The Big Debate | Should pro boxers be allowed to compete at the Olympic Games?

Boxing has been packing its punch at the summer Olympic Games since it was introduced to the programme in 1904. The Olympics has proved a springboard for some of boxing’s most celebrated fighters, with young, fresh amateurs claiming medals as they lifted their public profile before embarking on the glamour and big bucks of the professional game.

Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar De La Hoya are among those to have won Olympic golds while still teenagers before going on to claim world title belts and legendary status.

It should also be noted that Olympic boxing has been a standalone celebration of amateur boxing, with some of its most outstanding champions remembered for fabulous performances at the Games without ever joining the professional ranks. The brilliant Cubans, Ariel Hernandez, Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon – who rejected several multimillion dollar offers to fight Mike Tyson in the 1990s – are just three of those who are considered legends of the sport despite never taking part in a professional bout.

While professional and amateur boxing have developed separately over the last century, the two are set to collide at this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro following the controversial announcement in June that pros will be allowed to take part for the first time. While International Boxing Association (AIBA) president Ching-Kuo Wu said the decision marked a “historic moment”, not everyone agrees with the proposal. Former Olympian and world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis called the idea “preposterous”, while IBF president Daryl Peoples said any pros who fight in Rio will be removed from its ratings for a year for “unsportsmanlike behaviour” and the Mexican Boxing Federation has banned its professional fighters from participating.

Cultural and medical reasons have been put forward by critics as reasons why the likes of qualifiers Hassan N’Dam and Amnat Ruenroeng should not take part in Rio. In the other corner, many would question the ‘amateur’ status of many of those who have become Olympic legends, such as the Cubans named above. We put our question to four industry stakeholders to see what they had to say.

Mauricio Sulaimain, President, World Boxing Council (WBC)


To even think of having a professional boxer compete in the Olympic Games is preposterous – it is even criminal. Amateur boxing is going through the worst era ever experienced and AIBA is trying to do anything that will bring attention to the sport that they have ruined.

The solution is not to put the health and integrity of the fighters at risk. It is barbaric to take out the headgear, and it is barbaric to consider allowing a professional, experienced fighter to compete against a young athlete.

Dreams are being shattered, anarchy is ruling and there are no rules; it is the wild, wild west taking over the sport.
I think AIBA’s actions are purely commercial and disregard safety. They used the names of great champions like Pacquiao, Klitschko and Khan just to draw attention to their open new rules.

There are no rules, no certainty and they are simply misleading the boxing and sports world.

It is barbaric to allow a pro to compete against a young athlete

The WBC has been against this decision from day one and any fighter ranked in the WBC’s top 15 will be expelled from activity within our federation for two years if they decide to participate in such an irresponsible practice. This is the world of boxing speaking. We have discussed this matter with officials, supervisors and, most importantly, fighters, and they all agree that having highly regarded professionals take on amateur fighters is extremely dangerous. Professional boxing is very much different from amateur boxing.

Professionals who have gained experience have tremendous power, experience, technique, resistance and can hurt a young kid who has a dream of winning a medal for his country.

Again, unless firm and clear rules are established and the purpose of the changes are not simply commercially-oriented, the world of boxing will never favour this proposal.

AIBA has only seen the embarrassing failure of all of their programmes and they are desperately seeking commercial success.

Ted Turner, Vice-President, International Boxing Association (AIBA)


Professional’ boxers have been competing in the Olympic Games for decades. But they have not been called ‘professionals’. And they have been representing only some countries. Does anyone think the East German boxers were ‘amateurs’?

In recent decades an increasing number of boxers from many other countries who have been professional in all but name have been competing in Olympic Games tournaments.

This has been a consequence of social and economic pressures in our societies, and competitive pressures in international sport. That is, if you are an athlete and you want to be the best in your sport, you need to train and compete full time, and you need an income to sustain you.

Various strategies, the most common of which has been government funding and support, have been employed throughout the world to provide athletes with the ability to live while training and competing.
AIBA has now removed the hypocrisy inherent in any pretence that all the athletes are ‘amateur’.

