Boxing                                                                                                                                                  Posted 8th June 2013

I suppose the first time I knew for sure that I had this condition was in Firhill Park, Glasgow, on September 5, 1951.  Before that I had been exposed to mild and intermittent attacks of it but they always passed.  Still, in order to understand the hold it was later to take on me, I think it is necessary to trace its pathology through those earlier years.

It began in the living-room of our council house.  That was where, as a small boy, I used to spar with my father and my two older brothers.  Given how young I was, those occasions constituted a sort of virtual boxing.  I was able to go through the motions, often very dramatically, but nobody was allowed to hit me seriously, presumably in case they made an impromptu doorway into the kitchen with me. But I loved putting the gloves on, the feel of them, the sweaty smell of them and the way they turned my hands - at least in my imagination - into something more than they had been.

I had also listened to quite a few fights on the radio.  At that time, the late 1940s, boxing matches were broadcast from America in the early hours of the morning, usually from Madison Square Garden - a name that echoed through my boyhood with as much resonance as Hollywood.

My father was a devotee.  Whenever a fight was on in America, he would set the alarm, get up maybe 20 minutes before transmission, time the making of a cup of tea, settle down beside the wireless and listen for news of mayhem.  Once I realised what he was doing, I managed to persuade him to waken me as well, and I got into the habit of joining him during his strange vigils.

I liked those times.  These days some people would probably say they were bonding sessions.  For me it was just great fun being up at that time of the morning with your father, a glass of what we called ginger in your hand and the rest of the town asleep, hearing news of dramatic happenings even, as they happened.

Sometimes the happenings were more dramatic than was consistent with our full enjoyment of them.  I can still remember the night a contest seemed to finish before it had started.  I don't remember who were fighting.  I think Joe Louis was the man doing the damage, but the name of the early bedder escapes me, for which he would probably be grateful.

What I do remember is the sight of my father as the commentator's voice came over the air.  ("No, no.  He's not getting back up.  He's not going to make it.  It's over.  It's over.")  He sat with a quilt draped round his shoulders, an untouched cup of tea resting on the arm of his chair.  He had in his mouth a cigar someone had given him.  A lit match burned slowly to charred wood in mid-air.  As the flame reached his fingers and he shook it dead, his expression didn't change.  He stared at the wireless in disbelief, perhaps hoping that some radio ham had crashed the airwaves to play a practical joke.  I remember his hair rumpled into a crude coronet above his wide eyes.

Looking back on it now, the image I have is of a mock monarch in some medieval Feast of Fools - King of Incredulity.  That night, tents were folded early.

I was becoming more vulnerable, although I didn't know it, to the fifth of September, 1951.  And there were other disturbing symptoms.  I started to collect some newspaper photographs of contemporary Scottish boxers - Norman Tennant, Vic Herman.  I remember mystifying my teacher by doing a voluntary project on boxing, complete with pictures and handwritten fight reports and biographical notes.  She tried to be nice about it, but she had all the enthusiasm of a vegetarian in a slaughter-house.  I don't think it earned me one of my best marks.

More and more names were gathering feverishly in my head, a ghostly pantheon of fighters past and present.  I especially liked the ones with nicknames.  Two Ton Tony Galento.  Primo Camera, the Ambling Alp.  Gentleman Jim Corbett.  Sam Langford, the Boston Tar Baby (reputedly called that by the first black fighter to win the Heavyweight Championship of the world, Jack Johnson).  Benny Lynch. Bombardier Billy Wells.  Homicide Henry Armstrong.  Jimmy Wilde, The Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand.

Those names, they finally did in any antibodies I had, I think.  It was probably their siren call that brought me one dark night at the age of 12 to Old Mill Road in Kilmarnock.  That's where the boxing club was.  I joined along with my brother.
I enjoyed it there.  I could skip and punch the heavy bag and generally play at being a boxer.  I was particularly good on the speed-ball, but then the speed ball doesn't hit you back.  Every night I attended, I was put in the ring with a boy of my age who had been at the club a lot longer than I had.  But since I must have had about a five-inch advantage in reach, I kept left-handing him into the distance.  He must have felt he was trying to hit me from the next shire.  Lucky for me.

But my burgeoning boxing career, about which it has to be admitted that my still unblemished record (no defeats, no draws, no fights) was simply the result of clever match-making, came to a sudden halt with what I tend to think of as The Fight with the Pole.  Out training with my brother Hugh and a young amateur boxer called Eddie Munn, I ran full tilt into a metal one in a dark lane.  I had blood everywhere and a hole in the head, which I needed like a hole in the head.

But misfortune sometimes has compensations.  Not only was I visited in emergency by Harry Gilliland, probably the best amateur featherweight in Scotland at the time, but a beautiful red-haired nurse asked me if I wanted her to hold my hand while they stitched my forehead.  I agreed to let her.  I was realising there are things more interesting than boxing.  That should have been when, as in pneumonia, the fever broke.

