Professional boxers in the Olympics – should they be excluded?

Four years ago at the 2016 Rio Olympic games, for the first time in history, professional boxers were allowed to compete against amateurs on the Olympic stage. 

The decision, announced in June 2016, was met with controversy throughout the boxing world. 

Members of the boxing community from both the amateur and professional camps spoke out about the potential dangers of allowing this change to go ahead. 

Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis told BBC Radio;

“I kind of think it is preposterous, to a certain degree. The amateur system is based for amateurs – this is why we put in the headgear to protect them because they have a lack of experience and they are not that primed as a professional yet.

“Now all of a sudden, you get a world champion or somebody in the top 10 as a professional now going against basically an amateur, somebody with a lack of experience – I don’t look at that as being fair.”

But, despite criticism from the industry, at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the decision was upheld and professionals were allowed to represent their respective countries in the games. 

Let’s take a look at the differences between the two styles of boxing to see why the decision was so controversial.

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The differences between amateur and professional boxing

Boxing is one of the few sports to still have such clearly defined differences between its professional and amateur branches. 

It’s a sport built on a hierarchy where fighters work their way up the ranks to reach the pro level. 

Traditionally, the Olympics were seen as the pinnacle of the amateur level. After getting to the Olympics and winning a medal or two, the next step in a boxer’s career is to turn pro and work their way up the professional circuits. 

Appearances at the Olympic games turned Muhammad Ali (competing then as Cassius Clay), Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Frazier into household names. 

But, at the Olympics, these iconic boxers weren’t performing at their professional peak. They were amateurs and if any one of them at their professional peak were to take on their Olympic selves, it would have been a blood bath. 

Imagine Muhammad Ali at his physical, mental and technical peak taking on Cassius Clay. 

It’d be no contest. 

That’s because professional and amateur fights are structured completely differently. 

Rules

In the professional boxing world, rules for fights vary by country, some promoters and even individual boxers have their own rules of the game. The main goal though is to impact as much damage to their opponent over the course of the fight.

In Olympic and amateur boxing, there are clearly defined, standardised rules for fights across the world. These rules are outlined by the Amateur International Boxing Association (A.I.B.A.) and are in place to protect the boxers’ health.

In the past, amateur boxers had to wear head guards in their fights, this was meant to protect the boxers from head damage. 

But, research found that boxers were less likely to defend their heads if they were wearing a guard, leading to more concussions and injuries. So, in 2016 the rules were changed to mean male amateur boxers no longer had to wear head guards in the ring. 

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Scoring

In both amateur and professional fights, there are some set rules about where a punch has to land to be legal. To be legal, the punches have to hit above the belt with the knuckle part of a closed glove landing either on the front or side of the body or head.

In professional fights, there are three judges watching the action in the ring and providing scores out of 10 which determine who was the winner of the round. They use their own discretion as well as a set of guidelines:

  • Defence – How well the fighter avoids being hit by the opponent
  • Effective aggression – How active the boxer is in the ring
  • Clean and hard-punching – How cleanly a blow lands on the opponent
  • Ring generalship – Control and dominance of the ring

In Olympic and amateur scoring, five judges score the rounds using an electronic counter to count the most legal punches. This means an amateur can lose the majority of the three rounds, but, if he dominates one round by landing more legal punches, he can still win.

With their strong focus on boxer safety, Olympic and amateur scoring is very tough on what counts as a legal or illegal punch. 

Rounds

In a professional fight, two boxers go at each other from four up to 12 rounds. You’ve got to play the long game, wearing your opponent down over each round while retaining your own stamina and power.

In Olympic and amateur fights, boxers fight for a maximum of three rounds that are three minutes long. Meaning amateurs come out fast and powerful trying to score as many points in the short time they have. 

Gloves 

The gloves worn by boxers in professional fights are always either 8oz or 10oz in weight. Wearing lighter gloves means the boxers’ punches are more powerful with less padding to protect their opponent from damage. 

Whereas in amateur fights, the gloves are 10oz or 12oz in weight. This means that, because a big priority is boxer safety, the punches they land will be more cushioned to protect the opponent. 

All these differences mean that, when you pit a professional against an amateur, you’re putting two entirely different, incompatible styles of boxing against each other. They come into the ring with different goals. 

These fights will be like trying to get a professional to forget about inflicting damage and focus more on the technicality of their punches. And for amateurs, it’s exposing them to a much more powerful and experienced fighter who may completely decimate them in the ring. 

What happened at the 2016 Olympics?

Following the announcement in June 2016, any professionals wanting to take part in the Games had to make their decision fast. 

Professionals weren’t going to get any special allowances, they had to qualify just like the amateurs. 

So, with just a few weeks to prepare, only three professional boxers made it through qualification to secure a place on their respective country’s teams. 

This few professionals taking part in Olympic fights might have been due to the short time they were given to qualify, or it may have been because many of the professionals themselves recognised that fighting amateurs would be a risky move.  

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The three professionals, Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam from Cameroon, Amnat Ruenroeng from Thailand and Carmine Tommasone from Italy, all took part in fights against amateur boxers. 

And all of them never made it past the first stage.

For a professional boxer, being defeated by an amateur surely would be a big blow to the pro’s ego and their future career prospects.

Maybe the pros underestimated their competition, maybe they didn’t have long enough to prepare, or maybe they just couldn’t adapt to the different boxing style. 

After his 2016 Rio loss, Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam said; 

“I was an amateur for a long time, but as a professional boxer, my biggest difficulty was to get in the fight, I’ve fought all these amateur boxers before. 

“I’m not surprised I lost to an amateur, because I used to be one. Professionals don’t have an advantage because the characteristics of the fight are different.”

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What will happen at Tokyo 2020?

Amateurs by definition are just starting out, they’re fresh and inexperienced. 

Professionals are at the top of their game, trained to perfection. 

Any match between the two groups of boxers would, most likely, be completely unequal.  

Just because the three professionals that fought in the 2016 Olympics lost doesn’t mean attitudes are changing. 

Following on from the surprisingly early exit of the professionals at Rio 2016, many professionals might be wary of entering Tokyo 2020.

What sportsman at the top of their game wants to risk being beaten in front of the entire world by a fresh-faced amateur who’s just starting out?

And, from within the professional boxing sanctioning bodies, attitudes remain the same. 

Amateur Olympic boxing is no place for professional fighters. 

While many of the sanctioning bodies have expressed their opposition to professionals in amateur fights, the World Boxing Council has gone one step further. 

The WBC has said that any professional boxer who takes part in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will face an automatic two-year ban from any WBC activity. 

WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman said; “There is a very different attitude between amateurs and pros. We at the WBC have no other agenda apart from the protection of the boxers. It is a World Consensus. We prefer to build bridges.”

Olympic boxing qualification is currently taking place so only time will tell how many professionals will risk their careers for a shot at Olympic glory. 

Next time you step in the ring, fight like a pro in Cleto Reyes Contest Gloves.

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