Making boxing safer: when to stop a fight on medical grounds
N K Sethi, MD
Department of Neurology, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, NY, United States of America
Corresponding author: N K Sethi (firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclosure: The author serves as the Chief Medical Officer of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC). The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect necessarily the views of the New York State Athletic Commission.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to:
Nitin K. Sethi, MD
Associate Professor of Neurology
Comprehensive Epilepsy Center
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
525 East, 68th Street
New York, NY 10065
Recently the boxing world was heart broken by the untimely demise of boxer Patrick Day. By the accounts of all who knew him, Patrick was an intelligent well-spoken young man who was loved by all. He died at the tender age of 27 after suffering devastating traumatic brain injury (TBI) during the course of a professional boxing bout. Patrick was no rookie stepping into the ring for the first time. He was an accomplished boxer with a record of 17 wins and 4 losses in professional boxing. His amateur record was 75-5.
Following Patrick’s death, the boxing community has been looking inwards and searching for answers on what went wrong that eventful night and what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. In a sport where every punch thrown at the head is thrown with the intention of winning by causing a knock-out (KO) (aka a concussion); the risk of TBI lurks all the time. Many still do not understand that deaths when they do occur in the ring are not the result of a single blow (punch) to the head; rather it is the culmination of multiple head shots which the fighter sustains during the course of the bout. Importantly the initial signs of a concussion/TBI are subtle and wholly subjective. The fighter may experience a headache, subjective feeling of dizziness or imbalance, vision problems and difficulty in focusing. There are no objective signs which can help the ringside physician, the referee, the inspectors and the corner men identify the concussion/TBI with confidence. By the time objective signs such as gross motor instability (GMI) (obvious balance problems, lack of coordination or inequality in pupil size) appear, the TBI is usually well evolved and precious little can be done ringside to save the boxer’s life except to transport him to the hospital in an emergent fashion for life saving brain surgery. Usually a decompressive hemicraniectomy is carried out for evacuation of the blood clot and to reduce the intracranial pressure. Even though surgery in some of these cases may save the boxer’s life, he is usually left behind with significant and permanent neurological deficits such as motor weakness, speech and cognitive deficits and problems with coordination and gait. Hence the goal should remain to stop a fight early rather than late. A good stoppage done by the referee or the ringside physician on medical grounds is one which is done for the right indication such as concern for TBI and at the right time (neither too early, certainly never too late!).
Standardizing medical stoppages in the ring is no easy task but certainly something which we all should be paying closer attention to. One approach which can be adopted is to establish NO-GO criteria in boxing. If any of the NO-GO criteria are encountered during the course of the bout, the bout should be stopped on medical grounds to protect the health and safety of the boxer. Ringside physicians, referee, the Commission officials, the corner men and most importantly the two boxers should be aware of these NO-GO criteria.
In order to identify and prevent acute TBI in boxing, the following good practice guidelines and NO-GO criteria are proposed based on personal and collective evidence of experienced ringside physicians and clinical acumen:
The fight should be stopped if the boxer voices any of these complaints or displays any of these signs at any time during the course of the fight:
1. If the boxer voices complaint of headache.
2. If the boxer is displaying overt signs of a concussion and gross motor instability (GMI). These signs include but are not limited to confusion and disorientation, impaired balance and coordination.
3. If the boxer suffers any duration of loss of consciousness after a KO. This boxer should not be allowed to continue even if he gets up at the count of 8. It is good practice for the referee to waive off the count in these instances, signaling an end to the contest so that the fighter can immediately be attended to by the ringside physician medical team.
4. If the boxer suffers an impact seizure or displays fencing responses at the time of a KO. This boxer should not be allowed to continue even if he gets up at the count of 8. It is good practice for the referee to waive off the count in these instances, signaling an end to the contest so that the fighter can immediately be attended to by the ringside physician medical team.
5. The boxer suffers loss of visual acuity during the course of a fight. This is usually on account of trauma to the eye. Loss of visual acuity results in an impaired fighter who cannot defend himself/herself effectively. Allowing the fight to continue risks the health and safety of the boxer.
6. The boxer suffers loss or restriction of visual field during the course of a fight. This may be on account of trauma to the eye, neural mechanisms which control eye-movements or due to swelling around the eye (peri-orbital swelling). Restriction of visual fields results in an impaired fighter who cannot defend himself/herself effectively. Allowing the fight to continue risks the health and safety of the boxer
7. If the boxer becomes a physically compromised fighter during the course of a fight. This usually occurs on account of injury to the hands/shoulders or the lower extremity (knee or ankle injury) leading to inability to defend oneself from the opponent.
8. If the boxer starts to vomit during the course of the bout, the fight should be stopped (caveat is that boxers will sometime vomit after a hard body or liver shot).