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Former NFL player: Boxing is safer than football

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Former NFL lineman Ray Edwards (right) is 4-0 in his professional boxing career. (Minnesotaboxing.com)

The colorful characters that occupy boxing's heavyweight division have a wide range of reasons for entering the harsh world of the fight game. Ray Edwards might be the only one to do so because he thought it would reduce his chances of getting injured.

Edwards, who spent seven seasons in the NFL playing defensive end with the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons, now makes his living squaring off against huge men intent on punching him in the head as frequently as possible.

Yet Edwards is adamant that the brutal and unpredictable nature of pro football makes his new career choice a safer option with a bigger long-term upside than putting himself on the line inside the gridiron.

"It might sound crazy to some people but for sure I believe boxing is a safer sport than football now," Edwards told Yahoo! Sports. "Football is the only sport that is 100-percent injury prone.

"[In football], you don't know what is coming, where you are going to get hit, how you are going to get hit," he continued. "You play for a long time, chances are you are going to tear your MCL or ACL. You can break your leg, snap your femur, break your arm, break your neck."

But what about boxing?

A glance at the battered faces of post-fight combatants tells only part of the story of a sport where inflicting pain and damage with the fists is an intrinsic facet of any contest.

However, while Edwards respects and understands the risks posed by his new profession, from his point of view, those dangers are more acceptable than those NFL stars face every week.

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Ray Edwards played seven NFL seasons for the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. (Getty Images)

"In boxing you know where the hits are coming from – it is the guy stood in front of you," Edwards said. "In boxing you might break your hand or break your nose and if you get knocked out you can get a concussion. But also, the referee is right there and you are more protected. In football, you never know. The game moves at such a pace that you might never see it coming. You can get hit when you are completely defenseless."

Football's dangers have never been more in the spotlight, and with all factors considered, some doctors are open-minded to the theory that it may be even more dangerous than boxing.

"I would have to agree that boxing is a more controlled environment," Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the nationally recognized Michigan NeuroSport program at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo! Sports. "It is an individual sport and you see what is in front of you. Medical personnel is right there at ringside and can stop a fight, you have one medical professional who has his eyes on the two fighters at all times.

"In boxing the risk of concussion and head trauma is obviously very high but that is only one area of risk," Kutcher continued. "For sure, the rest of his body is going to prefer boxing to playing football, where the range and severity of the potential injuries is virtually without limit."

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Edwards signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Falcons in 2011, but was released in November 2012 after struggling for playing time. He says he's invested wisely enough to be able to live in comfort for the rest of his life and his foray into boxing is motivated by a desire for competition, rather than fiscal incentive.

He has fought four times as a pro – he's 4-0 against the likes of Nick "Turbo Tax" Capes and Cory "Spare Tire" Briggs – and insists he has no plans to return to football even if an NFL team came waving a lucrative contract in his direction.

"There is some faulty thinking there," said Dr. Anthony Alessi, a leading neurological expert who has served as a ringside physician for Connecticut boxing bouts for the past 17 years. "In football, accidents and injuries are a byproduct of the game, but the main objective is to get the ball over the line and score points.

"In boxing, the object of the sport is to neurologically impair your opponent, to injure their brain in some way to stop them from performing. It sounds graphic, but that is effectively what you are looking for – a knockout."

Countless former fighters continue to suffer from dementia pugilistica, a direct result of taking repeated blows to the head, which includes symptoms such as slurred speech, loss of memory, declining mental ability, tremors and coordination issues.

Yet football has it own problems. The NFL is facing more than 200 legal cases brought by more than 4,000 former players accusing the league of hiding the dangers of head trauma. And a recent story in the Washington Post highlighted the plight of former NFL Man of the Year Reggie Williams, who has been financially crippled by a series of medical problems that require daily treatment, 24 years after the end of his playing career.

The level of health care support given to former players is a particular sticking point for Edwards, who claims the league's policies do not go far enough in caring for players of yesteryear. Those factors – combined with the obscenely brief shelf life of a pro football player (3½ years) – was a critical reason behind his transition to boxing.

"The average career of an NFL player depends on your position, but it can be as short as three and a half years," Edwards explained. "Then you have still got the rest of your life.

"In boxing, Floyd Mayweather has been at the top for 16 or 17 years, and guys like Bernard Hopkins are still going even into their late 40s. I am 28, but by staying as disciplined as I am and maintaining my condition I can have a long and successful career in this."

Edwards admits he still has a long way to go before he achieves his goal of shaking up the heavyweight division. But even at this infant stage of his new career, he has stirred up a thorny talking point – across two sports.

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