But a relapse was to follow.  If I knew by this time that I was never going to be a boxer, I was soon to discover that I was going to be a compulsive watcher of boxing. The discovery was made that night in Firhill Park.

I sat high up in the stadium, looking down on a ring into which stepped a man from Glasgow called Peter Keenan.  He weighed just under eight stones six pounds, and he was there to challenge for the Bantamweight Championship of Europe. The champion he was to fight was a Spaniard called Luis Romero.

I know now that Peter Keenan was a superlatively skilful boxer who didn't have much of a punch.  I know now that Luis Romero was a tough hustler who could take you out with one hit.  Then, at 14, I wasn't too strong on analysis of the elements of a fight, but I could see.  What I saw very quickly was the awesomeness of the risk Keenan was having to run.  He would have to spend 15 three-minute rounds moving constantly within the range of lethal punches, never able to put his opponent away, always able any second to be put away himself, and he would have to do it with grace and skill enough to win on points.  It was like being asked to go and pick flowers in no-man's land.

He did it. It was a demonstration of colossal nerve, like a man dancing on a tightrope one slip from which was oblivion – no safety nets here. I caught the thrill of it somewhere in my entrails, like a virus.  That's when the bug finally bit.  I was a follower of boxing.  I still haven't found the cure.

But I knew even then that this was a very ambivalent thrill.  In one of the other fights that evening I watched a tall, anaemic-looking Englishman, converge with a fierce-looking black man.  In the first round I thought the black man was going to kill his opponent, while the crowd seemed to be screaming for him to do that.  From the second round on, the Englishman systematically battered the black man, while the crowd seemed to be screaming for him to do that.  It sickened me.  I didn't want to be there, to be part of that dark noise.

Why am I still ambivalently part of it, even if it tends to be only through the medium of television these days?  Why is the expectation of a fight like the Keenan-Romero one still more forcefully attracting than the dread of a fight like the other I saw that night is powerfully repellent?  I know no easy answer to such questions.  For boxing is a uniquely disturbing sport.  Men have died engaging in it.  Names like Pancho Villa and Benny "Kid" Paret and Davey Moore and Johnny Owen should haunt the memory of any aficionado of the game.  So should names like Michael Watson and Gerald McLellan, two marvellous fighters who didn't die, but who were irreparably damaged in the hard trade they practised.

There are less conspicuous examples, too, the discreetly walking wounded.  I still remember with sadness two separate television interviews with Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the greatest boxers ever to get off a stool.  One was immediately after his retirement, when he spoke with effortless and charming articulacy.  The other was perhaps ten or 15 years later.  By then Sugar Ray tended to mumble and grope a little in the air, as if that's where he thought the words were.  The dangers of fighting can lie in wait for you a long time.  Boxing is a feast at which there are many skeletons.

The truth is that a boxing ring is a place of incalculable edges, the hazards of which can only be known by going over them.  You only know how sheer they've been by discovering that there's no way back.  No matter how astute or concerned a trainer may be all he can do is read a fight.  Boxers write it with their bodies and they always want the chance to create a surprise ending, which they frequently do.  It's often through crisis that fighters find victory, when the reflexes ignite under pressure.  Present and transformable risk is where boxing defines itself.
That fluid risk can sometimes congeal in tragic forms.  It would be comforting to think such tragedies were largely confined to a more medically careless past but it would also be self-deluding. You don't have to go far back to see the casualties boxing can leave in its wake.

In 1980 Johnny Owen, a talented 24-year-old Welshman, died at the end of six weeks in a coma after being knocked out by the Mexican Lupe Pintor.

Comparisons with other physically threatening activities, far from allowing boxing to merge with the sporting crowd, only emphasise its uniqueness.  Wrestling, the most crudely similar sport, illustrates by contrast the authentic harshness of boxing.  Professional Wrestling is violence as Grand Guignol.  It is soap opera with appalling scripts, performed by bad actors in silly costumes. Barring the kind of extraneous technical accident which killed a WWF performer when a mechanical prop failed, the chief risk of mortality run by wrestling is that of brain death in the audience.  Other truly dangerous sports, like mountaineering or motor racing, could only be validly compared to boxing if a climber were to put the boot in a rival with crampons or if one driver saw
slashing another’s tyres in mid-race as part of the game.

Boxing alone has as its core the deliberate physical endangering of another person. Extreme collateral damage from such an activity remains a constant possibility.  It isn't easy to imagine safety measures which would obviate this possibility.  Headguards, for example, would presumably not prevent the kind of 'closed head' injuries which are the sport's biggest threat, since punches would still cause the brain to rattle against the casing of the skull.  Probably the nearest thing to an effective safeguard is to have instant and comprehensive medical attention available to a boxer at the end of a fight, the absence of which has earned Michael Watson a justified £lm in compensation from the British Boxing Board of Control.

Beyond that, the only way to remove the risk in boxing absolutely is to remove boxing absolutely.  There are rational reasons for doing so.  But it is the sign of a truly rational person to recognise the limits of that rationality.  Each of us lives every day in a place where logical thought has to learn to coexist with illogical impulse.  Some of our deepest and most affecting experiences refuse to inhabit any logical system.  Who has ever had a rational orgasm?  (If you have, see a doctor.)

