Head guards like these are a thing of the past for male boxers at the Commonwealth Games after a 2013 rule change that will also affect the Olympics. (Matt King/Getty Images)

Head guards like these are a thing of the past for male boxers at the Commonwealth Games after a 2013 rule change that will also affect the Olympics. (Matt King/Getty Images)

A major change for the sport of boxing is on display at the Commonwealth Games. Male boxers in Glasgow are fighting without headgear in accordance with a rule change made by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) last year.

That same change is also coming to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Boxers have worn headgear during Olympic bouts since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

At a time when concerns about concussions are almost constantly in the sports news cycle, the move to eliminate headgear raised questions about what was in the best interest of the fighters.

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When the AIBA announced the change in March 2013, the organization pointed to studies that indicated headgear increased the likelihood of a concussion by allowing fighters to absorb more blows than they would without it.

The group also noted that some research indicates that fighting without headgear decreases the power used by fighters in blows to the head.

However, female boxers and junior competitors will still wear head guards.

Over the weekend, I watched some of the men’s preliminaries at the Scotland Exhibition and Conference Centre. The Games have 10 male weight classes and more than 300 boxers (for the 48 female boxers there are three classes). In Glasgow, men fight three three-minute rounds per bout. (The female boxers are scheduled for four two-minute rounds.)

In the preliminaries, the quality of the boxing can vary wildly. As a fairly casual observer, it was hard for me to pinpoint any obvious effect the new rule had on the matches, although it’s well-known that the headgear limits fighters’ peripheral vision, so that may have had some impact. And as the Associated Press noted, some fighters left the ring with cuts and welts on their faces, something head guards would have prevented.

South Africa's Ayabonga Sonjica lands a punch. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

South Africa’s Ayabonga Sonjica lands a punch at the 2014 Games. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty)

The referees in the fights I watched were quick to send a fighter to his corner after taking a clean blow to the head. In one bout, South Africa’s Siphiwe Lusizi was awarded a technical knockout in the second round after landing a punch straight to the face of Imrod Bartholomew of Grenada. Bartholomew never seemed close to going down, didn’t even stagger, but the fight was quickly called. The match almost definitely would have continued if it had been a pro fight, but I can’t say for certain if it would have been handled differently if head guards were still in use.

Boxing has suffered a decline in popularity, particularly in the U.S., for a variety of reasons, including inconsistent scheduling of title bouts, confusion over the multiple-belt system and the massive growth of mixed martial arts as both a spectator and participatory sport. The AIBA move is part of set of changes designed to bring amateur boxing more in line with professional boxing.

The association’s executive committee also voted to change the scoring system for amateur fights. Since 1992, Olympic bouts have been scored using a computer punch-count system. However, in the Commonwealth Games matches in Glasgow, each fight is scored by a panel of five judges. The final scores from that panel are in a similar format to pro boxing.

In a related re-branding move, the AIBA also dropped the word “amateur” from its title, believing the word was a turn-off for young fighters hoping to make it in the pros.


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