Journal of Combative Sport, Nov 2007
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Death under the Spotlight: The Manuel Velazquez Fatality Collection
A Presentation

By Joseph R. Svinth

The following is the text of a presentation given to the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians at San Juan, Puerto Rico, on November 16, 2007. Copyright © EJMAS 2007. All rights reserved.

boxing deaths: Black Joe

Hi, my name is Joseph Svinth. I am a writer and an editor for the e-journals known as Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences, and I’d like to thank you for inviting me here today. If you have questions, let me know as we go along, and I’ll try to answer them, but if it’s going to take awhile to ask your question, or for me to answer it, then let’s hold it for the end, or for this afternoon.

Right now, I’m passing around the room a couple of folders showing some of the photos and newspaper clippings upon which this research is based.

As you know, I’m here to talk to you about the research that I’m doing on the topic of boxing deaths. The actual numbers of deaths change every time I start doing some serious digging through old newspapers, but right now, according to my data, at least 1,465 boxers have died of ring-related injuries.

More research is required into the bare-knuckle era, but the preliminary data suggest that the bare-knuckle era was less safe than is gloved boxing. But, since the pugilism era requires more research, and because most prizefighters don’t fight bare-knuckle any more (there are exceptions), the rest of this presentation will focus on fatalities during the gloved boxing era.

For the period January 1890 to November 2007, the Collection describes:
Before we examine the data themselves, let’s provide some background on the Collection as a physical archive. Originally, the Collection consisted of newspaper clippings, like the ones that I’m passing around the room, but not as well documented with page, date, and so on. Today, however, the collection is increasingly digitized, and much of it appears online at

As for why it’s called the Manuel Velazquez Collection, that’s easy – the late Manuel Velazquez started the clipping files upon which all this is based. Velazquez had a friend, Pete Nebo, who came to a bad end because of boxing (Nebo spent most of his life in a mental hospital, actually), and as a result, Velazquez wanted to get boxing abolished. Toward that end, he collected newspaper and magazine articles relating to boxing deaths, and he wrote lots of letters. You can read more about Manuel Velazquez in those books that are being passed around.

Anyway, shortly before he died, Velazquez sent his clipping files to Robert W. Smith, who was collaborating with a medical doctor on an article about boxing injuries. Around 1997 or 1998, Smith decided to clean out his garage, and so I got the boxes containing the Velazquez Collection for my own storage room. Since July 2000, versions of the spreadsheet and tabulations that I created to better understand the data have been published online at EJMAS.

SLIDE 2 – how the collection has changed over time

This chart shows how the published data has changed over time. The blue field at the front of the chart shows where we started, in 2000. During 2002, I improved data for the 1990s, and during 2006 and 2007, I added more data, especially to the years before 1945.

As you can see from the charts, the data from 1945-1985, that is, the years when Manuel Velazquez was alive and collecting data, are reliable -- those numbers don’t change much. However, there are a lot of newly documented deaths from the earlier period. For researching those earlier years, online newspaper archives are really useful.

Okay, that explains the name. So, why do I do this? Well, I am neither for nor against boxing: Like Zen, it is. And I must admit: I enjoy the research challenge. Nonetheless, there are days this stuff really gets me mad. I mean, when they carried Johnny Owen out of that ring in 1980, people in the crowd urinated on him. That’s not right. So, increasingly, I view this collection as a memorial to those who died.

boxing deaths: slide 3 Ralph Thomas

And that brings us to Ralph Thomas. Before beginning all this, I had never heard of Ralph Thomas, and since then, I’ve only corresponded with his nephew a couple times. (And the nephew found me, via the web site, rather than the other way around.)

Nonetheless, someday, this slide gives you an idea of the level to which I hope to someday document the entire Collection. People who died for our entertainment deserve that much.

So, if you go online, please take a look at the by-name listings, too, and not just the charts and tabulations, and spend some time reading the remarks that are listed at the far right of every page. There’s a lot there, I know, but there are two fighters in every bout, and more than 3,000 people to talk about.


