Samoan boxer's injury shows sweet science's danger

Aug. 10, 2008, 6 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Farani Tavui tried so desperately to keep his feet. The Samoan boxer staggered and shuffled around the Olympic ring, his once-sharp footwork scrambled into a stupor from a few well-placed punches to his head.

Tavui fell once but got up to meet the referee's count. He then stumbled again and finally collapsed onto his back unconscious, his arms spread wide and his eyes shut.

The Chinese crowd shouted with mingled excitement and horror, quieting when a medical team strapped Tavui to a stretcher and whisked him away to a hospital so the next bout could begin.

The scary scene was exactly what amateur boxing didn't need as an Olympic opener.

After 18 months of remarkable reforms in judging and officiating for a sport that's been widely perceived as endemically corrupt for a generation, Tavui's injuries were a stark reminder of boxing's more timeless flaw.

Though its supporters can cite reams of statistics that show boxing is less perilous than most contact sports, and even though amateur fighters wear bulky headgear and impact-absorbing gloves to minimize injury, there's no way to eliminate the inherent violence that left Tavui on the canvas.

"Boxing gets a bad rap because the object is to hurt somebody, but it's really the safest contact sport out there because of the precautions we take," Canadian team leader Charlie Stewart said Sunday after his welterweight, Adam Trupish, came out of a 20-1 loss with significant swelling around both eyes.

"In the odd case, you get an accident, but hockey and football are much more dangerous," Stewart said. "It's a shame when something like (Tavui's injury) happens, because it gives a false impression to people."

AIBA spokesman Richard Baker said Tavui was in good, stable condition and could be released from the hospital Sunday. Charles Butler, the chairman of AIBA's medical commission and the ringside doctor at Tavui's fight, predicted as much after examining Tavui, but sent him to a hospital just in case.

Butler is a staunch defender of boxing's safety, particularly when compared with rugby, ice hockey and American football, which cause much higher occurrences of brain injury than amateur boxing.

"We want to keep it that way," said Butler, a cardiac surgeon from Kalamazoo, Mich. "We very much care not to have any neurologic injury, and the most important thing is not to be arrogant and to miss something. There was a tremendous amount of concern for this young man, and in a way, I almost feel bad, because I think it will be a very routine thing."

The random Olympic draw sometimes produces glaring mismatches, but Tavui wasn't obviously overmatched against Croatia's Marijo Sivolija-Jelica despite trailing 13-2. Butler believes Tavui simply got caught by a fairly innocuous punch on the side or back of his head, where just the right contact can disrupt anyone's equilibrium for up to 15 minutes.

"I don't enjoy such injuries, because it can always happen to me," Sivolija-Jelica said.

While Tavui's unconscious flop to the canvas was disturbing, it doesn't mean the fighter even had a concussion, Butler said. Losing consciousness doesn't necessarily indicate neurologic injury, which has more to do with the brain's impact on the skull.

Olympic boxing and prizefighting have major differences, and not just in the amateur scoring system based on punch statistics that de-emphasize overall damage to an opponent.

Pro fighters who essentially invite opponents to hit them, in the mold of WBA welterweight champion Antonio Margarito, wouldn't win many amateur bouts, while quick-handed defensive specialists like U.S. gold medalist Andre Ward or current U.S. welterweight Demetrius Andrade excel as amateurs.

Knockouts are rare in the amateur ranks, where referees watch over fights with extreme caution, sometimes stopping the action in the middle of big flurries simply to safeguard the health of a fighter who has taken too many clean shots.

But amateur boxing's safety precautions don't impress the medical associations of Britain, Australia and the U.S., which during the last 20 years have repeatedly called for bans on all boxing. The American Medical Association has long supported removing boxing from the Olympics as well.

Among the many boxing-related resolutions passed and reaffirmed by the AMA in the last two decades is a missive which bluntly "encourages the elimination of both amateur and professional boxing, a sport in which the primary objective is to inflict injury."