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You will have noticed that when boxers and MMA fighters spar in their pre-fight preparation, they will consistently wear head protection. By this, I mean padded protection that wraps around the back, sides and usually the chin. But what is the purpose of wearing boxing headgear in the first place?
The purpose of fighters wearing boxing headgear during sparring and fights. Is meant to help minimise the trauma sustained on the facial area and brain of the fighter. With the purpose of the padded material being to absorb as much of the transferred impact as possible.
In much the same way as the introduction of gloves into the sport of boxing. The use of headgear was brought in to try and help in the fight against excessive damage, both seen and unseen. As you may be familiar with how many fighters discuss that during training camp is often harder than the fight itself. And by this, they are referring to the fact that they can be driven to the extremes to make the fight itself easier.
And this drive to push athletes to their limits will also involve them taking some severe impacts during their sparring sessions. With stories of fighters being dropped and often knocked out. Consistent injuries over time will eventually lead to lasting and permanent damage. So with that in mind, headgear was added to the list of the required equipment in many gyms around the world.
The Introduction Of Boxing Headgear
Boxing headgear had been around since the reign of boxing icon Jack Dempsey. Who at the time had asked a local sports equipment manufacturer to create some head protection that could last fifteen rounds of intense sparring. A challenge for the company that had never designed anything of its kind before. But they managed to get done and so the very first headgear protection was born and has only continued to evolve since that time.
Boxing headgear was first introduced to the Olympic games in 1984. And the reason for this was a series of brutal knockout finishes that occurred in the professional sport. Which led the Olympic committee to choose what they believed to be the safest course of action.
And so the new look became part and parcel of the Olympic boxing scene. With fighters now having to wear the compulsory padding to try and help protect them from potentially life-threatening injuries. While at the same time maintaining the integrity of the sport.
The Risks Involved
The risks that padding for the head was hoping to mitigate. Range from cuts and bruises, from combination things including punches, elbows and the butting of heads. To the more serious and long-lasting effects of concussions on the brain itself.
As with advancements in science and testing for injuries to the human brain. Medicine has been able to show undeniable evidence that repeated blows to the head can result in permanent damage. What is known is that when on the receiving end of blunt force trauma, the brain receives scarring and tissue damage. And so in a sport where the main goal is to stop your opponent, either by knockout or body punches.
The chances of a fighter falling victim to life-changing injuries whilst inside the ring are very real. And something which has been seen time and time again among professional boxers.
Headgear For Training
So the wearing of headgear at first began with the goal of helping fighters to compete in the amateur circuit. And in their training regimes at the boxing gym. Training at 80 – 90% intensity with fighters not or supposedly, not punching at 100% outside of a fight. The padding did offer up some added protection in the right setting.
This, however, seemed to change when the fights moved to the ring itself. So when the competitors were utilising the padding in amateur fights. They would no longer be punching as they do in training. But moving up a gear and looking to stop their opponents, regardless of any headgear they might be wearing.
And this is where things appeared to get muddied in the whole debate. As new studies began to show that the protection being offered was only helpful up to a certain point. But when the shackles were taken off and fighters were throwing leather with bad intentions. It was here that the padded protection absorption qualities were no longer of any help. Thereby cancelling out its ability to take the most powerful of blows.
Meaning that fighters were being led to believe that the headgear was offering them some protection. When in reality it may have been giving them a false sense of confidence. Causing them to take risks they may have otherwise avoided like taking a punch to give a punch. Along with the gear making their head and bigger target which was easier to hit.
Head Protection Research In 2012
2012 research into padded gear offering protection was conducted in the biomechanics lab at Cleveland Clinic’s Lutheran Hospital. Showed that the use of padding, both on the fists and the head could indeed minimise the impact from linear and rotation impact from punches.
So in layman’s terms, the study showed the effect of receiving a straight punch to the head. And also the effect of a hook punch to the side forces the head to rotate on the neck. The tests were undertaken using a crash test dummy and a pendulum. Using the following five padding configuration criteria:
- Without headgear or boxing gloves
- With headgear and boxing gloves
- With headgear but without boxing gloves
- With boxing gloves but without headgear
- With mixed martial arts-style gloves without headgear.
The results showing that the combination of padding both on the hands and on the head. Was in fact the best in absorbing the impact from linear punches. However, the results also showed that the padding did not assist in minimising the effects of the rotational impact. The technique from which most knockout blows are landed.
So a mixed bag of results with the main takeaway being that that padded gear was true of benefit. But, this benefit was limited to some very specific types of impact and not across the board as one would have hoped.
This combined with results from fights held at the amateur boxing world championships from 2009 – 2013. Where comparisons of matches where headgear was used, vs their removal from the competitions. This resulted in a 43% drop in fights being stopped by repeated blows to the head.
Something which led to the eventual decision to remove the mandatory use of the headgear for its elite-level fighters aged 19 – 40 throughout the world amateur boxing scene. With its president Wu Ching-Kuo commenting;
“It is something that has been expected by our boxers and by the boxing fans the world over,”Wu Ching-kuo – President of the A.I.B.A.
The Olympic Games 2016
Taking its lead from the AIBA, the decision was made in 2016 to remove head guards for male boxers only from the Olympics. With female boxers for now at least have to continue with the system until further investigating has been done.
And it has not been a decision with which everyone agrees. As the Association of Ringside Physicians who are against the removal of head protection. Argued that the gear was never invented to stop concussions.
“The idea that headgear prevents concussions is ludicrous to begin with,” “It would be great if it did, but to say that taking it off will lead to fewer concussions doesn’t make sense, either.”Dr. Robert Cantu – Association of Ringside Physicians member
Believing that the test numbers which the AIBA had used were not sufficient to warrant a complete removal of the protection. Adding that they were now seeing a sharp increase in other injuries. Saying that the decision was not based on good reasoning. But a push by the AIBA to entice more fans to watch amateur boxing. While at the same time luring more professionals into the Olympics.
With dissenting voices saying that the drive to remove protection. Was an attempt by the powers that be to blur the lines between amateur and professional boxing.
Some Final Thoughts
With an increase in physical trauma including cuts, broken cheekbones and noses since the removal of mandatory headgear. Some believe this is a worthwhile tradeoff to try to minimise the far more dangerous prospect of long term brain damage.
But with conflicting arguments from experts on both sides about whether or not to keep headgear. It seems as though further studies will have to be done. As no doubt, the associations will continue to keep a close eye on the results of their 2013 decision.
And while boxing headgear still serves a purpose for many fighters around the world. Helping with sparring and several other combat sport environments. Right now in amateur and Olympic levels, its use will not continue. As no doubt, it does serve a purpose, but as to what specific application that purpose fulfils is another debate altogether. And going forward, we will only have more insight into it as over time the data continues to roll in.
Hi, I’m Ross, at 40 years plus, I have been involved in the Martial arts for most of my life. Along with my first pet Collie dog named Tyson, RIP. My journey in the world of Martial Arts is something I want to share. So that others too can learn from my experiences.