LOS ANGELES — Olympic boxers will fight without head guards in a pro-style scoring system starting this year after several significant rule changes by the sport's international governing body.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) unveiled several rule amendments this week, but the two biggest changes will move the Olympic sport much closer to the professional version. The rejection of headgear and the introduction of 10-point scoring could make the sport once known as amateur boxing more appealing to young boxers seeking professional careers.
Male boxers at the world championships in October and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 won't wear the protective head guards adopted before the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Although the move might seem counterintuitive in preventing brain injuries, the chairman of AIBA's medical commission, Charles Butler, cites numerous medical studies that suggest fighting without head guards will decrease concussions.
"There's no evidence protective gear shows a reduction in incidence of concussion," Butler said. "In 1982, when the American Medical Association moved to ban boxing, everybody panicked and put headgear on the boxers, but nobody ever looked to see what the headgear did."
AIBA's executive committee unanimously voted to add head guards to amateur competition in April 1984, and they stayed in place through eight straight Olympics.
But the headgear has long been criticized for diffusing the impact of a blow and allowing fighters to continue sustaining more head shots for a longer stretch of time. The gear also offers no protection to the chin, where many knockout blows land in boxing, while the bulky sides of the device impede fighters' peripheral vision, preventing them from seeing every head blow.
The head guard ban will only affect male boxers at the top levels of AIBA competition, meaning women's boxers and younger fighters will still wear the gear.
The amateur sport also is moving to a pro-style, 10-point scoring system, discarding the latest version of the much-criticized computer punch-count systems implemented after the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Each fight will be scored by five ringside judges with the traditional 10-9 or 10-8 rounds familiar to fans of professional boxing.
The sport moved to a punch-counting system after the infamously bizarre results in Seoul, including Roy Jones Jr.'s inexplicable loss. But the computer system has been highly subjective and arcane, often turning the sport into a sparring session that emphasizes punch volume over technique and ring generalship. North American boxers have been particularly critical of the computerized scoring, with many top U.S. and Mexican prospects declining even to participate in amateur boxing.
The traditional scoring system also should indirectly improve fighters' safety, according to Butler. Since body shots and combinations notoriously scored few points in the computerized punch-count system, fighters have long placed a premium on a high volume of head shots, since an opponent's neck snapping back is the surest way to make sure a punch is seen and counted.
"Boxing isn't bean-counting," Butler said. "The thing that makes (the computer system) dangerous is if you're a boxer, you know you're not going to get a point for a body shot, so what are you going to do except punch the head? There were no points given for combinations. You might get one point. If a kid was a counterpuncher, you'd lose."
AIBA has been moving its sport to a professional model for the past several years under the direction of President Wu Ching-Kuo, even opening two professional boxing ventures: the team-based World Series of Boxing and the individual APB Boxing, slated to debut this fall. AIBA even dropped the word "amateur" from its name and competitions to emphasize its desire to control boxing at every level.
"It is AIBA's duty to bring the sport of boxing to the pinnacle of the Olympic Movement, and I am convinced that these changes will critically contribute to the development of our beloved sport," Wu said. "Decisions have not been made lightly, and we will now put a lot of efforts in educating our national member federations, our officials, boxers and coaches, as well as boxing fans around the world."