Combat sports under scrutiny after boxer Davey Browne's death

'Head gear doesn’t help when you fight, it just spreads the impact larger throughout your brain,' says Danny Jones. Picture: Adam McLean
'Head gear doesn’t help when you fight, it just spreads the impact larger throughout your brain,' says Danny Jones. Picture: Adam McLean

The University of Wollongong’s head boxing trainer Lee Murray has trained boxing world champions down to young amateurs, has been a promoter of events and a match-maker.

He’s one of many in the industry who have welcomed a review of legislation by the NSW Combat Sports Authority (CSA) which was sparked by the coronial inquest into the death of professional boxer David Browne in 2015.

Browne, known as Dynamite Davey, died in hospital four days after being knocked to the canvas in the 12th round of an International Boxing Federation Pan Pacific Super Featherweight title fight.

In June 2017 the coroner found the fight should have been stopped in the 11th round while better training for officials and medical staff should be implemented. The coroner also made a number of recommendations for the future of combat sports.

'The whole reason weight classes were brought in was for safety but you can bypass that by dieting or water cutting ... and that defeats the purpose,' says Lee Murray. Picture: Robert Peet

'The whole reason weight classes were brought in was for safety but you can bypass that by dieting or water cutting ... and that defeats the purpose,' says Lee Murray. Picture: Robert Peet

“It’s a bit like an onion to me, you scratch one thing and there’s a whole heap of stuff underneath it,” Murray said. “I guess they’re trying, that’s got to be a good thing.”

The review has led to a consultation paper for proposed law changes, an online surveyand a series of public forums being held in different cities (including Wollongong) by the CSA.

The authority is raising questions around concussion, experience and qualifications of doctors and officials, which sports should be included or excluded under the Combat Sports Act, medical history of fighters and whether amateur bouts should be treated differently to professional.

“A lot of [ringside] doctors are GPs, they’re not a combat sports doctor. You’ve got to be someone that should be looking for concussions, what are the rules they should be abiding to say when to stop the fight early. Going into a corner and asking if someone’s okay, you know that sometimes is just not enough,” Murray said.

“But you don’t know the background of the fighter either. He might have come from overseas, he might have starved himself for two weeks to make weight to get this fight.”

Khrop Khrua Muay Thai star David Pennimpede at Pump City Gym Port Kembla is the new WBC Australian light-heavyweight title holder. Picture: Adam McLean

Khrop Khrua Muay Thai star David Pennimpede at Pump City Gym Port Kembla is the new WBC Australian light-heavyweight title holder. Picture: Adam McLean

Khrop Khrua Muay Thai trainer Danny Jones has been in the industry for 43 years and attested to doctors and officials not having sufficient time to check competitors – before, during and after a fight.

“I’ve seen doctors come up to guys and look at their wraps, squeeze their hands, look at their face, and say ‘you’re okay mate’ and then they go and fight. They don’t do blood pressure, they don’t check heart rate or anything, balance, they don’t check motor skills or their eyes – you get the odd one that might do it but it’s very rare,” Jones said.

Illawarra Kyokushin Karate instructor Viktor Timev is also a father to a teenage combatant. He said in his sport, greater power needs to be given to doctors to make calls to stop fights after witnessing some tournaments where inadequate medical staff were on site, despite the majority of competitors being children.

“There are guys that run events who don’t go to the effort to organise first aid or doctors to be present; they fly by the seat of their pants,” he said. “It’s an added expense for them, and then when something happens they avoid it and it’s all swept under the carpet.”

Currently karate – and other “mat sports” like taikwondo, Brazilian Jui-Jitsu, Hapkido and judo – are not governed by the CSA. Timev believes if all martial arts were under the legislation it would “weed out those guys and makes it a little bit safer for the participants”.

Amateur boxer Lenna Wingate thinks the CSA should oversee all combat sports rather than have multiple organisations for each sport. Photo: Adam McLean

Amateur boxer Lenna Wingate thinks the CSA should oversee all combat sports rather than have multiple organisations for each sport. Photo: Adam McLean

Amateur boxer Lenna Wingate has worked in combat gyms for nearly a decade and as a spectator watched dozens of fights across boxing, kickboxing and MMA. Like Timev, she said some promoters would often grab doctors just to meet requirements rather than seek a doctor with correct combat sports experience.

She said she had seen many fights continue on when a combatant was clearly too injured or too dazed, including a close friend who was in a kickboxing match recently.

“She got split at her last fight and the doctors didn’t put anything but a butterfly clip on it and when she got home she went to the doctor and got six stitches. The doctor hardly even looked at her, it was an elbow to the head and it was split under her eyeball,” she said.

Former wrestler, international MMA fighter and Australian match official Kevin Manderson said doctors and referees with a lack of experience pop-up ringside all the time.

“I did a couple of [MMA] shows last year in Sydney … and the other two referees on the night were kickboxing refs, they were Muay Thai refs, they weren’t MMA refs,” he said. “And so there was some real confusion on what was happening.”

Confusion – and pressure from a fighter’s corner or a promoter – meant fights can continue on longer than they should, paving the way for serious injury he said.

