In his latest column for Boxing News former European super-lightweight champion Joe Hughes explains how and when his life with Erb’s Palsy began, how it affected his childhood, and how boxing made him the person he is today.


A FEW people reading this will already know that I’ve got a disability called Erb’s Palsy.

When I was born, I was delivered incorrectly. I was injured by the midwife who delivered me and it’s one of these things that’s completely preventable. It was due to negligence by the midwife, which was proven after a legal investigation. Obviously, it’s not done on purpose but it’s one of these things where there are techniques and procedures that they are supposed to know to prevent it from happening. There’s a charity called Erb’s Palsy Group UK which support people and families with Erb’s Palsy but they’re also quite hot on trying to educate midwives to raise awareness and the education of it, so it happens less. They’re constantly working in hospitals, and they do a great job. The charity has been really helpful to me, and I’ve been trying to do bits for them so I can give back.

No-one really knows what Erb’s Palsy is but it’s more common than you think. It happens roughly at one in 1000 births due to something called shoulder dystocia which is your shoulder getting stuck when you’re born, and it damages the nerves. The set of nerves which get damaged are called the brachial plexus and they get stretched during birth, but the children can make a full recovery. Quite often in cases like mine you never recover from it.

Normally what happens is your parents will be told that your child will have to do physio all their life and undergo operations. When I was born it wasn’t as well known. The charity hadn’t even been created when I was born so my parents were in the dark but luckily my auntie was a midwife, and she knew a little bit about it and briefed my parents. I was really lucky because my parents made sure I did all the physio and were quite strict about me doing it.

Doing all of that when you are a child is not only painful but extremely boring. You’re having to do it every single night and there were periods when I was having to do it both morning and night. I just wasn’t interested at all so my parents took to me to a local Taekwondo club when I was five. It was a trick to get me to do physio and I enjoyed it. When I was eight my dad took me along to Malmesbury Amateur Boxing Club. I loved it straight away and I loved the atmosphere, it was like an old school gym. My coach Tony Stannard MBE, who passed away in 2017, was a very old-school trainer and very strict on the rules but there was a minimal charge of only £20 a year for being there. If you went, then you went. You had to do it properly, train hard and not miss a session. He was only interested in competitive boxers; he didn’t have people in who were there to just keep fit. But luckily for me – even though I was disabled and looked upon by everybody as a charity case – he said I could come and join in to help me out.

Not long after I started boxing I had to have an operation where they cut part of my pec in half because the muscles at the front of my body were too strong compared to the muscles at the back due to the disability. There was an extra bit of bone in my shoulder which had grown due to that. They said if I didn’t have surgery that bone would keep growing and my shoulder would constantly dislocate. The operation was a success. I had a bit more range and movement and I was able to hold my right hand to my chin. After the operation I was in a plaster cast from my waist to my chest and had bars which held my arm out at a right angle from my wrist to my armpit for seven weeks. I was eight.

I was off school for a month, but bored at home because I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t play outside so I was sat watching TV. I did end up going into school when I had it, but it was a bit risky because I could bang it and damage it. It was really bloody awkward. When they took the plaster cast off I had so much muscle waste in my arm I couldn’t pick my right arm up. I tried as soon as I could to get back to the boxing gym because I was desperate to get back into it. It took a while for me to build any strength, but I got back in there.

Boxing is a saviour for many people for different reasons. For me, because of my disability, boxing gave me an outlet to do something. My parents told me I could do whatever I wanted to even with the disability. That was drummed into me, and it turned into a real positive. Okay, I’ve got the disability, but I can still do this. Even though it was really difficult the boxing really helped and moulded me into the person I am today.

No-one thought I could achieve what I did in boxing right from the beginning. The only people that really believed in me was myself, my family and my coaches. I’d always be picked to lose every fight I had because of my disability. Doctors never believed I’d be able to achieve what I did. Specialists told me I’d never be able to go pro. Through working hard and believing in myself I did manage to achieve a lot. Just because someone tells you that you can’t do something doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

If you could wave a magic wand now and make my arm better, I would 100 per cent take it. It would make my life easier. It’s been a nightmare trying to change my kids’ nappies. It’s been a nightmare carrying the shopping. When I pay for something at the shop and I’ve got something in my left hand, I have to bend myself all funny to get my change from someone. Driving the car is awkward. I can pick one of my kids up with my left arm, but it really annoys me that I can’t pick two of my kids up at once.

I sometimes feel self-conscious looking at myself because even though a lot of people say they can’t notice it I can. When I wear clothes one side hangs completely differently. I have to turn up the sleeve three or four times to try and make it look as if it’s the same length as my left arm. I wear a smart suit and have to turn the cuff up otherwise the right arm hangs over my hand while the left arm fits perfect. There are loads of other little things so I’d love to be able to wave a magic wand and fix it.

If I could go back to being born I wouldn’t change anything because Erb’s Palsy has made me the person that I am. I don’t think I’d have the character and determination if it wasn’t for Erb’s Palsy. I would have never met my wife; I wouldn’t have had my kids. I don’t think I would have started boxing if it wasn’t for my arm. It sounds silly to say [but] I’m almost glad I’ve got Erb’s Palsy because of what it has given me, specifically boxing. I’ve only got boxing in my life because of my Erb’s Palsy, and it’s given me everything. It’s made me a stronger person having overcome adversity from a young age.

There was a 30th anniversary event for the charity recently and I was speaking to some parents of children with Erb’s Palsy. I said that as someone with it I wouldn’t change anything. It’s something they can take a positive from. Even though it’s a negative and it’s a horrible thing that’s happened to their child hopefully some good can come out of it. Setbacks and negatives can often create something positive if you can channel it the right way rather than becoming down about it. Obviously, everyone is going to have their moments, but you can’t let it beat you.

If you can still use it to drive you forward rather than holding you back then I think it’s not the end of the world that it’s happened. It’s easy to say for me because I have it but as a parent it’s harder. When my eldest son was born, he had shoulder dystocia, but it didn’t develop into Erb’s Palsy. We got a letter from the hospital telling us all about Erb’s Palsy. I was like “I know, I’ve got this, no worries” but I was terrified because what if he had it as well. It’s easy for me to say if your child has got it be positive about and don’t worry about it but when it was my child, I was terrified. It’s not easy and it’s a long road but you’ve got to make the best of it.