for trespass to the person.’

The consent issue is key, if someone hits you without consent then it is assault.  If you consent to have an unregulated fight outside a pub you can be charged with a number of crimes.  In a boxing match, though, there is consent on both sides as well as regulations and medical provisions, so it is hard to argue that an injured fighter did not consent unless you can prove that foul play was involved or prove beyond doubt that the sole intent was to maim, rather than injury occurring as a by-product of a sporting event.

A case that mentions boxing and consent was seen before the House of Lords.  Over the course of a decade, from 1978 onwards, a group of men consented to sadomasochistic acts, ‘including genital torture’, for the ‘the sexual pleasure which it engendered in the giving and receiving of pain’ (R v Brown and other appeals—[1993] 2 All ER 75) and the encounters were recorded and shared among the group.

Initially, they were tried for assault on the basis of actual body harm and unlawful wounding descriptions taken from s.47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and they pleaded guilty after the judge argued that the consent of the “victims” did not make for a viable defence as s.20 of the act argued that: ‘Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously wound or inflict any grievous bodily harm upon any other person, either with or without any weapon or instrument, shall be guilty of [an offence] ... and shall be liable [to a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment].'

However it was later argued that: ‘Even when violence is intentionally inflicted and results in actual bodily harm, wounding or serious bodily harm the accused is entitled to be acquitted if the injury was a foreseeable incident of a lawful activity in which the person injured was participating.  Surgery involves intentional violence resulting in actual or sometimes serious bodily harm but surgery is a lawful activity.’

Other harmful pursuits were mentioned, namely: ritual circumcision, tattooing, piercing and boxing—all described as ‘lawful activities’.  The key is the word ‘boxing’, which is far removed from prize fighting or bareknuckle boxing and was clarified in Reg. v. Orton ([1878] 39 LT 293)): ‘'The true view is, I think, that a blow struck in anger, or which is likely or is intended to do corporal hurt, is an assault, but that a blow struck in sport, and not likely, nor intended to cause bodily harm, is not an assault…nor does boxing with gloves in the ordinary way, and not with the ferocity and severe punishment to the boxers deposed to in Reg. v. Orton'’ (C/O Edward Grayson, 'Boxing Clever', 142 NLJ 48, 17 January 1992).

Previously, prize fighting was linked to breaches of the peace due to the fact that they were often held illegally, which we have seen does not apply to modern-day boxing due to the regulations in place.  Nor is it strictly legal, either, instead existing: ‘[A]s another special situation which for the time being stands outside the ordinary law of violence because society chooses to tolerate it’.

In the consensual S&M case above, a number of things were considered, including the possibility of death, before the conclusion that: ‘The only question is whether these consensual private acts are offences against the existing law of violence.  To this question I return a negative response’, which led to a successful appeal and quashing of the prior convictions.

It was a complicated case, and issue, and there are those who will argue that the consent aspect of boxing is that both agree to engage in a process in which the aim is to bludgeon the opponent to defeat by inflicting as much blunt force trauma as possible, which does happen.  However, as long as boxing remains a game of skill, with all the checks and balances entailed, then it is hard to see how a fighter can be prosecuted for a crime should he injure an opponent during a fair encounter.

It is equally difficult to argue that the sport should be banned, as it would create a situation that runs contrary to the stated aims of the abolitionists due to the fact that a relatively safe sport would be made much more dangerous.

It all boils down to the issue that people know boxing exists yet are not content to merely avoid it or turn the TV over when it is on.  The idea of one person using their skills to gain dominion over the other upsets their sensibilities, yet if you approach someone at a party, ask them what they enjoy and then try to argue them down aren’t you simply displaying the same combative urge that pushes others into boxing and combat sports?  After all, it is clearly not born out of a desire to save life and limb.

As long as sense prevails, as long as people can be tolerant, boxing will continue to exist, albeit hit with the “barbarian” stick.  Again, I often ask people if they look at the world we have created and plonked onto the natural world, which we are slowly but surely killing, and really see it as civilised.

If so, then they have to accept that boxing has not been outlawed, far from it, and if the world we see every day on the news is the civilised one—a world of war, political chaos, and widespread greed and corruption—then I am happy to live among the “barbarians”.  At least you know what you are getting with them.

Please send news and views to @Terryboxing.

Tags: British Boxing image  
User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by Zexe on 10-26-2017

I like watching boxing, studying tactics, movement, skills and all, but I am still having a hard time trying to reconcile that with the fact that boxers are actually out there looking to inflict brain damage on each other... Bixing…

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