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Headgear vs. No headgear: Which is safer?

Written by Dr. Peter Lewis on 18 July 2013



We ask Dr. Peter Lewis about the debate regarding training with headgear versus no headgear.

There is a presumption that helmets make the sport safer and that is why they are compulsory in the amateurs. This is not the case. This was discussed at length at the WBC Conference on boxing injuries in Aruba. In reality, the reason for headgear in the amateurs is more political — it’s to distinguish themselves from the pros and because in some countries, such as England, where the British Medical Association is very active in its calls to ban boxing, it is thought that the use of headgear is more acceptable.

Many people believe that more protective gear means a safer sport. Gridiron proves this wrong. There have also been some studies on the effects of bicycle helmets and road safety that show they have almost no direct effect on head injuries.

Wearing headgear in fighting does reduce cuts and I would recommend it for a fighter in the fortnight before a fight just to prevent being cut.

One of my favourite sayings is: “Pad the weapon and not the target.” I believe that the key issue is design of boxing gloves. There should be excellent padding across the knuckles.

Unfortunately, gloves are rated according to their weight. There is a presumption that heavier gloves have more padding on the knuckles. This is often just plain wrong, especially with older gloves, which are sometimes really heavy and have no knuckle protection. I spar with 10oz gloves with excellent knuckle protection, and I like my partners to do the same. This encourages fast, quick shots without the wind-up and follow through.

The thing that causes the most brain damage is repeated blows, rather than an occasional sharp blow. I think the best way to really shake the head up is to put headgear on and then pound that head repeatedly with 16oz gloves.

Problems with headgear:

- It creates a false sense of confidence. Fighters wear the blow instead of blocking or weaving.
- It makes the head target bigger so it is harder to weave out of the way of a shot.
- It makes the head target heavier and therefore slower to move to weave. Therefore, people do not bother to move the head and become lazy. This becomes a habit.
- Because the head target is larger and slower to move, it becomes an easy scoring option. This has meant that amateur boxing has now become dominated by headshots and the art of the body shot has been lost, which has made head trauma more common in boxing and I think has made boxing less interesting, as I am a big fan of the body shot.
- Headgear reduces vision. You can ‘close your eyes’ and wear the blow.
- Headgear can cause overheating of the head which contributes to dehydration and reduced mental clarity.

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