When the gloves go on
‘‘In boxing you’re either hit or you get hit – that’s what it’s about. There is going to be some affect or some damage. It’s that simple.’’ Sermanni plans to bring stability to Football Ferns
Stephen McIvor could barely breathe while the punches flew at his face. But remembering his trainer’s advice, he spat his mouthguard onto the boxing ring floor.
It’s one of the rules – no punches to be thrown without a mouthguard. It’s a reprieve from the persistent haymakers.
It was the Sky Television broadcaster’s first charity fight, but the intensity and danger did not deter him from getting in the ring again. In fact, he did it twice more.
It was days after his third bout in 2014 that he started to fear his decision to get in the charity boxing ring would have a dramatic impact on his family.
The realisation dawned as he lay on a hospital bed in the brain injury unit. McIvor was ‘‘sh ...... myself to be honest’’.
‘‘I was in tears lying on the hospital bed thinking what an idiot I had been to put my family, and myself, through this.’’
McIvor had jumped in the ring with Stuff journalist Steven Kilgallon for three rounds of charity boxing.
But two days after the bout, while working in the garden at his home in Auckland, McIvor felt his head pound every time his spade dug into the earth.
Soon, he was rushed to the brain injury unit with a suspected brain bleed. It would later turn out to be a ruptured pocket of spinal fluid in his head.
‘‘I lay there for about 48 hours and just kept thinking about my family. Just for the sake of my ego I could’ve lost my life, my family and my kids.’’
McIvor says he is in no way advocating to stop charity boxing events, he knew what he was doing, and thinks if people want to give it a go safely – they should.
‘‘But with the tragic events in Christchurch it’s chilling to think what could have happened.’’
On Wednesday, Kain Parsons died in Christchurch Hospital aged 37. A former builder-turned-project manager, he was knocked unconscious during a fight against former Canterbury and Tasman Mako halfback Steve Alfeld at Fight for Christchurch last Saturday.
CALL FOR REGULATIONS
After Parsons’ death, Boxing New Zealand severed its ties with corporate boxing events, and professionals in the industry have called for tougher restrictions.
Others in the profession have called for the organisations which sanction charity boxing events – New Zealand National Boxing Federation (NZNBF) and New Zealand Professional Boxing Association (NZPBA) – to heed the warnings of experienced boxing trainers and make stringent safety practices mandatory at every event, big or small.
Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin said on Thursday she had asked her department for advice on whether charity boxing matches should be regulated. ‘‘We’ve had two deaths in three years and that’s two deaths too many,’’ she said.
Tom Sermanni’s football journey began in Scotland in the 1970s. Since then, it’s taken him to England, Australia, Japan, the United States, Malaysia and Canada. Now he’s in New Zealand, tasked with leading the Football Ferns to next year’s World Cup and providing a steady hand after two years of instability.
The team’s immediate objective is winning the Oceania Women’s Nations Cup, which starts next Monday, something they should accomplish with ease, given they’ve never lost to another Pacific Island nation. That would qualify them for the World Cup in France next June, where they are seeking a place in the knockout stage for the first time.
Neither goal will be easy, especially when you consider all that has gone on around the team during the past two years.
Since the Rio Olympics in 2016, there have been the retirements of several senior players; the surprise resignation of coach Tony Readings last November, when there were two years to run on his contract; and the not-so-surprise resignation of coach Andreas Heraf in July, following complaints from a dozen players about his conduct that an independent review later Stephen McIvor, right, during his fight with fellow journalist Steve Kilgallon
In August, Lucy Brown, 31, died days after receiving a head injury during a routine sparring session.
In 2016, Hamilton man Neville Knight died in the ring at a charity boxing match, leaving behind three children.
Earlier this year, Auckland’s Peach Gym quit the corporate fight scene after Joel Rea, 36, was severely concussed at a corporate fight.
In April, a man was knocked out for 20 minutes and hospitalised for four days with a brain injury at a Boxing Alley event in Auckland. That led Boxing Alley to also cancel corporate fights indefinitely.
The NZPBA approves or promotes about 50 corporate bouts each year. Association president Pat Leonard said the boxers at the Fight for Christchurch event had a pre-bout medical check by a registered doctor and were told by the supervisor about the risks.
