Cost of boxing brain injuries rockets

Last updated 05:00 10/06/2012

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The cost of treating boxing and other fighting sport-induced brain injuries has rocketed over the past five years, as concerns are raised over the number of mismatches.

As the sports continue to match novices against more experienced fighters, ACC figures show the cost of brain-injury claims from boxing and kickboxing went from $2500 in 2006-07 to almost $85,000 in 2010.

The cost of total injuries from the sports has risen from $952,219 in 2006-07 to about $2.5 million in 2010-11.

Neurological Foundation medical adviser Dr Jon Simcock said while the increasing popularity of the sports might have something to do with the statistics, the sport's explicit goal remained to damage an opponent's brain.

Last month, New Zealander Willman Rodriguez-Gomez was pronounced dead on the way to a Tahiti hospital after making his professional boxing debut. He collapsed 32 seconds into the fight – the result of an apparent ruptured artery in his brain. His opponent was also making his professional debut, but had more than 80 amateur fights.

Doug Viney of the City Kickboxing Gym, where Rodriguez-Gomez trained, said the New Caledonian promoter had asked for a fighter with fewer than three fights. The inference is that Rodriguez-Gomez was going there simply to lose.

Some in the industry say Rodriguez-Gomez should never had been there. "It takes a death in the ring for everybody to get up in arms about it," New Zealand Professional Boxing Association president Lance Revill said.

In the largely self-regulated industry, every pro fighter, whether at home or overseas, should be assessed and cleared to compete by a certified boxing association under a system structured to check the medical history of a fighter, and the situation they are getting into – including potential mismatches.

But the system is not subject to law, and is based on trust between promoters, managers and associations.

Rodriguez-Gomez travelled to Tahiti without clearance from either of the two major New Zealand boxing associations.

New Zealand National Boxing Federation president Gary McCrystal said he hadn't cleared Rodriguez-Gomez, and "probably" wouldn't have, if he had known the record of his opponent. "It just wasn't done right."

McCrystal said Australian authorities would generally only accept fighters with a medical clearance, but Pacific Islands promoters tended to be looser. He estimated about one in five fighters went offshore without a proper clearance.

The last ring death of a New Zealander came in similar circumstances. In 1976, Peter Gilbert, an Auckland amateur, travelled to New Caledonia despite being on suspension for having been knocked out in a recent fight. The suspension was ignored and he died five days after collapsing in the ring from a brain haemorrhage.

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Professional Boxing Association secretary Pat Leonard said there was nothing binding in the requirement for a clearance. "If I have prior knowledge I look for a fair matching, so the New Zealander isn't just going over to be a chopping block for someone to get another win in their record book."

Viney said he usually trusted the promoter. "After the fight we found out the guy Willman was fighting had more than 80 fights, a complete mismatch. They didn't know what they were walking into."

The Tahiti Boxing Association is conducting an investigation into the fight but has yet to publish its findings.

- Sunday Star Times

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