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Ringside doctors: Making a scary sport safer
Published June 15, 1998
Seconds after the young boxer was knocked out in his first professional fight, Dr. Richard S. Gluckman was in the ring, talking to him and looking into his eyes.
"I asked him if he knew what day it was," said Gluckman, a San Pedro, Calif., neurologist who is one of 18 boxing physicians in the state of California. "He said it was Saturday, the day he lost his fight."
Gluckman allowed the fighter to go, after an examination in which the boxer performed several balance and coordination tests, including walking a straight line.
Ringside physicians walk a similar line themselves, a very fine one between sports medicine and negligence.
They sit on the ring apron and watch their patients pummel each other. They determine whether one of their patients can still defend himself, or if someone's bleeding is severe enough to stop a fight.
Boxing physicians include doctors with several different specialties, including neurology, emergency medicine and psychiatry. Many of the doctors who work fights are former boxers themselves, and most are boxing fans.
The athletic commission in each state regulates boxing doctors. Pay varies from state to state, but doctors generally make several hundred dollars for working a fight, including performing pre-fight and post-fight exams.
Dr. Paul Saenz, one of the top boxing physicians in Texas, said he expected to earn $500 to $700 for working this past Saturday's Oscar De La Hoya-Patrick Charpentier fight and the six-fight undercard in El Paso. Saenz, who has a full-time sports medicine practice, said: "Money has got to be the last thing you're in it for."
Doctors certainly don't work boxing matches to gain the respect of their peers. The American Medical Associ-ation "encourages the elimination of both amateur and professional boxing, a sport in which the primary objective is to inflict injury," according to a 1984 statement.
The AMA's position doesn't change the fact "that boxing has been around a long time and it's very popular," Gluckman said.
Gluckman said that what fight doctors can do is "give as much protection to the boxers as you can, have as good a program as you can and evaluate them to see if they have cumulative damage from a neurological standpoint."
Dr. Mark L. Belasky, chief New Jersey boxing doctor, noted that at its last meeting the AMA, while maintaining that boxing should be banned, commended efforts to create standard tests to increase the health and safety of the sport.
The new stance "signals a major change" by the AMA and is an admission "that boxing is not going away," he said.
Belasky is one of a number of ringside physicians who are working to create uniform standards for boxing physicians. Standards for yearly physicals, as well as pre-fight and post-fight exams, vary from state to state, he said.
Last year, the big boxing states of New York, New Jersey and Nevada agreed to adopt common rules, Belasky said. Those rules include mandatory 30-day suspensions for fighters who are knocked out, a mandatory post-fight examination and a thorough medical examination and eye test once a year.
Greg Sirb, president of the Associa-tion of Boxing Commissioners, said the group may adopt a uniform national standard for pre-fight physicals at its next meeting. He said the standards agreed to by the New York, New Jersey and Nevada physicians may be considered.
There is a national movement to improve medical standards for boxing, Sirb said.
"The medical side of boxing has improved in the last 18 months at a rate faster than it has improved in the last 50 years," he said.