An even match, a classic fight. But ten rounds with Nigel Benn left Gerald McClellan with a life-threatening blood clot in his brain. Paul Vallely detects the first stirrings of self-doubt among boxing's traditional apologists
Boxing is the art of hitting without being hit. "As a training for young boys during their impressionable and developing years there is no equal to it," opined one account from a more imperial age than ours. "It develops self-reliance, self-control, self-confidence, individual and quick thinking, physical courage and sportsmanship."

And more than that. It is a science as well as an art, and has been deemed so since the days of Gentleman John Jackson, champion of England from 1795 to 1800. It was he who was credited with imparting to boxing the scientific principles that set it apart from mere slugging. Among his pupils was Lord Byron who, when chided for keeping company with a pugilist, responded that Jackson's manners were "infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I met at the high table" and included him in his lines "Hints from Horace".

But few who saw Saturday night's brutal fight between Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan, which ended with both men in hospital and the latter gravely ill on a life-support machine, would now speak of the noble art of self-defence. "All you lot were giving me this, giving me that. I knew he wasn't going to be able to go the distance," an exultant Benn crowed at the ringside reporters. "When he knocked me down, I was ready to go with him with whatever he gave me. I'm Number One, second to no one."

He was unaware that, as he spoke, in the opposite corner, his opponent was being injected with fast-acting drugs and receiving oxygen before being taken away to have a 6cm by 8cm hole drilled in his head so that surgeons could remove a blood clot of the exact type that killed the British boxer Bradley Stone less than a year ago. And from the sidelines the ghastly scene was watched by Michael Watson, who suffered brain damage when he was knocked out by Chris Eubank in a world super-middleweight title fight and spent 40 weeks in a coma. Four years on, Watson is still in a wheelchair.

Should boxing be banned? Yesterday the familiar old actors appeared on the stage to rehearse their familiar old arguments on the question that rears its head with every serious boxing injury. The boys-will-be-boys school talked of how boxing redirects the energies of a great many youngsters away from crime and drugs, of the freedom of the individual to make his own choices, of how fell walking, rock climbing, hang-gliding, motor sports and horse riding all claim far more lives.

Those who want the sport outlawed quoted last year's British Medical Association report on the 361 boxers who have died worldwide since 1945 and insisted there was a difference between sports that were incidentally dangerous and one in which the chief object is to physically strike the opponent.

What united the protagonists on both sides of the dispute, however, was a propensity to adopt their position primarily according to their prejudices and to look for suitable supporting facts only afterwards. But there are those who argue that this case will prove a turning point in the debate. So what has changed?

There were recorded deaths from boxing as early as 1736. Between 13 and 20 July, reported the Northampton Mercury, there were 420 deaths in the City of London: the causes ranged from convulsions (144), smallpox (83) and dropsy (20) to ``killed by boxing'' (2).

In February 1741 Jack Broughton, "the father of British pugilism" and inventor of the boxing glove, (though it was only used in practice sessions, all prize fights being bare-knuckled affairs) knocked out George Stephenson in 35 minutes for the championship of England in Tottenham Court Road, London. When Stephenson died of his injuries some weeks later Broughton insisted that rules to govern boxing be devised. ``Broughton's Rules'' governed prize-fighting until 1838. From that point on, the history of boxing has been one of regulation and controversy.

In those days the fights were "slow mauling affairs in which one man was trying to outlast his opponent and, therefore, making few efforts to end matters for fear he would over-exert himself and be at the mercy of the other". They were fights to the finish.

"For years the practice of pugilism has been one revolting to mankind, degrading to all the honourable and honest feelings of human nature," the Illustrated London News said in 1845. "A recent exhibition - with an allusion to which we will not pollute our page - has placed The Ring in a position to damage the character of any man who shall hereafter be known to endure a prize fight."

By 1866 the public, disgusted with the brutality and unfair practices of the professional bruisers, had forced a change of mood. This led to the stricter enforcement of laws against prize-fighting and established the Amateur Athletic Club, under whose aegis the eighth Marquis of Queensberry drew up his eponymous code of rules.

Boxing was made respectable during the First World War when the British and American governments introduced it into training sessions as a way of quickly preparing untrained men for the front. Even so, some 500 boxers have died in the ring or as a result of boxing since the Queensberry Rules were introduced in 1884. The statistical litany would fill the remainder of this page.

The boxing authorities have attempted to adapt the rules whenever a ringside tragedy has thrown light on circumstances that could be altered. European title fights were limited to 12 rounds in 1978 when Angelo Jacopucci died of a brain injury after a technical knock-out inflicted by Alan Minter in a fight for the European middleweight title.

World championship bouts were cut from 15 to 12 rounds after millions of television viewers saw the Korean boxer Duk-koo Kim carried from the ring in a coma after being beaten by Ray Mancini in a WBA lightweight contest; he was kept alive for four days on a life-support machine until his mother arrived from Korea but then died.