In Parsons’ case, he’d taken two weeks off training because of an incident during sparring.
According to witnesses, on the night of the fight Parsons had been stunned twice by punches during the bout, prompting the referee to give him two eight standing counts in the first round, to check if he was fine to continue.
Then, he was knocked out in the second round.
DIFFERENT RULES FOR CHARITY BOXING
Parsons was not wearing headgear, which was optional – a policy in line with the New Zealand Professional Boxing Association (NZPBA). A review is under way into the fight and the death has been referred to the coroner.
Auckland Boxing Association president Paul McSharry told Stuff promoters for corporate boxing are averse to the rules of amateur boxing.
‘‘There are approximately six governing bodies in New Zealand who can sanction corporate boxing.’’
However, because the rules and regulations for amateur boxing are found to be ‘‘genuine and largely substantiated’’.
During all that, the Ferns played just 11 matches against nonOceania opposition, well down on the 24 they had during the same period in the previous World Cup cycle. They could add eight or nine more next year, in the runup to the World Cup, should they play in every international window, but there’s no guarantee of that, especially when you consider that the purse strings at NZ Football are tightening.
It’s just as well they have a coach who has seen plenty in his
quite strict, promoters will go to the professional bodies, he said.
‘‘Corporate boxing is sanctioned by professional boxing; professional boxers don’t wear headgear.’’
McIvor is adamant headgear should be compulsory, particularly on the charity boxing circuit.
‘‘In boxing you’re either hit or you get hit – that’s what it’s about. There is going to be some affect or some damage. It’s that simple.’’
His one-time opponent agreed with him. ‘‘I was really concussed after the fight and had bad headaches all the next day,’’ Kilgallon said.
‘‘It took me until the evening to come right.
Given that I have a job where I have to use my brain, it’s probably not the brightest decision to risk long term damage to it.
‘‘For years after the fight I was keen to jump back in the ring, but in hindsight
I’m glad I listened to my partner
Emma and didn’t.’’
Kilgallon trained with boxing professionals and arrived at the fight in peak condition – and Kilgallon was at least 20kg lighter than his opponent. He knew his limits.
‘‘If you didn’t prepare properly it would be a foolish thing to do. I was conscious of what I was about to put myself through.
‘‘If I had been matched with an ex-sportsman there’s no way I would have fought.’’ time. ‘‘The first thing I’ve learned is you can never take anything for granted,’’ Sermanni said this week.
‘‘You never quite know how things are going to work out, and there’s such a fine margin between winning and losing and it’s not always performance based. That’s probably the thing that strikes you the most, that you never know how a game is going to go.’’
Sermanni’s most notable achievements came during his time in charge of Australia from 2005 to 2012, when they qualified out of Asia for the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, winning matches and
making the knockout stages for the first time, the same achievements the Ferns are presently chasing.
Reflecting on how the Matildas got there, Sermanni identified two key factors.
‘‘One was the tightness of the group, the real camaraderie of the group. The second thing was the ability of the players to be on the same page playing well together. Our preparation was about having as much time as possible to get the team together, not necessarily playing internationals, but just getting together. We had a team in 2007 and to a slightly lesser extent
in 2011 that had come together for long periods of time and were comfortable playing with each other and who knew how to play with each other.’’
The Ferns have a core group of players who know each other well, even if they’ve only been together in fits and spurts over the past two years. Sermanni’s task is to ensure they make the most of the limited time they have to prepare for what awaits in France next June, while blooding fresher faces if and when he can.
‘‘The key is, how can we get a team together so that as a team
Former six-time New Zealand boxing champion Barry Galbraith was a judge at the charity event in Christchurch in which Parsons was injured last Saturday, but cannot comment on the events on the night.
He has been involved in the charity circuit off and on, and said matching fighters of equal ability was the most crucial aspect of safety.
Matchmaking takes into account a fighter’s weight, age and time spent in the ring. But Galbraith said a key component was a boxer’s ability and fitness. ‘‘When Dean Lonergan kicked all of this [charity boxing] off he made sure you had fit athletes facing off against athletes,’’ Galbraith said. ‘‘Most athletes have been into the deep end of exhaustion, similar to what happens in the ring.’’ As time has gone on, corporate boxing has become more popular, which has led to more and more people thinking jumping in the ring is easy and just a bit of fun, he said.
