Concussion - The great headgear debate

Written by Graham Kuerschner

The decision to remove headgear from Olympic boxing bouts due to medical data on concussions may have ramifications for martial artists, fighters and their instructors.

AIBA-boxing
Aussie middleweight Daniel Lewis lands a right on Uzbekistan’s Bektemir Melikuziev in Rio.

In 2013, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) ruled that amateur boxers could fight without headgear. In March this year, the International Olympic Committee executive board declared that the IOC would not oppose the AIBA’s decision and therefore boxers at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, did not wear headgear.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams was quoted by BBC News Online as saying, “AIBA provided medical and technical data that showed the number of concussions is lower without headgear. They have done a lot of research in the last three years. The rule will go ahead for Rio.”

Interestingly, the rule has not yet been implemented for women due to a relative lack of data on head injuries in the comparatively young sport of female boxing. So female fighters will continue to wear headgear. The Sydney Morning Herald also pointed out in its online article ‘Rio Olympics 2016: Male boxers to abandon headgear, push for professionals’ (2 March 2016) that this move was also linked to the push for professional boxers to appear in the Olympics — the idea being to increase exposure via attracting big-name fighters. But that’s a side issue here.The headgear move has understandably attracted controversy, especially in the context of current concern over concussion rates in sports such as American football and soccer, and in both AFL and rugby

The headgear move has understandably attracted controversy, especially in the context of current concern over concussion rates in sports such as American football and soccer, and in both AFL and rugby here in Australia. Of course, researchers on both sides of the issue cite studies that back up their differing opinions.

In 2014, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons said in an article on its website that in several studies, between 15 and 40 per cent of former boxers were found to have at least mild symptoms of chronic brain injury. The article went on to say studies have shown that most professional boxers, even those without symptoms, have some degree of brain damage.In contrast, according to a report on the AIBA’s website, the association’s medical commission researched over 11,000 bouts between 2013 and 2015 and said the concussion rate without headgear was down by 43 per cent compared to bouts with headgear.

In contrast, according to a report on the AIBA’s website, the association’s medical commission researched over 11,000 bouts between 2013 and 2015 and said the concussion rate without headgear was down by 43 per cent compared to bouts with headgear.Against that backdrop, UFC commentator Joe Rogan in May, in one of his regular podcasts, pushed the idea that MMA would be safer if there were no gloves or wrist-taping at all. His contention was that the gloves and taping made fighters less cautious about throwing strikes that, if they were bare-knuckled, they would think twice about. The early UFC events

Against that backdrop, UFC commentator Joe Rogan in May, in one of his regular podcasts, pushed the idea that MMA would be safer if there were no gloves or wrist-taping at all. His contention was that the gloves and taping made fighters less cautious about throwing strikes that, if they were bare-knuckled, they would think twice about. The early UFC events were, in fact, bare-knuckle affairs and
there were more hand injuries and more open-hand strikes. ‘Tank’ Abbott was the first to use open-finger gloves around UFC 7, I believe, but these were bag mitts with some padding. There were no such things as MMA gloves in those days.Now before going further, let’s be clear; headgear is/was intended to give some degree of protection to the recipient of a closed-fist strike while gloves are (primarily) intended to protect the hand of the person striking. The fact that the public generally thinks that gloves, especially heavy gloves, are intended to give protection to the recipient of a blow is just their misconception. This last point

Now before going further, let’s be clear; headgear is/was intended to give some degree of protection to the recipient of a closed-fist strike while gloves are (primarily) intended to protect the hand of the person striking. The fact that the public generally thinks that gloves, especially heavy gloves, are intended to give protection to the recipient of a blow is just their misconception. This last point would of course cause the UFC problems if they suddenly decided to take up Joe’s advice. The anti-bloodsport protestors would turn up by the bus load.My personal experience, having fought at

My personal experience, having fought at state and national level, is that headgear is problematic. I disliked it because it restricted my peripheral vision, hampering my ability to see circular strikes and especially kicks. It’s a common complaint. However, maybe somewhat unusually, I also found that it interfered with my hearing, which I believed helped me orientate in the chaos of a fight. And in training there was always the sense that your sparring partner was a little less cautious about striking to your head because you had gear on and were somehow protected. I found that having a strong neck, employing head/body movement with the chin down and keeping the hands up were better solutions.

Those who operate gyms and use headgear in contact sparring now have some serious thinking to do, as the AIBA and IOC decisions could leave you exposed legally if there is a serious incident at your school during contact sparring with headgear.


Graham Kuerschner is a 50-year veteran of the martial arts and an instructor in seven systems. He has competed at state and national level in judo, kickboxing and eskrima, and was formerly director of Krav Maga Australia and New Zealand. He can be contacted through his website at www.sdtactics.com.au

Image Credit:Alex Livesey/Getty Images