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Boxing to their death: risks Malawian boxers take

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By Mphatso Malidadi:

BALAKASI—We get peanuts while risking our lives

At the peak of former national junior lightweight champion Osgood Kayuni’s career, he suffered an unexpected first professional boxing loss to unheralded Wellington Balakasi on points at the Warehouse in Blantyre in 2009.

It was a defeat that left Kayuni’s camp seething with rage, maybe rightly so, as they had unanswered questions following the manner of the loss as Balakasi, who was earlier dismissed as a journeyman, pulled one of the sensational upsets of this era.

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However, Balakasi, renowned for breaking boxing barriers at the Malawi Defence Force when he defied all odds to become the first professional boxer in the military, suddenly disappeared from the boxing scene.

Just when the nation thought it had unearthed a top boxer, Balakasi disappeared from the boxing scene, hardly leaving a trace of his whereabouts.

“It was a painful and difficult moment of my life but I simply accepted doctors’ advice to stop boxing after I was diagnosed with brain injury. I had lost two successive fights to Chimwemwe Chiotcha and Chrispin Moliyati,” Balakasi recalls.

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Balakasi does not want to talk much about his predicament, but it is enough to say he was unconscious at Zomba Central Hospital for a month.

Upon his discharge from the hospital, Balakasi started fainting at short or no notice at all. Life has never been the same.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the boxer who fought in lightweight and welterweight categories now feels that the risk boxers take to fight in the country is not worth it, “especially because the monetary rewards do not match the effort put into it all”, making local boxers poorer than a church mouse.

“Much as I would like to get back into the ring, I fear for my life; more so because boxing is not a well-paying sport in the country. We get peanuts while risking our lives. Most boxers get less than K40,000 for a fight, yet the diet and training demand a lot of energy,” said the soldier who is based at Cobbe Barracks in Zomba.

After battling some mental problems, including loss of memory, Balakasi eventually threw in the towel and retired from the bloody sport “forever” in 2013.

And, yet, Balakasi’s case is just a tip of the iceberg as other cases have not been put in official records.

Not long ago, another boxer, Kudakwache Nkhakamila Banda, was tipped as the next big thing in boxing in the country after registering 12 straight knockouts in light welterweight contests between 2015 and 2016.

Banda’s dominance was, however, short-lived for, sooner than later, he suffered his first professional loss to Limbani Masamba after being knocked out in the eighth round.

His efforts to bounce back when he sought a rematch ended in vain as he was, again, knocked out; this time, in the seventh round. The decline in form was real.

From that moment, Banda has been involved in seven fights, losing six of them through knockouts and winning just once.

Even though Banda refuses to accept the harsh reality that he sustained a chin injury, let alone accept that quitting the sport is the only ideal solution, the writing is on the wall.

HAD PROMISING CAREER— Banda

However, the southpaw is adamant, vowing to bounce back strongly.

“It was just unfortunate that I lost some bouts one after another. I know people have been talking about my chin but I received the best treatment with the help of Malawi Professional Boxing Control Board (MPBCB) President Lonzoe Zimba and I am now fit. It was just a bad spell and I will bounce back strongly,”said Banda, younger brother to former boxer Phillemon Nkhakamila.

Renowned matchmaker, Steve ‘Mawenzi’ Msiska, said there were some boxers who needed proper medical assessments before being allowed back in the boxing ring.

“For instance there is Kudakwache who had a brilliant start to his career but lost steam after sustaining a chin injury. People recommended that he be X-rayed to assess if he is still fit to compete but nothing is happening. There are claims that he received treatment but I doubt such reports,” he said.

Msiska also notes that there were some former boxers who have been behaving awkwardly after sustaining head injuries.

“We have different cases that are not being unattended to. Some of the former boxers are confused and can hardly remember the last conversation we had,” he said.

Msiska feels Malawi Professional Boxing Control Board should introduce mandatory medical examinations at the start of each year to certify boxers fit to compete at a given point of time.

“Otherwise tragedy will strike us hard,” he said.

Renowned medical assistant G’bray Sangala, who is mostly engaged as a ringside doctor during Blantyre bouts, calls for proper medical examinations as repercussions for head injuries were dire.

“Normally, before fights, boxers undergo medical check-up where we take their temperature and measure their blood pressure. We also examine if they have Hepatitis B, which is an infection of the liver. It can be fatal if it isn’t treated. It spreads when people contact the blood, open sores or body fluids of someone who has the hepatitis B virus. In most cases, our boxers fail the test on high blood pressure,” he said.

