Boxer Bradley Pryce says he spent the last few years of his career “fearing he could die in the ring” due to problems with his vision.
The former light-middleweight Commonwealth champion, who boxed professionally from 1999 before retiring earlier this year, says he knew how to “cheat” eye examinations and that he did so to prolong his career as “boxing is all I know”.
Welsh fighter Pryce, who has spoken openly in the past about issues with bulimia and alcohol excess, says he now has problems with his vision and balance but admits he did not inform the British Boxing Board of Control (BBOC), British boxing’s regulatory body, about his issues.
The BBOC assesses boxers’ eye health based on testing from “qualified professionals”, meaning that a boxer is expected to visit an optician for a standard eye test that any member of the public would undergo.
BBOC general secretary Robert Smith says he is disappointed in Pryce’s comments and expressed belief that the British Boxing Board is “amongst the strictest in the world” regarding boxer safety.
‘I gambled with my life’
Pryce, best known as a member of the famed Calzaghe stable that at one time produced three world champion fighters, says his issues started around the time he suffered back-to-back defeats to Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr in 2012.
The 37-year-old has been boxing since the age of “nine or 10” and says he prolonged his career as he did not know what else to do.
“I first noticed an issue with my eyes when I was playing football. One match the ball was coming through the air and I just couldn’t judge where it would land,” he told BBC Sport Wales.
“That’s when I knew something was wrong, I had to go off the pitch. Since then it has only got worse.
“It is like being constantly drunk. I have drunk vision, I have a drunk walk and I can’t walk straight, my balance is off and now I need to have more tests and find out exactly what is wrong.”
Pryce says as his eye sight deteriorated, the fear of what could happen increased in the 24 hours before a fight and especially once he stepped through the ropes.
“In the last few years I was just going in trying to not get hurt and to get out safely; I knew I was going to lose,” Pryce explained.
“But I’ve been boxing so long, it’s all I’ve known how to do. That’s why I carried on.
“I knew with my eyes it was extra risk, but it’s all I know. I started boxing when I was nine or 10, I left school with no qualifications and I started boxing professionally when I was 18.
“I got into my 30s and boxing is all I know. I knew it was a risk, but it was a risk I was willing to take.
“People told me I shouldn’t be boxing anymore, but I continued anyway.
“I gambled with my life, it was a dangerous game I played, but I was prepared to face the consequences rather than give it up.
“I did have fear in the ring. I didn’t know it was my eyes, I thought I might have problems with my brain, so I boxed defensively.
“I was always happiest getting out of the ring, whether I lost or won. If I got out without injury I was happy.
“Sometimes I’d worry, at the weigh-in especially, that I might die. I’d look at the other fighter and think ‘he is going to bring it’. It goes through your head, ‘what if I die?’ 100% I thought that but I was willing to take the risk.
“If I got hurt, so be it, but ideally I didn’t want that to happen, because I’ve got children.”
‘Cheating’ an eye exam
Pryce says he became adept at passing eye exams, but feels the form of testing was easy for him to pass if he “told them what they wanted to hear”.
“The eye tests I found fairly easy,” he said. “With my problem it wasn’t a single eye [issue] and with an eye test they test you one eye at a time.
“With me, the problem is using both eyes together and they don’t really test you on that.
“I could pass an eye test now; I would go and would say the right things to pass it. If they had ever asked me to look at things with two eyes I couldn’t have done it.
“What I was doing was just knowing how to pass them. You know they will ask you to read the lines, so I would memorise them before I started. I knew every trick in the book to pass my medicals.”
‘He should have spoken to us’
The BBOC makes every boxer take an annual physical, which includes a blood examination, an eye report from an optician and MRI scans, which look for deterioration of the brain.
Smith says the organisation is “one of the strictest boards in the world, if not the strictest”, but admits its assessments rely on co-operation and honesty from the boxers and that boxing “cannot be 100% safe”.
“There is nothing different in an eye test for a boxer than for you or me, it’s a matter of seeing how healthy your eyes are and how far you can see,” Smith confirmed.
“A respectable optician will do the test, it is a standard document on our annual medical and if someone is outside of our measurements we send them to see an eye surgeon for further testing.
“I am disappointed in Bradley’s comments, especially coming at a point when he is retired and his licence has been withdrawn. If he had issues with his eyes, he should have spoken to us.
“We try our best to make this sport safe, but we can not make it 100% safe… but what we do need and rely on is the boxers to tell us the truth. We can’t go home with them.
“We’ve always known Bradley enjoys himself of an evening… but he’s always been very fit in his boxing. He’s passed every medical put in front of him with no issues.”
Smith says boxers must be open and honest with them, because health is their number-one priority.
“We are open with all the boxers as much as they can be, we need them to be the same with us,” he said.
“We have good communication with boxers and we review our medicals on a regular basis.
“There are good lines of communication, but people need to use them properly.
“The amount of time and money invested in health is immense. We take this job very, very seriously.
“So it is disappointing when they [boxers] don’t take care of themselves.”
‘Too easy’ to pass a medical
Pryce believes the solution to medicals being “too easy to pass”, would be for the boxing board to make both physical examinations and eye tests in-house.
“I think maybe you should not be able to pick your doctors, the British Boxing Board should probably hire their own doctors,” he said.
“They should know it is way too easy to pass their medicals.”
However, Pryce says he does not regret fighting for as long as he did.
“I boxed as long as I could and I am grateful to be happy to retire, apart from eye damage, I am okay,” said Pryce.
“I am 37 and have vision problems, but I saw it as a risk worth taking, boxing has been drummed into me since I was 10.
“I am happy to get out of the sport with only eye damage.”