Vikas Krishan made history in 2018, becoming the first Indian male boxer to win Asian Games and Commonwealth Games medals. However, a serious eye injury in the semi-finals meant that the pugilist could not push for a gold medal in the Asian Games.

That could have been a decisive moment for Boxing Federation of India, who are now aggressively pushing for headgears to return to the sport. The women and junior boxers, though, continue to wear protective gear, though. In March, Karanjeet Singh, involved in Indian boxing for nearly two decades, represented the Asian Boxing Confederation in a medical commission meeting with AIBA.

As it turns out, the world body is now keen on bringing back headgear in men’s amateur boxing. Confederations around the world have joined hands on the issue but the changes will come into effect only after the Tokyo Olympics, which has been postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are many nations who want the headgear back,” Singh said. “Safety of the boxers is our priority.”

India’s High Performance coach Santiago Nieva has been vocal about headgears making a comeback in men’s amateur boxing. The Swede now sees the ground shifting with more voices around the world now on the same page as him.

“When I was in the Coaches Commission, I was also trying to push for bringing the headgear back,” Nieva said.

“But at the time, most coaches didn’t want to go against AIBA or didn’t have strong opinions about it. Now, most coaches share the same opinion as me,” he added.

Why without headgear?

It is almost unprecedented in the world of sports that a rule that once existed is now making a comeback. But reality, would make the boxing world sit up and take notice of something that has seen many a boxer suffer.

Take Krishan’s case again. Another unfortunate injury he suffered on his face in the Olympic qualifiers earlier this year meant that he could not take part in the gold medal bout.

Moreover, there are other cuts and concussions that could potentially end careers, as we have seen on numerous occasions the past. There are head injuries that put the boxer out of the game for months. It’s important to know why the athlete’s health was put at risk in the first place, which was at the start of the previous decade.

“They wanted to make boxing a little more entertaining. People would say ‘they can’t even recognise who is in the ring.’ The boxers had even agreed to it at the time,” Nirmolek Singh, head of medical commission in BFI, weighed in on the issue.

Nirmolek thinks that the scrutiny on the sport in recent times have forced AIBA on the backfoot.
“There are complaints against boxing in general. They are saying it’s a cruel game and there are more injuries in boxing than any other sport, and that it should be thrown out of Olympics,” he said.

There is also concern over the younger crop of male boxers, who may have never boxed without headgear. When the rules kick in, it will be uncharted territory for some of them, despite knowing that the headgear reduces the chance of suffering a head injury by a significant margin.

“Boxers would come to the arena without the head gear and would wear them only after entering the ring. Now, the number of injuries have gone up,” said Nirmolek. “Some are comfortable with it. Some of them, the younger lot in particular, have been boxing without headgear for a long time so they are comfortable without it,” he added.

Karanjeet, on the other hand, says it’s a case-by-case study but conceded that there are boxers in the Indian camp who apprehensive of walking into the ring with padding covering their head region.

“Some people want name and fame,” he said. “Some boxers are recognised by their faces, as is the case in the professional arena. There is a conflicted opinion here but very few [have resisted the move to bring back headgear].

“Many of our current lot’s heroes also happen to be professional boxers. However, the ones focussed on Olympics and World Championships are receptive about headgears making its way back.”

Preventing injuries and the road ahead

AIBA are still mulling over the decision of making headgear mandatory in men’s amateur boxing. Data went a long way into showing what a difference it makes to the overall health of an athlete. BFI too, led by Nieva, were proactive with their desire to see pugilists walk into the ring with headgear.

“With this [the need for headgear], I would say that there aren’t many people in the boxing community who have done more than me. I pressed it with the IOC [International Olympic Committee, who will hosting boxing in Tokyo] task force in Japan. I have shown them statistics and data.”

These concerns were highlighted by Karanjeet in the inter-continental medical commission in Laussane, just before the pandemic brought the world of sports to a grinding halt.

“The leaders in BFI wanted me talk about headgears during the conference,” Karanjeet.
“We have data for the last year; the Nationals, The Big Bout League. In the national camp, between November 15 and March 18, we didn’t have a single injury because the boxers used headgear. There were around 500 bouts that were recorded during this time.”

More than international events, Karanjeet’s worry was the senior Nationals, where experience in the ring has some kind of a role to play.

He said: “There are more in the Nationals because quality boxers are up against a rookie. Cuts on the faces sometime is a result of the gloves clipping against the headgear.”

While the AIBA buys some more time to green-light headgears’ return to men’s amateur boxing, the reputation of the sport is at stake. And so is the boxer’s well-being.

Karanjeet summed it up: “There is a notion that that we are obsessed with achievements and not as much about safety.”

The boxing fraternity has a chance to right the wrongs from the past. Your move, AIBA.