- Interview by Jake Bambrough, Qatar
- Translation by Alberto Lungherini and Dr Cristiano Eirale, Qatar
Maurizio Stecca is an Italian former boxer who won Olympic gold in the Bantamweight division at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. After turning professional he was twice WBO Featherweight World Champion, successfully defending the title five times in total. He now works as a coach with the Italian Olympic boxing team.
How has boxing changed as a sport since you won your Olympic gold medal in 1984?
It has changed quite a bit. We have come back to previous rules ‑ the first time head guards were used for protection was in 1984. They have also changed how boxing is judged, before it was judged by a machine. The timing of rounds has also changed. The old rules were quite good, but the federation understood the need to change the sport. For example, it is difficult to compete at the Olympic Games at the age of 20 as I did, the athletes tend to be closer to 24 or 25 years old now.
What changes have you noticed in that time in terms of sports medicine and sports science?
A lot! Nowadays there is a lot more attention given to the athletes. They have better training programmes, they eat better, they have a team of doctors monitoring them, including specialists such as cardiologists, neurologists, orthopaedic surgeons, as well as physios. This pool of experts is able to manage the athletes better and to help them be more healthy and protect them from injury.
In the past it was quite different, the athlete was more independent, he had to manage his weight and cope with pain and injury alone without this support. If he wasn’t able do those things, he would have been sent home by the coach. Nowadays, immediate support is available. An athlete with any problem can get a diagnosis from the doctor straight away and begin appropriate treatment at once. There is now much more work on injury prevention too.
You competed as an amateur and professional boxer, can you outline some of the differences between the two, particularly in terms of training methods, injuries encountered and access to sports medicine expert/facilities?
As I remember, I never had any problems in 150 bouts except in my knee, I had a ligament injury, but that type of injury is not typical of boxing. But one of the main problems for boxers now is shoulder injuries, we see a lot of these. In my 15-year career, shoulder injuries were much less common and weren’t so much of a problem, particularly in amateur boxing. I can understand shoulder problems among the professionals, but now we see it a lot in the amateurs too. Problems in the rotator cuff tendons are often repaired surgically. But we do see less hand injuries now as the design of the gloves and materials used have improved. Gloves used to be made using sponge horse hair which was much rougher and resulted in a lot more blood injuries.
You also won the world military boxing championships, can you tell us about that?
It was a great experience. The competition was held in Algeria and I won the final against an Algerian boxer in front of 50,000 people. Many people I met in north Africa have gone on to become coaches, and the Algerian team still remember my victory there.
How closely do you work with the medical staff in your team?
Our team doctor is in daily contact with us (the coaches) and the athletes. The physiotherapist works very closely with us as well. Sometimes an athlete might have to see another specialist for advice in a specific area, which they may have to travel for, but the day-to-day care of the athletes is based in and close to the training centre.
For you as a coach, what makes a good team doctor?
For me, a good boxing doctor should have a great prevention programme; he should know how to protect the boxers’ hands, which mouth guards they need and how to protect their head. When I was young, I used to bandage my hands twice and I had my own special head guard that helped protect my cheekbones and head, as an amateur I never suffered any broken bones and I never had a cut on my face. Now amateurs do not use head guards again; obviously we have to compete within the rules of the sport, but a good doctor will know the best injury prevention methods available, not only during training and matches but also what the athlete can do at home.
What are the worst injuries you can experience as a boxer?
It used to be problems with the hands, but now shoulder injuries present a big problem. Of course there is great concern about the impact of head injuries as well and the medical team is always monitoring the athletes, even something like a small headache can be a red flag, so athletes are told they must report everything to the doctor, so further tests like an MRI scan can be done if necessary. When required, you can tailor the training sessions of the athletes.
Do you do and specific injury or illness prevention training with your boxers?
The first line of prevention is the protective equipment. Secondly the athletes undergo medical checks every 3 to 4 months and once a year they have a complete competition medical assessment screening with the federation and Olympic committee doctors. When an athlete is ill they have to be treated by the federation doctors rather than a general practitioner, to avoid the use of any banned substances via medication. At the beginning of the season boxers do a lot of work in the gym, focusing on strength for injury prevention, there is no contact training, just conditioning.
If a boxer has had an injury going into a match, who makes the final decision on whether they are fit to fight, the athlete, the coach or the doctor?
Coaches always want their athletes to compete, but we have to take the advice of medical experts and they make the decision. Athletes and coaches have to adapt to the decisions of the medical staff. Sometimes for a very important athlete or an important fight the diagnosis and risk of competing can be discussed, but in most cases, when an athlete is not 100%, the best option is not to put him in the ring.
How important is nutrition for boxers? Who advises your boxers on this and do they follow particular diets?
I think nutrition is extremely important. Like all sports with a weight limit, your first opponent is the weighing scale. If the boxer doesn’t have correct information on the type and timing of food they should be eating, there is immediately a problem. This is an area in boxing where sports science and medicine has changed a lot. In the past there was little information available on nutrition, if I had had the nutrition advice boxers get now my career would have been much easier and perhaps I would have been even more successful.
Our boxers check in with the dietician every 15 to 20 days, each athlete has a personalised diet, and they undergo DEXA scans to assess their body composition. We have to forget the image that a boxer is one athlete mentored by an old coach who will advise him to eat a kilo of meat before a fight. Boxers now eat well-balanced diets and their food intake is heavily monitored by experts and this is of primary importance.