Sangala said lack of followup medical attention to boxers after fights had the potential to haunt the fighters forever.

NYASA— MRI and CT scans are capable of showing pathologies
within the brain tissue in detail

Local physiotherapist Charles Nyasa concedes that head-related injuries in contact sports were on the rise.

Nyasa said “head injury refers to any trauma to the scalp, skull or the brain” and ranges from a minor bump on the scalp to serious involvement of the brain inside the skull.

“Head injuries result from a direct blow to the head such as those that occur in motor vehicle accidents, assault to the head, falls or boxing. In severe cases, these injuries affect the brain by compromising blood supply to this vital organ, folding its coverings (meninges) and sometimes damaging the brain tissue itself. When this occurs, the condition is referred to as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI),” he said.

TBIs are a global concern and on the rise, partly because of the rise in the number of predisposing factors over the years. These predisposition factors include road traffic accidents, violence and participation in contact sports.

In a 2014 paper published in East and Central African Journal of Surgery, Dr Thomas Kapapa reports a 7.5 percent incidence rate of traumatic brain injuries at one of the four central hospitals in Malawi.

Malawi has Mzuzu, Kamuzu Central, Zomba and Queen Elizabeth Central hospitals.

The report further states that, as of 2008, road traffic accidents contributed 43 percent to such incidences, attacks and assaults contributed 24 percent while falls contributed 13.5 percent of overall injury reports at Kamuzu Central Hospital.

“Despite lack of data on the actual incidence of TBI cases in Malawi, there has been an increase in reports of TBI in our communities, an appreciable number of which has been observed in contact sport settings such as football and boxing. With the currently rising levels of participation in these forms of sport, coupled with un-reporting and under-reporting of medical issues— which is second nature to Malawian athletes— the prevalence of brain injuries in sport settings is suspected to be very high,” writes Nyasa, who is also Assistant Lecturer of Human Anatomy in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Medicine, a constituent college of the University of Malawi.

Nyasa says injuries to the head, due to the increased potential for brain involvement, can be fatal.

“Research evidence points out that most parts of the brain stop growing after the age of 22. As such, injured brain cells are not replaceable— as one would expect in a muscle or bone. Of course, following a successful medical, surgical or physiotherapy intervention, various parts of the brain are able to adopt and perform functions of areas that have been lost, but chances of complete resolution are almost non-existent. For this reason, people may permanently lose function in one or both sides of the body, go into a vegetative state or coma, experience memory loss or changes in personality —labile mood and obscenity— and other neurological diseases, all of which impede continuation of a successful sporting career,” he said.

The physiotherapist adds that, due to the nature of their sport, boxers need frequent and accessible medical care and checkups.

“From my point of view, a sure way to minimise boxing-related injuries is through a practice known as Pre-participation Physical Evaluation (PPE). PPE is the screening of athletes for injuries and some risk factors for disease with an aim of minimising injury risk, disease exacerbation and sudden death during training or competition. With PPE, athletes are screened before or at the beginning of pre-season training and those that are classified as unfit are disqualified from participation and/or referred for medical assistance,” he said.

Nyasa also recommends that boxers undergo a scan session every year but this is a decision that may be made by a sports physiotherapist after thorough assessment during PPE.

“In practice, an X-ray scan is done first and where results are not conclusive or due to the limited nature of X-ray radiographs, more expensive tests such as Computed Tomography (CT) Scan and/or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) may be ordered. Unlike X-Ray Radiographs which are limited to showing changes in bony alignment of the skull and soft structure immediately beneath the skull, MRI and CT scans are capable of showing pathologies within the brain tissue in detail. In Malawi, a CT scan or MRI scan session costs about K250, 000,” he says.

MPBCB’s Zimba urged the government to bail boxers out so that they can be undergoing mandatory scans each year to assess their condition.

“This amount [K250,000] is on the higher side. This is the reason we need the government to assist us,” he said.

Unfortunately, professional boxing is run like a company and, despite being recognised, it is not affiliated to the government through the Malawi National Council of Sports (MNCS).

MNCS Executive Secretary, George Jana, said sport federations should become responsible and start protecting their athletes.

“They need to come with mechanisms to safeguard the lives of boxers by introducing medical schemes that can subsidise part of the medical fees,” he said.

So, while the contact sport of boxing remains one form of entertainment, it can also serve as the paved road to the grave.

within the brain tissue in detail.

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