Erb’s Palsy Turns Out to Be No Match for Pro Boxer Joe Hughes

There’s no question about it: Disabilities don’t necessarily have to limit a person’s ability in sports. In fact, there’s an array of adaptive sports opportunities available to men, women, and children with intellectual or physical disabilities.

But boxing isn’t usually one of them. Particularly when a serious physical condition limits the use of an entire arm – boxing would seem impossible.

But this assumption has never stopped Joe Hughes – a 25-year-old British boxing champion – whose right arm is near-totally impaired by a rare condition called Erb’s palsy.

What Is Erb’s Palsy?

Erb’s palsy, a form of brachial plexus palsy, affects 1 or 2 of every 1,000 babies. The condition got its name in the late 19th century from Wilhelm Erb, a doctor who described the condition for the first time.

Erb’s palsy is generally caused by a complicated birth, when delivery is too forceful. In such cases, nerves between the neck and shoulder are stretched and damaged, which weakens – or even paralyzes – the muscles in the child’s arm.

The severity of Erb’s palsy depends on how many nerves are affected, and the extent of their damage. Accordingly, the aftermath can range from an affected individual being unable to bend the arm to developing Horner syndrome.

Treatments can include physiotherapy, occupational therapy, hydrotherapy, and nerve grafts. In time, some children’s nerves even recover on their own. Hughes, whose right arm is about 3 inches shorter than his left, wasn’t so lucky – as there is still a lot of nerve and muscle damage to his right shoulder. Still, he ended up becoming a professional boxer and achieving 14 wins out of his 16 to date.

Joe Hughes’ Story

Hughes didn’t always aspire towards boxing. Initially, it was his father’s idea. But, driven by proving anyone who questioned his ability wrong, it became a passion.

Born and raised in Malmesbury, England, Hughes attended taekwondo lessons and physiotherapy as a child to exercise his shoulder. At 8-years-old, his father introduced him to Malmesbury Amateur Boxing Club. Here, he began his boxing career and never looked back.

“My parents were told [that] I’d never be able to have a manual job, I’d have to sit at a desk all my life, never be able to play contact sports,” he recalled. “When I won the national schoolboy title at 14 a doctor told me I would never be able to fight as a pro because of the condition. There was no greater motivation.”

He turned pro in 2010 after 70 amateur fights. Of his present 14 pro wins, 6 were outright knockouts, and 3 were against formerly undefeated opponents. Only able to use his right arm to block, his victories can be credited mostly to impressive left hooks.

After winning the English super-lightweight belt in July last year, he is now working hard toward ranking number 1 in all of Britain. And he’s getting close: Although Hughes’ most recent fight earlier this month didn’t quite go in his favor, he has already worked his way up to fighting top champions. His opponent in this match, Jack Catterall, is ranked number 4 in the world by the World Boxing Organization (WBO).

The Rest of the World

Of course, Britain isn’t the only place where athletes are conquering Erb’s palsy.

Back on the other side of the pond, at the University of St. Francis, Illinois, there’s Landus Anderson. He came from a similar background as Hughes – suffering the same injuries at birth and playing sport with only his left hand. Unlike Hughes, however, Anderson chose basketball.

His coach, Ryan Marks, is amazed at his abilities: “When practice or games start, it never crosses my mind that he’s different. But when I see him not in the moment, I still don’t understand how he does it.”

Yet, Anderson has embraced his individuality. “My mom and grandma and dad raised me not to complain about what you don’t have,” he said. “They said to be glad for what you do have.”

Erb’s palsy has even touched the NFL. Adrian Clayborn, defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, has also battled the condition since birth. Today, he forges ahead with a successful career on the football field.

And what about the upcoming Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro? One person to make waves in international sporting is Melissa Tapper, an Australian table tennis player. Tapper, like both Hughes and Anderson, has Erb’s palsy, and she has just become Australia’s first competitor to qualify for both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Winning Against Erb’s Palsy

Through sport, Hughes and others are huge inspirations for people with Erb’s palsy. Their triumphs prove there are few physical restrictions that can get in the way of passion.

No matter what doubts are thrown his way, Joe Hughes has maintained his confidence. “Most people would think: You’ve got Erb’s palsy, there’s no way you can possibly be successful in a sport such as boxing. And I just want to prove that yes, you can. As long as you’re willing to put the work in, you can definitely achieve it.”