Boxer Davey Browne died four days after he was critically injured during a super featherweight title fight. The father-of-two died at Liverpool Hospital - in Sydney's west in 2015 after he was knocked out in the final round of the 12-round bout. Picture: SUpplied

Boxer Davey Browne died four days after he was critically injured during a super featherweight title fight. The father-of-two died at Liverpool Hospital - in Sydney's west in 2015 after he was knocked out in the final round of the 12-round bout. Picture: SUpplied

Another recommendation being tabled by the CSA is to ensure all ringside officials – amateur and professional – are educated enough to understand the signs of concussion and when to stop a fight.

“It’s the black mark in our sports,” Manderson said of concussion.

“It’s the nature of the sport. You’re entering into a competition where one of the goals isn’t just to win the match it’s to inflict damage on somebody else. In order to manage that effectively, not only do you need to have self aware fighters, your trainers have to have your best interest at heart.”

Timev explained even children wearing padding at karate tournaments were susceptible to concussion – let alone experienced adults who are fighting with bare shins and knuckles in Kyokyshin.

“You’ll always get the fighter wanting to fight on and a lot of parents insist on their children being able to fight on or keep going, because everyone’s chasing the glory of a win, and sometimes judgement can be clouded when there isn’t a doctor present,” Timev said.

Full Circle MMA's Russell Thompson says changes to combat sports in recent years have been positive but more can be done. Picture: Adam McLean

Full Circle MMA's Russell Thompson says changes to combat sports in recent years have been positive but more can be done. Picture: Adam McLean

Head trainer at Full Circle MMA Russell Thompson said issues in the ring or the cage arise from the team not paying attention, as he believes a fighter will always try and push through.

“A lot of the time towels should be thrown in a lot earlier in fights, they let their fighters push through. These guys are really tough and they push through lots of pain and sometimes they’re a little bit too tough for their own good,” he said.

Former Australian middleweight champion Vito Gaudiosi believes it should be a group effort between everyone who is up close to the action.

“Someone must know between a coach, a fighter and a doctor if at the time of battle this fight needs to be stopped,” Gaudiosi said.

In recent years padded head-gear has become mandatory for muay thai, kickboxing and amateur boxing fights though this is not the solution according to some.

'Have I seen things been let slide over the years? Of course I have,' says Vito Gaudiosi. Picture: Sylvia Liber

'Have I seen things been let slide over the years? Of course I have,' says Vito Gaudiosi. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Lauri Lauriano is a former professional boxer, promoter and has trained both boxing and kickboxing athletes. He said there was a “long-held misconception” that padded head-gear and bigger gloves assisted the safety of fighters.

“It’s mostly supported by people that don't have any knowledge of the sport,” he said. “In the old days when there was no head-gear a fight would stopped from lacerations so it would actually stop you from getting further concussed. With bigger gloves and head gear a fight’s allowed to continue because there’s no lacerations but there’s more risk of concussion.”

Jones agreed. He said head gear not only worsened the affects of concussion they were “detrimental” to a person’s ability to fight well.

“It’s been proven in studies all around the world, head gear doesn’t help when you fight, it just spreads the impact larger throughout your brain,” the Muay Thai trainer said.

Ninety per cent of these guys aren’t going to make a career out of [fighting]. They’re making a couple of cracks and they’re going to go back to their regular job on Monday.

Kevin Manderson

Another key area all agreed needed more attention was how amateur fighters dropped weight for a match. Losing one to several kilograms was mostly accepted though drastic weight loss in a short space of time was frowned upon.

All had seen cases of extreme weight cuts – sometimes up to 10 kilograms or more in a week – to get to a required weight class to be allowed to step into a fight.

Methods commonly used would be poor diet, limiting amount of water consumed, heavy cardio and spending long periods in a sauna. These extreme methods can cause severe dehydration around the brain as well as put more strain on a person’s heart, giving potential for cardiac arrest (even before a fight night).

'If it's a contact sport and there's a reasonable chance of injury then it should be included [under the Combat Sports Act],' says Lauri Lauriano (above). Picture: Jake Lapham

'If it's a contact sport and there's a reasonable chance of injury then it should be included [under the Combat Sports Act],' says Lauri Lauriano (above). Picture: Jake Lapham

“Most of the novice amateurs have no idea about cutting weight, they do it in the last week or the last three days,” Jones said.

“We’ve had people die from dehydration before the fights and ... when you do that you lose too much water from the brain and it’s like getting hit over the head with a hammer. 

“Why should young kids or amateurs put their life at risk by doing silly things to drop weight when they don’t get anything for it except a trophy.”

Thompson added drastic weight loss was “sucking the energy out” fighters and leaving the door open for issues such as cramping, fatigue and diminishing overall performance.

“I know of a gym out west that almost killed one of their girls, she was in the sauna by herself and passed out,” Thompson said. “It’s too dangerous.”

Murray suggested the CSA could monitor this by logging how much weight fighters lose and over what time, such as a mandatory monthly weigh in pre-match. Gaudioso believes if a fighter has to drop nine kilos in a week they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

Overall the consensus was to keep a closer eye on the amateurs with the CSA being the top overseeing body.

“Ninety per cent of these guys aren’t going to make a career out of [fighting],” Manderson said. “They’re making a couple of cracks and they’re going to go back to their regular job on Monday.”

Have your say – tell the CSA what you think via this survey.

This story 'Head gear doesn't help in a fight': why combat sports must change first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.