Now, that’s the background. Let’s get into the data itself. Don’t worry about taking notes; all this is online at EJMAS, or in the folders that are being passed around. If you need an Excel spreadsheet or copies of the slides, let me know, and I will e-mail files to you later.

As you can see, this chart shows the decade across the top, and the years going down. Overall, the 1920s were rough, and the early 1930s were worse. And today, we’re still averaging eight, ten deaths per year. We don’t notice, though, because they’re now happening all over the world rather than just in the USA, UK, and Australia.


Something that chronological charts don’t show us is that since 1890, the USA has been the site of about half of the world’s pro boxing fatalities. The other half is spread among 49 countries. This chart only shows pro deaths, but the ratio for amateur deaths is about the same – since 1890, more than half of the world’s amateur boxing deaths have been in the USA.

Where boxers die has changed over time. Before World War II, there were few pro boxing deaths except in the Anglophonic countries. That is, the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Today, that pattern is reversed – since 1970, about 70% of all pro boxing deaths occurred in non-Anglophonic countries, especially Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Philippines, Argentina, and Venezuela.

Since half of all known boxing deaths occurred in the USA, let’s examine USA data more closely.

I have two different charts here. One lists totals – pro, amateur, Toughman, and training -- by state, and the other splits the data into pro and amateur. I’ll leave the totals up for a minute so you can see where your state is, and then I’ll flip to the one that splits data into pro and amateur. If you want me to go back, just let me know.


As you can see, half of the USA’s pro boxing deaths occurred in just five states – New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey. All five of these states have had state boxing commissions for decades.

The charts you’re looking at right now don’t show it, but six states (Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming) have never had a pro boxing fatality. Of these six states, only Mississippi has a state boxing commission, and it was not started until 1996.

Since the establishment of Original Toughman in 1979, there have been 14 Toughman-style deaths in 12 states. Excepting Alabama, all of these states have had boxing commissions.

Since 1970, a quarter of the boxing-related fatalities in the United States occurred in Nevada, which is another state with a boxing commission.

Thus, on the face of it, the presence of a boxing commission does not, by itself, make much (if any) difference in the number of ring deaths. So, if boxing commissions do not make much difference in reducing ring deaths, what does?

Ring deaths, of course.

Or, more precisely, the legal, political, and journalistic battles that follow them.

For example, two significant court cases followed the death of Willie Classen in 1979. One (Classen v. State of New York, 131 Misc. 2d 346 (1985)/500 N.Y.S. 2d 460 (Ct. Cl. 1985)) led to a requirement for ambulances at fight venues, and the other (Classen v. Izquierdo, 137 Misc. 2d 489 (1987)/ 520 N.Y.S. 2d 999 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1987) established the precedent that a ringside doctor’s failure to stop a fight on medical grounds could subject him to charges of malpractice.

With that said, let’s move along to more review of the data.


Thankfully, death rates have declined from the peak in 1932, when 31 boxers died of ring-related injuries, 18 of them in the USA.

Training deaths make up about 9% of the total deaths on the list. Of the actual ring deaths, 68% were pro, 22% were amateur, and 1% were Toughman fighters.

On an individual basis:

Risk of death from ring injuries depends on the type of boxing that you’re doing. By my calculations, an amateur boxer’s risk of death per million minutes in the ring (a million minutes is about 2 years) is 1.2, whereas a Toughman’s is 23.3 and a pro’s is 41.9. If you want to see my calculations and reasoning, see the discussion at But, basically, the risk of death in boxing does not differ significantly from the risk of death in other contact sports. Where boxing differs, though, is in its risk of non-fatal injury to brain, eyes, and hands. Here, the risk of serious injury runs about one in four, and such injuries may in turn hinder former athletes’ ability to maintain gainful employment outside of boxing.


Cause of death is listed for about half the known deaths. Currently, 81% involved injuries to the brain, skull, or neck. Cardiac conditions accounted for another 13%. The “other” category includes everything from ruptured spleens and punctured lungs to “over-indulgence in ice water” (Denlea death, 1911). I have my doubts about that one.