There will be no increased safety risks for boxers

Acknowledgement that professional boxers will be competing in the Rio tournament will lead to commercial benefits. Pro boxing is acknowledged as the ultimate pinnacle of competition in the sport. Why should the Olympic Games tournament be considered a lesser competition?

Official acceptance that professional boxers can compete in Rio will ultimately lift the standing of the sport of boxing in the Olympic Games and lead to commercial benefit for the sport, including the boxers – similar to the effect of professional track and field athletes, swimmers and cyclists competing in their Olympic competitions.

There will be no increased safety risks for boxers in the Olympics. There will be no lowering of AIBA’s high level of competition safety rules. The referees, supervisors and medical doctors officiating in each bout will perform to their usual high standard.

I believe our sport will be lifted through the official acceptance of professional boxers into the Rio Olympic competition.

Massimiliano Bianco (Dr.), Sports Physician, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome


As a sports physician and scientist, my personal opinion is obviously limited to medical concerns.
In the way you approach a fight, it’s completely different to be prepared for 12 (pro) or three AIBA Open Boxing (AOB) rounds, be ready to fight on successive days (AOB tournaments) or in just 2-3 fights per year, with totally different strategies to reach and maintain the competition weight.

This could explain why some pro boxers participating in the qualifying tournament in Vargas, Venezuela, competed in more than one weight class over their usual division.

Prizefighters are used to searching for effective punching and damage, while vested boxers look for the number of fair punches landing in the right target, independent of their effectiveness. Also, a much harder bandage under the glove is used by pros.

These are some of the main concerns, medically speaking, that raise some doubts on the safety of a fight between AOBs and pros.

Following a correct methodological approach, an analysis on the safety of these fights should have been done, using a sufficient period for collecting and analysing data that could eventually decide to open the way to the Olympics for pros.

Future research and analysis is fundamental

However, looking at the available data from the recent tournament in Vargas with 20 pro boxers, only four fights (4.9%) ended by KO/TKO and none was won by a pro. A possible explanation is that boxers’ level from WSB/APB (59 athletes) is quite high and there’s no problem for them when facing pros. However, we must take into account that the top level pro boxers did not participate in the tournament.

At this point, what I personally believe is that it will not influence the safety of the tournament, especially maintaining the rules and the equipment – gloves and bandages – currently adopted by AOB.

Future research and analysis on the safety of mixing pros and AOBs is fundamental to decide whether Rio has just been an experiment.

Steve Wood, Head, VIP Boxing Promotions


I was very surprised when I heard that the boxing authorities were even considering allowing professionals to take part in the Olympic Games.

As the manager of a number of top-level boxers, such as WBO world lightweight champion Terry Flanagan, I see professional and amateur boxing as being very much in opposite corners. Managers and promoters in the professional game are not involved in the amateur ranks, and the two have always followed different paths.

My concern about amateurs and pros mixing at the Olympics is not related to any fears that less experienced fighters will be hurt. I simply believe that the Olympic boxing competition offers an opportunity for amateurs, particularly young fighters, to improve, gain prominence and be exposed to the public eye.

Their focus is simply on winning a medal and perhaps a strong showing can act as a springboard to future success in the professional ranks.

I think most pros would have more to lose than gain. I’d tell them not to take part

Their focus is simply on winning a medal and perhaps a strong showing can act as a springboard to future success in the professional ranks

In general, I would advise pro boxers not to take part in the Olympics. I think most would have more to lose than gain, so anyone with a good reputation or who is making a good living from the sport would be crazy to risk losing to a young amateur. Perhaps it could be argued that for pros who are struggling with their careers, or those who are being offered a significant financial incentive from their nation’s boxing authorities, the risk is worth taking.

It will be interesting to see how pros fare against amateurs, and I think it should not be taken for granted that the more experienced fighters will dominate. Pros are not used to the conditions of amateur bouts, with fewer and shorter rounds.

They are also solely focused on hurting their opponent rather than winning points, while amateurs know that they have to score in a short space of time to be victorious. Pros may be stronger and generally more experienced fighters, but the Olympic competition will be a different game.


If you would like to join the discussion, click here and look out for next month’s Big Debate in the same place.


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