Brain scans were introduced by the boxing authorities after two boxers who died in the ring were found on autopsy to have had abnormally thin skulls. The first, the Welsh boxer Johnny Owen, died of brain injuries without regaining consciousness six weeks after a WBC bantamweight title in Los Angeles in 1980. The other, Young Ali, a Nigerian, died at the hands of Barry McGuigan, aged only 19 at the time, in the sixth round of his 12th fight in London in 1982.

Improved ringside medical facilities were introduced after Michael Watson's injury. The British Boxing Board of Control issued an eight-point code which requires boxing promoters to alert emergency and neurosurgical units of the hospital nearest to the venue in advance of a fight. Other obligations include a direct telephone contact with the hospital, resuscitation equipment and fully-trained operators and ambulances crewed by para- medics on the site throughout the tournament.

There must also be stewards to shield doctors so that they can work without hindrance. Television and radio interviews in the ring or at the ringside after a bout are forbidden. And no boxer is allowed to leave the venue without the permission of the board medical officer.

Such measures might have helped Gerald McClellan. But they could not, according to the British Medical Association, have prevented the injury in the first place. When a blow lands on a boxer's head, according to Tony Van den Bergh, a former British Boxing Board of Control inspector who now wants the sport banned, this is what happens: "The skull, which contains the brain, is not a smooth, hollow globe, but has bony reefs as well as stiff and sharp parchment-like strips of membrane. The brain itself is of a thick, table-jelly consistency. If you handle a fresh human brain you will find it so vulnerable that your fingers can only too easily break through the tissue.''

That jelly is not anchored within the skull, but is attached by frail vessels. When a blow lands, the brain does not move in unison with its casing. Instead, as the skull comes to a halt, the brain continues to move and dashes itself against the hard, sharp surface. An influential article in the Journal of the American Medical Association came to similar conclusions, identifying four distinct types of injury to the brain among boxers.

In the past, apologists for boxing, such as the editor of Boxing News, Harry Mullan, have criticised these conclusions, arguing that much of the evidence is based on studies carried out on the brains of men who boxed in an era when 200-fight careers were commonplace; nowadays, an average career consists of about 50 fights.

The medics are unimpressed. They say their major concern is over brain damage suffered over long periods - the "punch-drunk syndrome" which the BMA estimates affects 20 per cent of older boxers. Victims suffer slurred speech, poor balance, memory loss and dementia, years after they have stopped fighting. And, far from being diminished by shorter fights, "because of body building, punching power is greater now than at any time", according to Jeff Cundy, a leading anaesthetist.

"Almost 60 per cent of the boxers we have tested have shown some sign of brain abnormality," claims Dr Fleur Fisher, head of the BMA's science and ethics division. "Most signs of damage are more likely to appear towards the end of a boxer's career or even after retirement. Ex-boxers are less able to sustain natural ageing of the brain or diseases of the brain and may be more likely to suffer Alzheimer's and Parkinsonism."

Dramatic evidence of this has come from Dr Helen Grant, the neuropathologist who examined the brain of Steve Watt, a Scottish boxer who died after a welterweight contest in 1986. "I was thunderstruck to discover that this 28-year-old already had innumerable areas of old destruction in his grey matter; this young, healthy man was already on the slippery slope to punch-drunkenness," she wrote afterwards. "We citizens of Britain must decide whether we want this form of show business to continue or whether we want to stop inflicting brain damage."

If anything, the BMA was yesterday taking a harder line than before. "You can have as many safeguards as possible such as doctors near by and examining the contestants beforehand but there are still going to be injuries," said its spokesman Nigel Duncan. "Abolition is the only answer. That's what we want. Each time an accident like this happens, more and more people come to the conclusion boxing should be banned."

In the boxing world unease was growing. Barry McGuigan, now president of the Professional Boxers' Association, who was at the ringside for the Benn/McClellan fight, called yesterday for an immediate British Boxing Board of Control inquiry. And the one-time apologist Harry Mullan was having his doubts, too

"None of the usual defences apply," he said last night. "It wasn't a mismatch; if anything, the injured man was expected to win. It wasn't a case of dehydration, where a boxer loses fluids to lose weight at the last minute, which can have a very bad effect. It wasn't that the injured man didn't get the best and swiftest medical assistance. The fact is that all the very advanced medical procedures were in place and that the injury still happened."

He does not advocate a ban. "That would be totally counter-productive. People will fight illegally, without any of the medical safeguards they have at the moment. Or they will just go abroad to fight as the Norwegians and Swedes do."

So what does he advocate? "I have to say I don't know. It's a difficult moral position. I find it increasingly difficult to justify my involvement in boxing. I don't know where that leaves me - casting around for another soothing explanation to soothe my conscience. But so far I haven't been able to find one."