Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

How Many Boxers Die A Year? (And How To Prevent It)

Unfortunately, many boxers have died in the past due to their injuries in the ring. It is fairly rare for a boxer to die from the injuries sustained a match, but this topic has gained attention after the deaths of boxers Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Alfredo Santillan, both of which happened in the same week.

So for those wondering how frequently this happens, as well as other boxer-injury related questions, I’m going to answer the question: How many boxers die a year?

On average, about 7 boxers die each year from injuries they sustained in a fight. This is based on information available on boxer deaths from 2000 – 2011, on both pro and amateur boxers. This is according to The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection, which has kept and updated records of deaths in boxing occurring from 1725 – 2011.

A lot of research has gone into The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection, so their records are the most accurate for deaths in boxing up to 2011. An unfortunate thing to note is that the average number of deaths per year does not take into account deaths from sparring, which would significantly increase the yearly average.

Main Causes of Death In Boxing

Boxing is a dangerous sport. Despite the precautions taken to establish some type of safety for the fighters, there is always a chance of life-changing injury, or in some cases, death.

Many of the deaths have varying causes, and hopefully, this explanation of causes for deaths will encourage fighters (or fighters to be) to get the proper medical attention before they fight. But first, let’s discuss the nature of boxing, and the factors that make it dangerous.

Factors Involved

It is quite obvious to the average person that boxing is dangerous simply due to its nature. A punch to the head is never a good thing. However, the problem is aggravated by the intervention of promoters or other people interested in making money from the fight.

For example, gloves are used to protect the hands of the fighters from injury. While this may seem like an altruistic rule to enforce, the truth is that this rule benefits promoters and viewers alike.

16 oz. gloves, such as those worn in boxing, encourage the fighters to hit harder and deal more damage to each other.
16 oz. gloves, such as those worn in boxing, encourage the fighters to hit harder and deal more damage to each other.

If a fighter breaks their hand, the chances of the fight being stopped increase, and this would be especially true in a bare-knuckle fight, where every punch damages the hand more and more. However in a gloved fight, the chances of hand injury are much lower.

Because their hands are protected by the gloves, the fighters can swing shots as hard as they like, without the repercussions of the impact on their hands. This may cause knockouts and more exciting fights, but it also causes increased force in the punches thrown, which in turn leads to an increased rate of brain trauma and concussion.

There are several other ways in which promoters benefit from fighters to wear gloves. If you want to learn the details, check out a post called Why Do Boxers And MMA Fighters Wear Gloves? where I explain the monetary benefits for those involved.

McGregor became visibly fatigued in his fight against Mayweather, not being able to last the 12 rounds scheduled.
McGregor became visibly fatigued in his fight against Mayweather, not being able to last the 12 rounds scheduled.

In addition, boxing competitions can be long due to the number of rounds in a single fight. A championship fight lasts 47 minutes from start to finish, with 36 minutes of that being active fight time. Not only does this increase the amount of damage taken, but the fatigue from fighting this long can result in deaths from other causes as well.

When you combine the time spent fighting, fatigue, and extreme weight cutting, that’s when deaths begin to occur from organ failure and cardiac arrest.

Cause/Mechanism Of Death

In case you’re wondering, by the mechanism I mean the manner in which the fatal injury was sustained. Now let’s talk about actual causes. I will present two charts detailing this information, both provided by Joseph R. Svinth in a thorough presentation he made, which you can find on his website.

Below you can see a chart that shows the percentage of deaths due to a certain injury. As you can see, the overwhelming majority of deaths are due to head injuries.

However, this chart doesn’t show the whole story, as not all head injury is due to blows. That’s why the mechanism of death is important, as we can find the root cause of the overwhelming number of head injuries. Below, you can see the chart of mechanism of injury, which may surprise you.

Chart showing the cause of injury prior to death in boxing.

The fact that falls are the cause of the majority of fatal boxing injuries makes sense, as a fighter hitting their head on the canvas could be significantly damaging. Of course, this is especially true when considering how much damage the fighter took before falling and whether they were unconscious before they hit the floor.

I do believe this graph is a bit skewed, as blows more than likely were a major cause in all of the injuries, and likely increased the probability of getting injured in other ways.

If you’re wondering what is meant by ‘misadventure’, it basically means that the cause is up for speculation. I want to note that Joseph, the author of the presentation, has his own doubts on the truthfulness of the graph.

For example, Joseph implies that the number of injuries due to falls might be inflated by the people involved with the event. He states, “it’s possible that promoters, managers, and other ringside officials sometimes attribute boxers’ deaths to other causes to reduce their own liability.”

His theory might also apply to the number of misadventures, as it shouldn’t be difficult to determine if an injury came from blows or not. Despite this, there is always a chance of misadventure, at least until medical technology becomes more advanced.

Has Boxing Become Safer Over Time?

