After the recent ring fatality of Jimmy Garcia of Colombia, heavyweight champion George Foreman proposed mandatory use of headgear in professional boxing.
But there is no proof that using headgear, as required in amateur boxing, reduces the risk of brain damage. In fact, research has shown that in some cases, it might even increase the risk of injury.
The late Voight Hodgson, who was a professor of neurosurgery and engineering for Wayne State University, performed extensive research on improving protective helmets for football, hockey, baseball and boxing the past two decades.
Tim Walilko, a bio-mechanical engineering research assistant who worked with Hodgson on a 1987 boxing study, said the benefits of headgear were inconclusive.
"It really depended on whether there was linear or rotational acceleration when the head was struck," said Walilko. "If the head was hit straight on, it dissipated the impact. But if the punch made the head spin, the helmet could make matters worse."
Walilko said that there was significant data on head injuries caused by one substantive blow, as in auto accidents, but little data on head injuries caused by repetitive blows, as can occur in a fight.
This is an area being investigated by a team of Johns Hopkins doctors, headed by Walter "Buzz" Stewart, an epidemiologist at the School of Hygiene and Health.
Stewart and Wolfgang Schneider, of the Applied Physics Laboratory, developed an "accelerometer" -- a chip placed inside a boxer's headgear to gauge the magnitude and the direction of head movement caused by head blows.
The project is funded by USA Boxing, an affiliate of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Stewart hopes to determine from accelerometer readings whether the brain recovers from certain kinds of punches and what type of head movement presents the most problems.
Stewart will put his improved accelerometer to another test with amateur boxers at Sugar Ray Leonard's gym in Palmer Park on June 14.
A number of professional boxers have voiced skepticism over the use of headgear in an actual fight, including junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway of Baltimore, and former champion Simon Brown of Mount Airy, who was knocked out by Pettway at USAir Arena on April 29.
"The headgear is useful in the gym in protecting cuts and contusions," said Pettway. "But it gives you a false sense of security. You tend to get hit with shots that you would normally dodge or block."
Brown said he has knocked out a number of sparring partners wearing headgear.
"Hit a guy flush on the chin, he'll go, headgear or no headgear," he said.
Amateur boxer Nathan Wigfall Washington died last January after a sparring session at the Multicultural Center in Washington. In the third round, he was staggered by a left hook but declared himself fit to continue.
Wigfall collapsed in his corner when the round ended. A day later, he died from hemorrhaging.
Since 1982, 11 amateur boxers have died from ring injuries, according to Boxing USA records.
Dr. Robert Voy, deputy chairman of the medical commission for Olympic boxing, told the Washington Post, "Headgear has been beneficial in regard to cuts, facial fractures and eye injuries.
"But statistically, as we measured it in Olympic competition and World Games, we have not found a decrease in the number of knockouts, which indicates the headgear does not prevent concussions or subdural hematoma. The jury is still out."