I love Canadian boxing. That’s why I want to talk about how deadly it is
Heavyweight boxing legend Lennox Lewis stepped onto the Olympic podium in front of the maple leaf flag, becoming, in 1988, the first Canadian to win gold in boxing in over 50 years.
A year later, he turned pro—but he didn’t do it in Canada. He instead chose to start his professional career in the United Kingdom because, as he put it, Canada didn’t have “the infrastructure to develop boxers.”
More than 30 years later, Canada’s amateur boxers might reasonably decide to follow in Lewis’s footsteps. However, in 2021, the decision to join the professional ranks across the pond would be made not just for development reasons, but for health and safety.
The tragic death last week of a teenage Mexican boxer in Montreal, 18-year-old Jeanette Zacarias Zapata, should serve as a painful reminder of the state of the sport: Canada has become one of the most dangerous countries for pro boxers in the western world, while the U.K. has become one of the safest.
To put it into perspective, since January 2017, Canada has had 195 professional boxing events and has seen three deaths in this time. The U.K., meanwhile, has had 1,016 events and only had one death.
For those who like statistics, a boxing event in Canada is over 15 times more likely to be deadly than an event held in the United Kingdom.
Why is that? It may be easy to blame the promoters and their mismatches. Zacarias, for example, held a professional record of two wins and three losses and was matched up with an undefeated prospect in Quebec.
But that’s not too different from how current heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury made his pro debut—against a foreign fighter who held a professional record of three wins, nine losses and two draws at the time. Building up a prospect against proven fighters is not new.
A bigger risk comes from the completely disorganized nature of the Canadian boxing regulatory regime. Since 2017, Canadians have organized those aforementioned 195 professional events under more than 10 different regulatory commissions.
The U.K. only has one: the British Boxing Board of Control. The so-called “BBB of C” regulates just one sport. It has one president, one chief medical officer and a list of active referees.
Canada, on the other hand, has a handful of provincial or even municipal commissions that regulate boxing as well as, in many cases, mixed martial arts, kickboxing and professional wrestling.
In Quebec’s case—the system that oversaw Zapata’s bout—the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux oversees combat sports regulation as well as alcohol-serving establishments and even gambling.
That’s right: the same organization that is in charge of the safety of combat sports athletes is also spending its time and resources regulating bingo nights.
Obviously, a merger of all these scattered governing bodies won’t make Canadian boxing safer overnight, but it would have many benefits and is desperately needed as a first step.
One national, boxing-focused governing body would help ensure that all doctors, referees and judges involved in the sport gain proper experience.
If you are a referee or fight doctor in Manitoba, for example, you are working fewer than one professional boxing event a year, on average.
Officiating and monitoring boxing is no different than any other trade: the more you do it, the better, more efficient, and above all, safer you become. In the workplace, people with less than five years’ experience account for 43 per cent of accidents and injuries.
By uniting these governing bodies, Canadians can ensure that officials are working events more regularly, therefore allowing them to gain sufficient experience.
Knowledge-sharing is also urgently needed. In Canada’s disorganized environment, how much information is being shared? If a boxer is suspended for medical reasons in British Columbia, let’s say, is that information shared with the commission in Nova Scotia? Is all that’s preventing that boxer from getting in the Halifax ring a plane ride?
What about coming up with best practices? In 2017, Tim Hague died in an Edmonton boxing ring. After its investigation into what went wrong, did the Edmonton Combative Sports Authority share these lessons with other commissions across Canada to prevent the same mistake happening again?
With a national commission we can quickly and easily ensure that any information about a boxer’s suspension is shared nationwide, and anything Canadians learn about how to keep boxing safer can be applied widely, not siloed and forgotten within provincial borders.
Boxing fans should be pushing for this change, too, for another reason: it’ll help grow the sport. Every time we see a tragedy in Canadian boxing ring, thousands of existing and potential fans are turned off from watching.
It may come as a surprise to the public, but boxing doesn’t pay well. Very few boxers in Canada make a living from the sport and few promotors do either.
So why are we wasting precious money and resources administering so many different commissions? Why are we spending money on 10-plus different offices, 10-plus different presidents, 10-plus different commissions?
Let’s reduce that to one national body and spend the saved time and money on keeping boxers safer. We could spend the extra needed to ensure fights have more parity and that, in the case of Zapata, foreign boxers have their records better verified.
We could implement many more safety measures, such as weight-cutting monitoring. The World Boxing Council, one of the four recognized international sanctioning bodies, does this for title fights to ensure boxers aren’t losing weight in an unhealthy fashion before a fight. Canada, too, could begin implementing this in some cases.
The opportunities are endless and increasingly standard in other countries. How many ideas like this are being ignored in Canada because of our small, underfunded patchwork of commissions?
A national governing body would also finally give us some much-needed transparency. If this article you’re reading isn’t better informed, it’s not for lack of trying.
I, like most other boxers, am not involved in the sport full-time. But I’ve analyzed many industries as a consultant, and I did my best: scouring the different websites, looking at the third-party record-keeping institutions.
These small commissions are not doing a great job keeping the general public informed. If I can’t find information, how can we expect a boxer to do the same thing on top of worrying about his or her day job and the burden of daily training?
A national commission would ensure all information is in one place. Boxers, managers, promoters and the public would be able to easily get the information they need to ensure athletes are safe.
I love boxing. No other sport promotes discipline or respect in the same way boxing does, and I am not one of the people that wants to see the sport banned. Quite the contrary, I want boxing in Canada to grow.
I just don’t want the next Lennox Lewis to build his career in the U.K. or the U.S. It’s unacceptable that a country as developed as Canada is unable to protect, to the highest possible standard, the safety of its boxers or the boxers that choose to compete here.
If we want boxing to thrive, we need to make sure we keep it safe. Only then will sponsors, fighters, promoters—and parents who are thinking about putting their children into the sport—have the confidence to invest in the boxing world, and only then will it grow.
Boxing has always been a sport for the forgotten, at least in Canada. In this country, boxing rarely makes headlines if there isn’t a tragedy or an over-priced pay-per-view event in Las Vegas.
Let’s make sure the next time boxing is in the headlines it’s because of the talent our country cultivated. That starts with making it safer.
Danny Parys is a business strategy consultant who’s been active in the Canadian boxing community since 2015. Originally from Winnipeg and currently based in Montreal, he holds an MBA from HEC Montreal and an economics degree from the University of Manitoba, and consults mostly on organizational efficiency. Follow him on Instagram at @DRParys.