How important is the mental state of a boxer going into a fight? What sort of state of mind should they be in? How did you prepare mentally for a fight? How do you prepare your boxers now?
Everyone is different; we are not wizards who can touch the minds of our athletes with a wand. We must consider each athlete’s own personality. It is very important for boxers to remember what has happened in the build up to the fight, the training they have completed in the gym, as well as their nutrition and other preparation. As a coach I teach the boxer the technical and tactical side of boxing, but I cannot do everything, which is why we have built a great team, which includes a psychologist who the boxers can use, for example when a boxing is struggling to make weight. The mental state of the boxer before a fight is very important, you can be very strong and in perfect physical condition, but if you are not convinced that you are ready you cannot fight properly, so the mind is very important, it is the control room for all the actions of the body.
Did you ever use a sports psychologist?
I didn’t use a psychologist, maybe because I was lucky and I didn’t need that kind of help. I was young but mature for my age. I was aware that spending a lot of time away from home and my family I had to give everything to my sport. The more I was winning, the more energy I had, so for me, winning was very important because it made me sure of my strength, both physical and mental. I have never made mistakes during my preparation because my goal was very clear. When your goal is clear, you can plan to achieve it more easily. All the sacrifice and all the training were a part of the path towards achieving my goal.
How do your boxers recover after a fight? Has sports medicine shaped this, is it different to how you used to recover from a fight?
The first difference is that before, during my career, only the doctor followed the team, not the physios. Of course now at long competitions like a world cup you may only have 2 days between fights, so you have to rest the day after the fight, but you cannot only rest and recover as you have to prepare yourself, firstly for the weigh in and secondly physically for the next fight. So the truth is that you are never truly relaxed at these events, it can be a very stressful experience. It didn’t bother me too much, as I loved watching the other fights, but some boxers can struggle to manage the stress.
If you pick up any injuries, it can be challenging to deal with them in such a short recovery time, we always have our physios on hand to check the boxers after the fights. In amateur fights of three rounds of 3 minutes, you can recover fairly quickly if you don’t have any injury problems. Of course, it is a different case in a professional bout with 12 rounds, you need much more recovery but you’re are not required to fight again a couple of days later, when I was world champion, I only fought twice per year, so I had 6 months to prepare for a fight
What is your view on the use of head guards? Some research has shown that although the number of cuts has gone up since they were removed, the number of concussions has actually decreased? Do you think it was the right decision to get rid of them?
There are two important issues here. One is that with the head guards your style of boxing is different. You know there is much less chance of getting cut on your face or head, so you can box more aggressively. When you don’t have a head guard on, you have to be more cautious, your opponent’s punches will be more painful, you have to be more tactical in your actions. The other is the number of punches you will receive by using this more aggressive style with a head guard. This will have an effect on your body and your brain. So personally, I agree with removing the head guards, because if you are a good, intelligent boxer, you will receive less punches. However, the use of head guards is important for younger boxers, up to 17 or 18 years old. There was some research from AIBA that found that when the head guards were removed there was a huge increase in the number of cuts and bruises being suffered to the face and head of boxers, because they were used to using the head guards and their style wasn’t suited to not having them. This is now changing and I was surprised to see that the number of these injuries at the world champs in Qatar was very low.
Can you describe some of the methods used by boxers to make weight for a fight?
A boxer always has two opponents. The first is the other boxer in the ring and the second is his weight. Now there is a continuous follow-up of the boxers by the medical staff, so they have their weight checked every 2 or 3 days in the training period, then they start checking their weight every day in the build up to a fight. Again there are differences between amateurs and professionals; in amateur competitions, the weigh in is the same day as the fight, sometimes just 4 or 5 hours beforehand, so if there are problems making weight there is very little time to change anything. In a professional bout, the weigh in is the day before, if you don’t make the weight, you have 2 hours to try again, then you have time to recover. Amateurs only have 1 hour to be weighed again.
Did you ever have any problems making weight? How has sports science and medicine helped boxing in achieving their required weight?
Yes I found it very hard to achieve the correct weight, which for me was 54kg, but the most difficult thing is not achieving the right weight, but maintaining it. Sports science has changed a lot, in 1984 when I won Olympic gold I just ate once per day, I was training in fully dressed in the sauna to try and lose weight. At night I would wake up having nightmares about food and I would go into the bathroom and eat toothpaste because I was so hungry.
What advice would you give to aspiring young boxers?
Firstly, boxing is the most beautiful sport I the world, but young boxers should be aware of the rules of the sport. Understanding the rules and the discipline required to be a boxer is important – they are athletes, 365 days a year. My advice for young boxers is: first you become a man, then you become an athlete, because if you are not a mature you cannot be an athlete. Then you will become a boxer.
I started the sport to have fun, but my mentality changed when my first daughter was born. My wife is the daughter of a boxer, so she knew what the life of a boxer was like. When I was 14, I said to my future wife: ‘listen, I love this sport, and if I continue doing it I will often be away and far from home for a long time.’ My wife has helped me a lot and it is very important to have family to help you, boxers are very strong physically, but they can also be very fragile inside. I started boxing because my older brother was doing it, he did it to lose weight and because his friends were doing it. He, like me, also became an Italian, European and world champion.