‘‘But if you get someone who plays a bit of squash at the weekend with someone who’s played 10 years of competitive sport – it’s we’re ready to go the World Cup.
‘‘The group of senior players, they’ve been together for a long time, so they’re very, very familiar with each other and the young players that are coming into the team have had good international experience.
‘‘You’re not talking about a group where a lot of them are leaving NZ for the first time in their lives, so those are positives.’’
The Ferns will assemble in Auckland tomorrow, ahead of a four-day training camp that begins on Monday, one week out from their Nations Cup opener against Tonga. Sermanni has spoken to captain Ali Riley – who he tried to sign for the last team he coached, the Orlando Pride – but said he is leaving the rest of his introductions until players arrive in camp.
‘‘I thought it’s just better that I wait until everybody comes in, because inevitability what I’d do, is I’d try and touch base with people and I’d end up speaking to some and not speaking to others, and they’d be like ‘oh, he’s spoken to these players, why hasn’t he spoken to me?’ so I thought it’d be safer to get everybody in and then go from there.’’
The Ferns will be together for three weeks this month, by far the longest stretch they’ll spend together between now and the World Cup itself. While the results in New Caledonia may appear to be going to be a huge advantage and potentially dangerous.’’
Galbraith believes someone with matchmaking skills should be designated to every corporate event and look over all the background and details to ensure the right people are paired up.
‘‘The matchmaking is just so important – it needs to be more in depth and not just throwing two people together.’’
Galbraith said organisers of events get the appropriate sanctions from a boxing association, but at times employ trainers who aren’t certified boxing coaches.
At other events where Galbraith has trained the contestant, he’s been forced to pull fighters out of the bout because he felt they weren’t ready to get in the ring.
‘‘As a trainer, your job is to do the best you can for your fighter to make sure they’re not going to get hurt. So if they’re not up for it you need to have a chat to them and say it’s not going to work.
‘‘The matchmaking is just so important, it needs to be more in depth and not just throwing two people together.’’
Former national boxing champion Barry Galbraith
‘‘I know other coaches have done that, too. But a trainer who has less experience might not see the signs that indicate that needs to happen.’’
However, he said some onus must lie with the competitor. It’s a sport with obvious risks apparent before anyone signs up, even at a professional level with experienced fighters.
Like McIvor and other boxing experts, Galbraith believes that headgear should be mandatory for non-professional corporate events.
‘‘The head guards give protection, especially around the back of the head if you are unfortunate enough to hit the canvas. It also protects the upper temple and avoids cuts from head clashes.’’
Most people outside boxing wouldn’t know there are between 30 and 40 different brands of 16 ounce gloves.
Some in the profession have called for the corporate circuit to be banned, while others say it would lead to ungoverned fight events happening underground.
But Galbraith believes it needs experienced people running them and look at the rules and restrictions and try to improve them.
McIvor agrees: ‘‘My experience won’t be like everyone else’s.
‘‘I was 48 at the time and I knew what it was doing, but sometimes for the sake of puffing our chest out we might not be thinking rationally.’’ a fait accompli it will be what they achieve there otherwise that sets the tone for the months ahead.
‘‘I’ve got some thoughts, but they’re probably going to change,’’ Sermanni said, when asked if he had a plan for Monday.
‘‘You always go in with a plan but it’s like anything, once the battle starts, the plan changes quite quickly. I have an idea of what I want to do, but initially it will be more about observation than direction, having a look at players, having a look at the team, and then trying to work things out from there.’’ ❚ ❚ ❚
Oceania Women’s Nations Cup fixtures:
❚ Nov 19: Football Ferns v Tonga, 4pm
❚ Nov 22: v Cook Islands, 7pm
❚ Nov 25: v Fiji, 7pm
❚ Nov 28: Semifinals
❚ Dec 1: Final
Kain Parsons, above, and Lucy Brown, below, have died this year after sustaining head injuries while boxing.
Tom Sermanni, left, with then Football Ferns coach Tony Readings in 2013.