Yes, boxing has continued to become slightly safer since the 1920s. Even as boxing continues to gain popularity worldwide, the number of deaths slowly decreases. This is likely due to advancements in medical technology and neurology, as well as more stringent requirements from the athletic commissions, such as mandatory brain scans.

Although most of the athletic commissions have minimal requirements, some of them require fighters to present the results of a brain scan, such as an MRI.
Although most of the athletic commissions have minimal requirements, some of them require fighters to present the results of a brain scan, such as an MRI.

Boxing will likely continue to become safer as time passes. With the news coverage surrounding the deaths of Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Alfredo Santillan, athletic commissions will probably work on increasing the requirements, as well as enforcing the ones already in place.

The enforcement of rules by the athletic commissions is relevant to the recent death of Hugo Alfredo Santillan, who received a suspension from fighting prior to his death. Santillan suffered a hard loss in his fight against Artem Harutyunyan, prompting the German Boxing Federation to prohibit him from fighting until July 31st.

Santillan’s camp ignored the suspension, putting him in a fight on July 20th, resulting in his demise.

Boxing rules have also been changed before to prevent death and significant injuries. For example, boxing matches were fought over 15 rounds until 1982, when it was shortened to 12 due to the death of Duk Koo Kim in the 14th round of a championship fight.

Below, you can see a graph of the number of deaths by century. Note that the list stops at 2007, so the number of deaths listed for 2000s may be less than the actual number of deaths.

Chart showing deaths in boxing for every century from 1890 - 2000.

How Rule Changes Can Prevent Deaths In Boxing

As I’ve already mentioned, many of the rules in boxing are factors involved in the death of fighters. Rule changes are the best way to prevent deaths and long-lasting injuries in any sport, especially in boxing. The first thing that should happen in boxing is an increase in requirements for boxers.

This should be especially true for local boxers and amateurs, as there are almost no requirements for them when compared to World Championship-level boxers.

The WBC requires its top-10 boxers to submit brain scans before their fights.
The WBC requires its top-10 boxers to submit brain scans before their fights.

Commission Requirements

The standards set to ensure the safety of the best fighters in the world should also be used to protect lesser-known fighters. Some athletic commissions, such as Colorado, have barely any requirements at all other than blood work and a physical! Some commissions have less lenient requirements for amateurs than for pros, when really it should be the other way around.

The commission should require an MRI from fighters of all levels, in order to determine if they are fit to fight. MRI’s are capable of finding brain tumors, brain trauma, and causes of a headache. Detection of a pre-existing condition through MRI could prevent the death of a boxer or deter a potential boxer from fighting in the first place.

Make Fights Fair

In boxing, it is very common for up-and-comers to face journeymen boxers with negative records. This is a problem because the journeyman is always expected to take the loss, no matter how much damage he might sustain.

In other cases, a new fighter may not be aware of who they are matched up against. Promoters often take a green, inexperienced fighter, and put them up against an experienced one in hopes of the fight ending in a knockout, therefore being more exciting for fans.

The athletic commissions should have a way of evaluating a boxers skill level, and keep competitions between similarly-skilled boxers. Their evaluations should be based on the fighter’s years of training, boxing background, their record, age, and how difficult their previous fight was for them.

Stop Weight Cutting

And lastly, there should be measure against drastic weight cutting. Cutting weight causes conditions that will persist through the fight, such as dehydration and fatigue. These factors increase the risk of all types of injuries, not just brain trauma.

Solving this would be easy, as the commission could implement a hydration test on the day of weigh-ins. Better yet, the fighters could agree to a rehydration clause, preventing either fighter from weighing more than two pounds right before the start of the fight.

MMA promotion ONE Championship  introduced hydration testing to prevent weight cutting, after the death of fighter Yang Jian Bing while cutting weight.
MMA promotion ONE Championship introduced hydration testing to prevent weight cutting, after the death of fighter Yang Jian Bing while cutting weight.

Padding The Ring

Because falls are the leading injury that causes death in boxing, it seems that the environment of the boxing match is inherently dangerous. stronger safety measures should be put in place to prevent fighters from hurting their heads on the ropes or on the canvas.

I think the most important change is the stiffness of the ropes, as boxers have passed away from hitting the back of their head on the ropes during a fall.

Number Of Rounds

Boxing matches last a long time, much longer than an MMA match. This is one reason why deaths are more common in boxing than in MMA. In fact, reducing the number of rounds from a max of 12 to only 8 could have saved the lives of 184 professional boxers from 1890 – 2007.

Chart showing the round in which fatal pro boxing fights ended.

Conclusion

Several boxers die a year, something which will likely continue until medicine and technology have advanced enough to treat the brain for injury, and recover it to its original condition.

However, that doesn’t mean fatal boxing matches can’t be avoided today. Changes to the rules such as weight-cutting, mismatches, less rounds, and stringent testing could prevent deaths in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about head injuries in boxing and MMA, check out a post called How Many Times A Week Should I Spar? where I go into detail on the potential injuries of fighting. Thanks for reading.