James P. Cannon on why boxing should be banned

April 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm (From the archives, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, sport, trotskyism)

Blackwell was taken from the ring on a stretcher and transported to hospital after collapsing nine days ago

It’s good to hear that Nick Blackwell has woken from the induced coma he was put into, a week after his title fight against Chris Eubank Jnr.

Blackwell was carried from the ring on a stretcher, at the SSE arena in Wembley following his defeat to Eubank Jnr on 26 March. The fight was stopped in the 10th round after a doctor decided Blackwell could not see from his swollen left eye. It’s lucky for Blackwell that his eye was visibly damaged, or the fight would have gone on, and in all likelihood he’d have suffered irreversible brain damage or worse.

The general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, summed up the attitude of those who run this ‘sport’ with these words: “Nick Blackwell wanted to be a boxer. Like everyone else who wants to take part in boxing, we all know the risks. I don’t think anybody did anything wrong.”

Smith’s words are true, as far as they go. But they leave out of the equation the simple fact that professional boxing is a ‘sport’ that involves two men (usually working class and often from ethnic minorities) set up to throw punches at each others’ heads with the aim of rendering the other incapable of continuing, up to and including causing unconsciousness and  permanent brain damage.

This bestial ‘sport’ should be outlawed, and at least one great socialist – the US Trotskyist pioneer James P Cannon – wrote some articles calling for just that.

The following excerpts are from Cannon’s articles “Murder in the Garden” and “A Dead Man’s Decision,” They first appeared in The Militant on September 17 and 24, 1951, respectively, and are published in Notebook of an Agitator (Pathfinder Press). The two articles have been edited and combined together, into what is published below:


Murder in the Garden … A Dead Man’s Decision
By James P. Cannon

This begins as a straight news story with the who, what, where and when right up at the front. The why and the wherefore come later, after the bare facts are set down in proper order. The who in this story is, or rather was, Georgie Flores, 20-year-old Brooklyn welterweight. He was knocked out in the semi-final bout with Roger Donoghue at Madison Square Garden August 29. He collapsed in his dressing room a few minutes after the knockout and died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. Georgie leaves a wife, Elaine, 18 years old, who was at his bedside when he died, and a month-old baby son who hasn’t heard about it yet.

Other technical information, as reported by the experts at the ringside: The fatal blow was a sharp left hook which floored the young boxer just 46 seconds after the opening of the eighth and final round of the bout. His head hit the canvas hard and he was counted out by the referee as he lay flat. Cause of death, as reported by the medical experts at the hospital, was a brain hemorrhage resulting from a torn blood vessel. Two operations were unsuccessful. His last hours were spent in an iron lung.

Georgie Flores didn’t die of old age or incurable illness, and there was no suspicion of suicide. He was killed. Murdered, if you want the truth unvarnished. And he was not the first to die that way. Sudden death is an occupational hazard in the prize-fight business. Six boxers have been killed in the U.S. already this year, if you count only those who died more or less immediately, as a result of blows in the ring. The score would be much higher if you include those who were badly hurt and had their life expectancy sharply cut down in this grisly business, which is sometimes described by fools or cynics as “the sport” or “the game.” This sort of thing goes on all the time. As a rule, the killing of a prize fighter doesn’t rate more than a few paragraphs in the news, a few floral offerings from the fight mob, and a small purse scraped up for the widow…

Dead men tell no tales; but sometimes, as is well known, the memory of what they did, or the way they died, exerts an authority over the living and affects their actions and decisions. The continuing influence of great men needs no argument. And once in a while, in exceptional circumstances, the lowly, too, speak from the grave. Even the lowliest of the lowly. Georgie Flores, the young boxer who was killed in the ring at Madison Square Garden just recently, cast a long shadow over the Turpin-Robinson fight for the middleweight championship at the Polo Grounds last Wednesday, and most probably determined the outcome of this million-dollar affair.

Turpin was on the ropes, but not out, when the referee stopped the fight with only eight seconds to go in the tenth round of the scheduled 15-round bout, and gave the decision to Robinson on a technical knockout. But it is highly doubtful if Robinson was the winner on actual merit. The fight was scored even up to the tenth round. Robinson was bleeding like a stuck pig from an eye cut; and Turpin, with the stamina of youth in his favor, figured to recuperate during the intermission between rounds and take charge from there on. Turpin and his manager protested the referee’s action on these grounds, and subsequent evidence seemed to bear out their contention. Turpin, according to all reports, was fresher and stronger than Robinson in the immediate aftermath of the fight….

Georgie Flores’ tragic and most untimely death was just another nine-day sensation. That’s all. It lasted just about long enough to influence the decision in the Turpin-Robinson bout. The echoes of the uproar are already fading away. The jitters have yielded to the sedative of time – it didn’t take long – and the boxing business is just about back to normal, back to business as usual. All that the hullabaloo produced, while it lasted, were a few proposals for better supervision of boxing bouts in the future; for some more elaborate rules and regulations; for what Governor Dewey, in his humane wisdom, called “precautions” which might keep boxers from getting hurt when they get hit.

It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from a dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most of the states of this country up till the turn of the century.

Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters into the pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilization – which is on the march, to be sure -has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are a part of our highly touted way of life.

The “precautions,” advocated during the brief excitement over the killing of Georgie Flores, simmered down to a few piddling suggestions that fighters not be overmatched; that they be required to train properly and enter the ring in good condition; that the boxers’ gloves and the ring canvas be padded a little more; and that each boxer’s head be thoroughly examined by X-ray before each bout to see if he had suffered a previous brain injury. “Boxing can be made a safe sport,” said Dr. Frank R. Ferlaino to Milton Gross, sports writer for the New York Post, “if these regulations are observed.” The doctor, of course, is talking through his hat.

