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Fighters are high risk candidates for developing depression

By Ciarán Herlihy

On 31 May 2012, Lewis Pinto, a promising English super middleweight tweeted “No matter how good or bad you think life is, wake up each day and be thankful for life. Someone somewhere else is fighting to survive”. 3 days later and a mere 7 weeks since announcing his arrival to the professional circuit with his first and only victory, Pinto took his life leaving his record to forever stand at 1-0.

The tragic circumstances of Pinto’s death stunned the UK boxing community, and touched an international fraternity still grieving with the loss of Johnny Tapia who, after enduring repeated bouts with depression, succumbed to a suspected overdose a week previously. Tapia had reached the zenith of professional boxing, a five time world champion at featherweight and super flyweight (he retired with a record 59-5-2) but his fight with depression and addiction retold a story all too frequently ignored by boxing’s hierarchies. Depression in professional boxing is an issue which the main governing bodies, WBO, WBC, WBA and IBF have yet to meaningfully address, notwithstanding the disproportionate instances of mental health issues which afflict their fighters and by remaining silent on what is a pressing crisis issue in sport, the sanctioning bodies are tacitly reinforcing the stigma associated with depression.

Fighters are high risk candidates for developing depression. Professional boxing is one of the most brutal demonstrations of athletic ability and the relationship between repeated forceful head trauma and depression is steadily being established. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked brain injury with depression. With the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimation that 90% of boxers sustain brain injury, it’s shouldn’t be difficult to recognise the vulnerability of boxers.

The physical toll exacted by the sport is only one aspect to this problem. There are other, more subtle contributory factors. Boxing requires a supreme self confidence in one’s ability to fight. The theatrical bravado reeled off by pros at press conferences is deeper than cockiness, this self-belief is an absolute requirement for victory in combat sports. The pro boxer isn’t simply looking to outplay or outscore, he’s looking to outfight his opponent and unless our pugilist totally believes he is the stronger and braver, the ring can be a lonely place. It’s hard to reconcile doubt with outward expressions of confidence, or to admit uncertainty in an industry dominated by herculean machismo. If a fighter has reservations, he’s likely to keep them private and the cumulative effect of this internally directed angst can be devastating for a person’s mental wellbeing.

Ricky Hatton and Oscar De la Hoya have spoken candidly in the past year about their battles with depression and in doing so have given voice to the silent suffering of fighters whose struggles remain private. Hatton’s honesty in speaking of instances where he pressed a knife against his chest was particularly powerful but it seems to have provoked little urgency from the organisations whose mission statements commit them to ensuring the holistic welfare of boxers.

The welfare of boxers in general has progressed in the past 20 years. Increased access and availability to medical care coupled with more protective regulation and refereeing have helped ensure the safety of boxers. The financial welfare of professional fighters has also been ameliorated by the Muhammad Ali Reform Act, enacted in the U.S which tackles the exploitative nature of boxing promotions but the institutional hierarchies remain muted on mental health.

This isn’t the case elsewhere in the sporting world. The stigma which has surrounded depression in other sports has been surmounted by frank admissions to its existence and prevalence. Neil Lennon, Freddie Flintoff, Stan Collymore amongst other have all divulged their battles with dark moments of introspection. This has spurred other sporting bodies and players representatives to engage the issue. For instance, England’s Professional Footballers Association circulates a booklet to its members offering guidance on coping with depression but equivalent supports in professional boxing don’t exist.

Although the sanctioning bodies and the promoters have long been criticised for exploiting professional fighters, the sport has changed and become a fairer, more equitable environment for its participants. This shows that boxing’s ivory towers are not necessarily occupied by regressive anti-reformists but by overlooking the frequency of mental health issues in boxing, there remains a systemic failure to protect the life blood of the sport.

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