At the Charleston Civic Center, pairs of boxers in four rings are fighting bouts at the same time. For the fourth year, Charleston is hosting the boxing Junior Olympics. Almost 700 athletes from all over the country, ages 8-18, are competing for a national title in their age and weight divisions.
The kids are lithe and share an expression of determination as coaches check wraps, adjust headgear and pat thin shoulders on the back. The fighters face one another, tap gloves and begin.
The athletes are fighting three 1- to 3-minute rounds, depending on age. In amateur boxing, the goal is not to knock out one’s opponent as it is in professional boxing, but to score points. Points are scored by the number of quality blows landed, technique, competitiveness and style.
“It’s a very unique sport—it’s an individual sport that teaches self-confidence, delayed gratification,” said Mike McAtee, executive director of USA Boxing. He said many of kids at the Junior Olympics tournament are from some of the toughest neighborhoods in the United States. Boxing gives those kids direction and a place to earn respect.
“While you’re here, I would challenge you to watch these bouts. These kids will be competing as hard as they can,” said McAtee. “The second the bell rings, they stop, they hug each other, they go and congratulate each other — so it’s about respect. It teaches respect.”
McAtee argues boxing also teaches discipline, builds physical fitness, and is a positive outlet for energy.
“I tell everybody I walked into a boxing gym when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 13, I decided I was going to be a police officer because one of my coaches was a police officer,” he said. “I was from a single parent family, lower socio-economics. And, if it wasn’t for boxing, probably instead of being a retired police detective of 25 years, I’d probably have been on the receiving end of law enforcement.”
But when a sport is centered around fighting and rewards athletes for blows to the head and face, concussions are a big concern. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long tried to ban youth boxing, citing concerns about repetitive hits to developing brains.
But there isn’t a lot of good data about the actual percentage of youth boxers who sustain a concussion — mainly because the sport is quite small compared to things like soccer and football and doesn’t figure into the big studies.
A 2017 study of nine sports found that girl’s soccer had the highest rate of concussions followed by football for boys — boxing wasn’t included on the list. When boxing is included in statistics, it’s often lumped in with MMA, and little distinction is made between professional boxing and amateur boxing, which McAtee claims is a big deal.
“The purpose of our sport is to score points, compete competitively, teach respect, and then all the great benefits we all know that come from organized sports is just a great benefit,” he said.
But the reality is, no one actually knows how big of a deal concussions are in youth boxing.
However, one of the rules of amateur boxing is that a physician is present at every match and runs concussion tests before and after every bout. The physician also has the power to stop a bout if there’s any concern that one of the fighters is getting hit too hard. If a concussion is suspected, the doctor may suspend the fighter from competing or sparring for 30 days. If the fighter loses consciousness, the suspension can extend to 180 days — in some cases even longer. Family physician Martha Dodson was working this week’s event.
“Anytime there’s potential injury — and certainly with repeated blows to heads — it’s in the media. It’s a big concern right now, but that’s why we’re here that’s why we have the coverage we have, the extent of the coverage we have. That’s why we have the rules we have,” she said. “Everyone is really well trained and really, I think, as you can see, really on top of everything that is going on.”
While the American Academy of Pediatrics is particularly concerned with boxing, most neurologists concerned about the impact of concussions also recommend banning certain aspects of soccer (heading for instance), youth football, hockey and lacrosse. Others are wary of any contact sport, recommending that kids play tennis, badminton or swim instead.
But boxing often flourishes in low-income neighborhoods where access to a pool or tennis equipment is limited or nonexistent. McAtee said many boxing coaches offer their time on a voluntary basis and utilizing a gym is usually free for young fighters.
“I fell in love with it because in every other sport you have a whole team to rely on, but when you’re in boxing you’re doing stuff that’s only on you,” said Natalie Dove, a 16-year-old from Philadelphia.
“You know what you’re capable of doing and you know exactly what you have to do to win and I feel like it’s just — you feel really good knowing you did all of this yourself rather than relying on other people to do it for you.”
About 87 percent of the kids competing this week are male and that statistic is fairly consistent across the sport. Dove said she’s the only female fighter in her gym, but that doesn’t bother her.
“I learned a lot of discipline. I learned to work as hard as I can and push myself to the limits. I know what I can and can’t do,” she said.
For Dove, boxing is an opportunity to go places she never would have dreamed of. She said she loves that if she works hard, stays focused and is smart, she has the chance to succeed. Her goal is to fight in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
“We work really hard,” Dove said. “Nothing is ever handed to us. We have to work for what we get and I feel like people should understand that.”
McAtee said less than half a percentage of kids who participate in boxing go on to the Olympics or to become professionals. He said the community built around boxing is as much about teaching life skills as teaching kids to fight. And for many young fighters, he said, that makes all the difference in the world.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.