The precautions, which are supposed to take care of everything, in reality take care of nothing. When you get inside those ropes your head is a target for self-propelled missiles known as fists, and there is no way of making that safe. As the soldier said, when he was asked why he ran away from the front lines: “You can get hurt up there.” Blows over the head never did anybody any good. And if anybody ever got any fun out of it, he hasn’t been heard from yet. The “sport” in prize fighting is strictly for the spectators and the managers and promoters.

The incomparable Joe Louis himself testified to this in a notable statement at a newsreeled press conference when he renounced his title to turn promoter. A reporter asked: “Which do you think you like best, Joe, fighting or promoting?”

Joe, a man of few words, answered: “I like promoting.”

“Why is that, can you explain it?”

“Sure,” said Joe. “They can’t hit you when you’re promotin’.”

Those words belong in the Book of Proverbs.


  1. Scott Reeve said,

    Who Killed Davey Moore?

    Written by: Bob Dylan

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not I,” says the referee
    “Don’t point your finger at me
    I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
    An’ maybe kept him from his fate
    But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
    At not gettin’ their money’s worth
    It’s too bad he had to go
    But there was a pressure on me too, you know
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not us,” says the angry crowd
    Whose screams filled the arena loud
    “It’s too bad he died that night
    But we just like to see a fight
    We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
    We just meant to see some sweat
    There ain’t nothing wrong in that
    It wasn’t us that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame us at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says his manager
    Puffing on a big cigar
    “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
    I always thought that he was well
    It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
    But if he was sick, he should’ve said
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the gambling man
    With his ticket stub still in his hand
    “It wasn’t me that knocked him down
    My hands never touched him none
    I didn’t commit no ugly sin
    Anyway, I put money on him to win
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the boxing writer
    Pounding print on his old typewriter
    Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
    There’s just as much danger in a football game”
    Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
    It’s just the old American way
    It wasn’t me that made him fall
    No, you can’t blame me at all”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

    “Not me,” says the man whose fists
    Laid him low in a cloud of mist
    Who came here from Cuba’s door
    Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
    “I hit him, yes, it’s true
    But that’s what I am paid to do
    Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
    It was destiny, it was God’s will”

    Who killed Davey Moore
    Why an’ what’s the reason for?

  2. Mick O said,

    A more powerful argument for banning boxing I can’t imagine.
    Where I grew up Randolph Turpin’s fights against Sugar Ray Robinson were the stuff of local legend.
    I even have a link to the Turpin family through in laws.
    I had never heard of Georgie Flores or the theory that his death had influenced the decision for Robinson.
    Turpin’s career and life went downhill rapidly after this fight and he was dead in unfortunate circumstances before he was 40.
    I still resisted calls for boxing to be banned.
    Reading this and thinking about Nick Blackwell is causing me serious misgivings although I am still uneasy about coming out in favour of a ban.
    The casualties could be worse and more numerous if the game was driven underground.

  3. mark taha said,

    As a fight fan, I say Cannon should have been shot. Nobody is forced into the ring. The anti-boxing crowd are objectively anti-working class and anti-Black in that they’d deprive working-class youths, especially black ones,of one of their few chances of getting ahead in life.I could name men who were saved from a life of crime by boxing.

  4. Rilke said,

    Cannon betrays a blindspot and an ignorance. He writes that ‘cocks and bulldogs’ are ‘put’ in the ring to fight and this is banned and so should boxing be. This is an error. Fighters are not ‘put’ in the ring in the same way that animals are. It is disgusting to lower boxers to this level. He makes a serious misjudgement by conflating the two categories. There was a time actually when I admired fighting animals more than most people and with good reason – these animals are not hypocrites and scabs.
    There are more pressing and logical reasons though, for banning boxing. It is inhuman and we are human. But as Blanchot says, humanity is indestructible and therefore there is no limit to the destructiveness of the human. This contradiction defines us.
    I believe boxing should be banned and made illegal but I was a boxer for four years and so were my two brothers. I was KO’d twice. After the second I had a headache for three days and blurred vision in my left eye for about a week. Yet I still admire and watch boxing even though I know it is wrong. We have an agon in us that many on the left cannot accept. They see only in categories of false collective sweetness; the melancholy agon of a desperate existence that boxing touches upon is beyond them. This is a lack of a certain kind of necessary imagination, it is the same lack that makes them think that only the poetry that ‘praises the working class’ or the ‘struggle’ is good, while the rest is ‘bad’. Boxing and true poetry will survive because it is beyond the habitual collective moralism of those that live in a falsely purchased ‘safe’ world. The anguished soul does not live in that false moral world, it must find a way to express and justify its existence. I eventually found a different way, but I do not name those that walk the harder way ‘animals’.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Rikle: I think you misunderstand cannon: his comparison with animals is to make the point that they are /were better treated under capitalism than working class men.

  5. جريمة في الحلبة .. قرار الرجل الميت | ساقية said,

    […] [المصدر] […]

  6. John Wight in the Morning Star, on boxing: romanticism and cod-psychology – Shiraz Socialist (Second Run) said,

    […] in the Garden’ and ‘A Dead Man’s Decision’ -edited and combined together here) inspired by the death of Georgie Flores, killed in the ring at Madison Square […]

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