Mechanism of injury is currently listed for about 25% of the total deaths since 1890. That’s not a very high percentage, so the conclusions need to be viewed with caution. I mention that because, right now, the data suggest that boxers are more likely to die from falls than from blows. Thus, there is no doubt in my mind that ropes and floors need to be padded, tables need to be away from the apron, and boxers need to spend some time practicing break-falls. Nonetheless, falls don’t kill large numbers of professional wrestlers. So, it’s possible that promoters, managers, and other ringside officials sometimes attribute boxers’ deaths to other causes to reduce their own liability.

Although rapid weight loss has been associated with half a dozen deaths, death rates calculated by weight follow normal distribution patterns for teenaged and young adult athletes. I haven’t seen any boxing deaths clearly attributed to steroid abuse.

Intentional mismatch is an area to watch. My advice here is to go online and check for recent records, and if a 34-year-old boxer’s career record is 7-41-3, with 25 straight losses, 12 of them by knockout, like Bradley Rone’s was, I’d recommend stopping that bout the first chance you get.


The time that the onset of the fatal event was first observed is known for about 80% of the deaths. Since 20% of the fatal events were first observed in the dressing room or on the way home, trainers and family members should be advised to pay close attention to their athletes for at least 24 hours after a match or training injury.

During contests, pro boxers are most likely to die from injuries received during rounds 4, 6, 8, and 10. Amateurs, on the other hand, are most likely to die from injuries received during round 3. This suggests that the last scheduled round is the one most likely to lead to death.


Older boxers have a higher risk of dying from ring injuries than do younger boxers. This is because risk of death from traumatic brain injury increases as one gets older. And by older, I don’t mean lots older – a few years is all it takes. Increasing risk with age also may explain why amateur boxers, most of whom are under 20 years of age, do not die in large numbers, whereas Toughman boxers die in larger numbers than one would otherwise expect.

As for where the Collection goes from here, I intend to keep researching historic ring deaths. Along the way, I should get more data about mechanism of death. And, if I get really motivated, then I’ll start tracking promoters and managers, too, because there may be a pattern there. For example, Mark Shaughnessy survived one fatal fight (Kielnecker 1897), seconded four fatal fights (Lansing 1898, Peppers 1899, Tenny 1906, and Dover 1906), and refereed the fatal Snailham-Crowe match of 1906. Similarly, Frank Churchill promoted three boxers (Cabanela 1921, Villa 1925, and Clever Sencio 1926) who died. Why is this so? Arguably, Japanese boxing pioneer Yujiro Watanabe put it best: Boxing fans expect to be treated to a knockout.

I intend to explore the legal aspects, too. As I said, commissions don’t seem to make nearly as much difference to the way boxing is done as do the court cases that happen after a boxer dies. Consequently, it seems important to spend more time reading those court cases, to see how we got to where we are today.

And, finally, since I’m addressing ringside physicians, one final thought. To me, the evidence suggests that it may be time to start replacing ringside physicians with ringside medical teams. Why? Well, to be fully qualified to handle any emergency that comes up in the boxing ring, a ringside doctor would need to be competent in emergency medicine (to include transportation), radiology, neurology, neuro-psychology, neuro-ophthalmology, cardiology, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, vestibular rehabilitation, maxillofacial injuries, orthopedic injuries of the hands, pulmonology, sports medicine, physical therapy, infectious disease, scar tissue repair, substance abuse issues ranging from alcoholism to steroids, family counseling, risk management, and medico-legal testimony.

It’s unlikely that any single doctor could hope to master all these areas, and keep an active practice, too. And, just as obviously, no small venue could possibly afford such a doctor, or even a team. Nonetheless, consideration could be given to starting such teams in cities where there is a lot of boxing, and especially cities where there are a lot of boxing deaths. Good starting places might include Tokyo (19 deaths since 1970), Jakarta (8 pro deaths since 1970), Las Vegas (7 pro deaths since 1970), and Patras, Greece (3 amateur deaths since 2000).

And that uses up all the time I have. The slide behind me shows the URL of the Collection. My e-mail address is there, too, and I have some cards with me if you’d like one.

Meanwhile, do you have any questions that I might be able to answer in the few minutes we have left?

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JCS Nov 2007