There is a chance that high-profile professional boxers will compete for medals at the Rio Olympic Games in August. International Boxing Association (AIBA) president Dr Ching-Kuo Wu wants to abolish rules stopping any fighter with 15 or more paid bouts from competing. Wu believes it is “absolutely possible” to change the rules in time for August’s Olympics. This means that South African superstars like Zolani Tete, Hekkie Budler and Moruti Mthalane could be in Rio De Janeiro. But how in favour would their handlers be? Budler’s trainer Colin Nathan is opposed: ‘Definitely not! Olympic boxing is strictly for amateurs. It would defeat the purpose of the Games and makes no sense whatsoever.’
The British Amateur Boxing Association said it wanted to find out more about the AIBA idea. A BABA spokesman said: ‘The proposals have the potential to broaden the talent pool from which we are able to select boxers and we look forward to hearing more about them in due course.’ The qualifying process for this year’s Games has already started but there is no reason that boxing’s big guns could not be fast-tracked.
However there is another important consideration here. Amateur boxing, as seen at the Games, differs so much from its professional cousin, that it can be legitimately argued that amateur boxing and professional boxing are two different sports. Wu is not perturbed by this, saying: ‘… the term of “amateur” is not really relevant because when you look now at all the Olympic sports, who is really amateur? It is an International Olympic Commission (sic) policy to have the best athletes in the Games. Of the international federations, AIBA is probably the only one without professional athletes in the Olympics.’
Moreover would it be fair for an amateur, regardless of how many bouts the fighter might have had, to mix it with a pugilist, even if there are fewer rounds? Concerns of fairness, but more importantly safety have to raised. Veteran trainer Manny Fernandes warns top referees and judges would have to protect the boxers. Even so Fernandes is in favour of the proposal, saying: ‘Top amateurs, if prepared by professional trainers, will be very competitive and can cause major upsets, which will be interesting for the whole event. There should not be an age limit. If you are good enough and qualified you should get an opportunity to represent your country and go to the Olympics.’
However World Boxing Council (WBC) president Mauricio Sulaiman has hit out at Wu and the AIBA. The Mexican says the proposals merely open up the opportunity to showcase very low-level fights and dangerous mismatches. Sulaiman says: ‘By matching amateurs against professionals and eliminating headgear, AIBA is showing that it does not seem to care about the physical wellbeing of the fighters or the correct practice of the sport around the world. How can multi-day boxing be conducted in tournaments safely and fairly without headgear? The youth of the world deserve to have the options and opportunities in amateur boxing.’
Nathan sides with the WBC president, saying: ‘It would be unfair for an amateur going up against someone with such vast experience. Showcasing elite boxers is for the professional ranks and that’s why we have professional titles so prominent fighters can compete for them. The foundation of every fighter’s career starts in the amateur code. My feeling is that the format of Olympic boxing should stay the wait it is, strictly for amateurs.’
Ultimately the big question here is, has the time come for boxing to join the rest of the Olympic community and showcase its best athletes? Or are the Games the special preserve of amateur boxing in an era where its competitors have very little to aim for, unless they eventually turn pro?
I endorse the theory that amateur and professional boxing are virtually two different sports. Just as the fifteen-a-side Rugby World Cup is different from the seven-a-side Olympic Rugby Tournament, so too amateur boxing can maintain its Olympic spot and live in peace alongside the professionals. After all, pugilism would be cheapened if hypothetically we were subject to Budler fighting Knockout CP Freshmart, Wanheng Menayothin and Rey Loreto in three four-rounders in a matter of days rather than being treated to “The Hexecutioner” facing these three in proper 12-round battles in the space of about a year. That is the beauty of the professional game. Let us keep it that way.