A House subcommittee heard testimony yesterday that professional boxing is a seriously ill sport, unevenly regulated from state to state, unable to police itself and incapable of enforcing adequate uniform medical safeguards for its participants.
But the subcommittee was also told that boxing is less perilous than a number of other sports--scuba diving, hang-gliding and mountain climbing, to name a few--and that instances of death as a result of ring-inflicted injuries are often overstated.
In convening the hearing, Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on commerce, transportation and tourism of the committee on Energy and Commerce, said the regulation of boxing "is best described as a nonsystem. Each state determines the extent to which it will or will not regulate boxing. Many states do not have a statewide governing body at all."
Florio, who said yesterday's hearing was the first of several, asked the subcommittee to consider legislation to create an independent advisory commission on boxing safety.
Repeating a case he has been arguing on Capitol Hill for a decade, ABC-TV sportscaster Howard Cosell urged the committee to create a regulatory body to oversee boxing on a national level.
"It is my view that professional boxing is a desperately sick sport," said Cosell, who announced he wanted no more to do with boxing after last fall's heavyweight fight between Tex Cobb and Larry Holmes in which Cobb was mauled on national television, with Cosell at the microphone.
"I recommend federal regulation and control," Cosell said. "If not, I don't know what will become of boxing. The nations of Sweden and Norway have abolished boxing and there is no noticeable deterioration in their respect for civilization."
Cosell and several other witnesses criticized the Holmes-Cobb fight as a debacle in which, it was remarked, "one fighter was made to experience the spirit of the Alamo."
Stephen T. Crosson of Dallas, the referee that night, said that under current regulations he had no authority to stop the bout. "It was a mismatch. It is not in the scope of my responsibilities to stop a fight if it is a mismatch," Crosson said.
"If I thought the boxer was in serious imminent danger of injury then I would have stopped the fight," Crosson said. "That situation did not exist. Simply because a boxer is losing is not grounds for stopping a fight."
Referring to another recent controversial fight, in which South Korea's Duk Koo Kim received fatal head injuries in being knocked senseless by Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, the physician who treated Kim said there was no way of foretelling such an occurrence.
"That death was not preventable unless you ban the sport of boxing," said Dr. Lonnie Hammargren of Las Vegas, who was involved in Kim's postfight treatment.
Medical experts disagreed yesterday on the degree of danger to which fighters subject themselves when they enter the ring.
"There is no way you can make the sport safe without banning blows to the head," said Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who called for the abolition of boxing in a recent editorial.
"Boxing stands out in terms of chronic brain damage, especially with the kind of gloves that we have which are hammers, not cushions. They are there to protect the hand and make it more effective in damaging the brain," Lundberg said.
Lundberg said there is precedent in the history of boxing regulations for outlawing blows to the head. "Many years ago blows to the testicles were banned," he noted.
But Dr. Russel H. Patterson, another AMA representative at the hearing, disagreed with Lundberg's assessment of the danger of chronic brain injury.
"I think the issue is unproven," he said. Patterson, a member of an AMA advisory panel on boxing safety, said he does "not agree with those who say boxing is necessarily subhuman and brutalizing."
He recommended a number of safeguards including a national registry of fighters, their records and injuries they have suffered, upgrading and strict enforcement of medical evaluations of boxers, mandatory use of such safety equipment as plastic mats and padded corner posts and a requirement that all fights be held where adequate neurosurgical facilities are available for emergency treatment.
Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, now of the New York State Athletic Commission, told how New York is in the process of implementing a number of safety measures including mandatory use of thumbless gloves for fights of eight rounds or less, to reduce eye injuries.
And because some promoters do not want to comply with such regulations, Patterson said, New York is losing fights to other states.