An In-Depth Look Into Boxers Dealing With Bad Eyesight
We only tend to think about boxing and eyesight when fighters are in the ring. When an eye puffs up and closes over, or when a cut on the eyebrow means the fight becomes in danger of being stopped. Any good referee should adjudge that if a combatant cannot see properly, it crosses the line of being able to properly defend themselves.
Research from Statista in December 2016 found that 53.4% of US adults between 18 and 34 – the age range where most pros would be in their prime – wear glasses. Boxers don’t come from a unique strata of society where folks aren’t affected by poor eyesight. For example, Bernard Hopkins has been photographed many times outside the ring wearing what looks to be prescription glasses, as has Sebastian Fundora (big brother to the still undefeated Gabriela Fundora).
Of course, glasses in the ring simply wouldn’t be possible. If a pair were sturdy enough to stand up to rigors of being punched – think perhaps the protective glasses Edgar Davids wore playing soccer or Horace Grant did in the NBA – then they’d pose a hazard to the fists of the other fighter. However, training in prescription glasses would certainly be possible, something Manny Pacquiao did prior to his 2016 bout with Timothy Bradley. Indeed, sports-focused brands like Oakley have long built their frames that bit more bombproof to be able to be used in all-action pursuits. However, wearing a pair of Cliften or Flak Beta glasses would be fine in the gym but not in the ring, even with a head strap and super-tough lenses and frames.
In the ring, boxers with poor vision have taken different approaches to combat the issue. Let’s have a look at some.
It’s perhaps true that in the ring, poor eyesight isn’t an insurmountable problem. Much of boxing is muscle memory, and the up-close nature of the sport means nearsightedness would certainly be less of an issue than farsightedness. However, the boxing authorities take a dim view of any eye issues, and if they are severe, they may lose their license. Former WBU super-middleweight champion Nathan Decastro bobbed and weaved around tests and medicals for 18 years due to his having Retinitis Pigmentosa – a condition that affects peripheral vision. The British Boxing Board of Control revoked his license and retired him in early 2020, but not before he’d had 116 fights under his belt.
Former heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier was almost blind in his left eye by 1974 due to an accident with a defective speed-bag showering him in metal shards a decade prior. It may also be there is some stigma attached to boxers with poor eyesight.
In 2019, Abner Mares cited an elbow injury as the reason he pulled out of a clash with Gervonta Davis before coming clean and admitting retinal problems. Hopefully, the support he’s received from fans in the aftermath should go some way to breaking the stigma – there are few things more important than your eyesight.
Larry Holmes was rumored to have fought in contacts in the latter part of his career. However, he always denied it. There’s good reason; contacts are outlawed in the ring. They could be pushed into the eye and require surgery to remove post-fight. Again, there’s the issue that if a contact was displaced and a fighter’s vision was affected, then it may be they’re unfit to defend themselves; however, the referee knowing something had happened would require the fighter fessing up – perhaps not possible in the heat of the action. Again though, contacts could function in much the same way as prescription glasses in bag work at the gym.
Optical surgery wouldn’t have been an option for Frazier or Holmes – the FDA didn’t approve LASIK until 1999. 32 and 0 middleweight champion Jermall Charlo opted for the procedure in July 2016, in the aftermath of the second defence of his IBF light-middleweight crown. However, while the boxing authorities have no issue with LASIK, the FDA advises against it if one is active in combat sports.
Many amateurs have been advised to go for the older procedure of LASEK instead. LASIK involves an incision in the cornea in order to improve sight. As a result, if you get hit or thumbed in the eye after LASIK, there’s a risk of the cornea tearing. The older technique scrapes the cornea to achieve the result, so there is no ‘flap’ that could be displaced via a blow. The downside for LASEK is the recovery time is longer than its newer counterpart, so may not fit in with the demanding schedule of a pro fighter.
If you’re fighting with less than 20/20 vision, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Speak to your trainers, doctor and to the others in the gym. You may find it’s much more common than you think. Get a clear picture.