Rational puritanism is itself a dangerous thing.  It legislates in the mind against a complex reality it can neither fully understand nor fully control.  Boxing didn't create the human addiction to violence.  The human addiction to violence created boxing.  It is hardly the ugliest of that addiction's manifestations.  It takes two consenting adults and brings their aggressions together under a strict set of rules.

The result can sometimes be ugly but not nearly as ugly as the free-range violence which is endemic to our society and which our society seems spectacularly incapable of treating. Given the plague of motiveless knifings and casual beatings to death around us, prohibiting boxing would be like curing Job of a pimple.

It can be argued that this shouldn't stop us from doing what we can.  But we should pause to consider how effective any legislation can be.  Boxing answers to something in many people, and not only men.  Watch the faces of the women round any ringside.  Read the way that intelligent and sensitive woman, Joyce Carole Oates, writes about boxing.  When that element of involvement is so widespread in so many natures, what can you do?  If you feel puritanical enough, you can try to ban it.  But then, if you've ever looked into the abyss of an unlicensed fight, you might just pause before you do that.  Driving boxing underground would make it something darker.  If you've ever watched someone like the late Lennie McLean, an unlicensed fighter known asThe Guv'nor, you'll realise how dark it can get.  The beast is there all right.  We can either domesticate it or let it go feral.

What really divides the supporters of boxing and its abolitionists is not a question of reason, but a question of cultural attitude.  There are cultures which recognise the darkness in ourselves and seek to legislate it out of existence, and there are cultures which recognise that same darkness and seek to accommodate it in ritualised outlets.  The cultural attitude we favour will often determine not only our intellectual attitude to boxing, but what we actually see when we watch a boxing match.

The first tendency may see two men demeaning each other.  The second tendency may see two men testing each other's stature in a physical language that admits of no prevarication.  The first may see a turmoil of meaningless brutishness.  The second may see within that brutishness a whole system of signs that enlarge it into a means of self-expression, a cruder version of the veronicas and molinetes of the bullfight.

While a part of me intellectually haunts the edges of the first cultural tendency, the rest of me is drawn towards the second.  I believe - and you can say that I'm deluding myself, but I don't think I am - that in the greatest fights I've seen, I was watching a ritualised expression of our nature, not a corruption of it.  What boxing at its best does, I think, is not to negate the nature of what a person is, but to define it. It puts aggressive individuality in a crucible of extreme conditions, turns up the heat and waits to see what's left.  What a great boxer can sometimes do is show us what's left, demonstrate how formidable the individual spirit can be.

But it is true that the cost of such a demonstration can be exorbitant, even among the greatest. Think of Muhammad Ali as he is now.  You could say, of course, that he chose to do what he did.  But you would have to admit that he chose blind. How could he, of all people, have imagined in his dazzling and seemingly physically limitless prime that his array of astonishing gifts would contract to this?
If he had known, would he have chosen differently?  Would he have taken those reflexes he borrowed from a mongoose, the courage that could stare into volleying violence and pick off the punches as if they were posies, the wonderful physical artistry of his body and store them away like a pension fund that would guarantee him a comfortable and healthy old age?  I don't know.  But I doubt it.  It tends to be in the nature of beautiful primes to be arrogant, to recognise the limits of physical erosion and ageing only when they hit them like a truck.

And let's not forget what his dismissal of imagined consequences was to achieve in his 20 years or so upon a stage where the action was real.  He is not only a contender for the greatest athlete of our time, but of any time.  He is the best-known sportsman in history.  He was an arrogant boy from Louisville who had an impact on the whole world.

I suspect he did more than many politicians to discredit anti-black bigotry in America and elsewhere.  He defied you to demean him.  See him, listen to him, watch him go to his dangerous work, and you had to be a liar to yourself not to admit that he was inferior to nobody you could think of.  He proved not that black is beautiful, but that human surely can be.  How else could he have done it but through boxing?

It's true that we could all have lived without his later fights.  Against Larry Holmes he stood, with all his amazing talents eroded around him, and wouldn't give in.  He showed a will so preposterously brave, so incapable if yielding that I wanted to jump through the television and stop the fight myself.

Against Trevor Berbick in his last fight he looked like the boxing equivalent of a man who paints by numbers.  But then he had often looked like the boxing equivalent of Michelangelo.  There had been the three Frazier fights and the momentous meeting with George Foreman in Zaire.  How many Sistine Chapels do you want?

In him we see the good and the bad of it.  How do you decide if one cancels out the other?  I don't know.  But I wouldn't like to be the one who says categorically that his was a career which should never have been allowed to happen.

That's why if I were asked to express as succinctly as I could why I think there may be some validity in boxing, I would confine myself to two words.  I fully respect the fact that these words may not translate significantly into your clear moral idiom.  But they certainly speak volumes in my confused one.  The two words are, of course: Muhammad Ali.