`What else could `I be doing?' - Life and Style - The Independent

`What else could `I be doing?'

Another boxer dies, another fight begins over whether the sport should exist at all. But at the Peacock gym, it's sparring as usual. By Ian MacKinnon and Jim White

The reactions to the death of the Scottish boxer James Murray have been familiar, even predictable. Boxing promoters explaining that Rugby Union is a more dangerous pastime than their own sport. Boxing writers appalled that the fighting in the audience prevented the fighter in the ring from receiving medical treatment which might have saved his life. Boxers themselves saying that they will carry on with their work: "It's what Jim would have wanted."

Since 1986, 11 British boxers have required brain surgery after bouts; three have died. Even after Saturday's brutal exhibition in Glasgow, which followed the death of Bradley Stone last year, the paralysing of Michael Watson in 1991 and the mauling of Gerald McClellan in February this year, not one person involved in the sport has publicly stated that they have had enough of seeing one man trying to knock another senseless with his fists.

Our leading boxing promoter, Frank Warren, was quick to defend the game, anxious to engage in the public relations battle. You can understand why he is so energetic in support of his sport: he is presently engaged in arranging a fight between his charge Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson that will make the pair of them rich beyond the dreams of National Lottery players.

You can understand, too, why the boxing writers, while condemning the peripheries - the medical men, the delay in getting proper attention to stricken fighters, the way in which boxers dehydrate themselves in order not to exceed the required weight - step back from condemnation of the basics. To be a boxing writer is to attempt to present the most primal of sporting endeavours verbally; the thrill of achieving it is an addiction few would quickly give up.

But why do the boxers themselves do it? What's in it for the young men whose brains and faces are placed in mortal danger - not in unfortunate, unlikely or unlucky circumstances, but every time they step into the ring to pursue their sport?

Ask the young boxers at the Peacock gym why, and their answer is repeated like a mantra: "I ask myself, if I wasn't doing this, what else would I be doing?" They answer their own question with the same blank response: "Nothing." They know that their opportunities outside their chosen profession are bleak.

These are the young men who were closest to Bradley Stone, another young boxer who died last year of brain damage sustained in the ring. Some of them fought on that night in April and a few even traded blows on the same bill as their friend. Each day as they enter the gym they walk past a recently erected memorial to Stone, a statue with his gloves high and proud and bearing the legend that he died, like James Murray, "in pursuit of his dreams". It is a constant reminder, if any were needed, that their game is a dangerous one.

At first sight, the Peacock gym appears designed to exacerbate the worst fears of the anti-boxing lobby. Set in one of the unlovelier parts of Canning Town in the East End of London, it nestles in the shadow of a flyover on an industrial estate of warehouses and small factories. Clutch repair centres and metal merchants cower beneath the four-lane highway. It's the kind of place where forklift trucks parked on street corners don't seem out of place.

But there the expected image ends. Inside the bright foyer, Sky News plays on a television set high in the corner. A sandwich bar, free of smoke, advertises its prices under the slogan "The cost of healthy living". And in the gym beyond, exercise machines move rhythmically to the pumping bass of pop blaring from speakers. Only then, beyond these machines, can you see the rings for sparring, where the fighters in their headguards and protective jockstraps dodge and punch. Others do the same with inanimate punchbags slung from the light and airy ceiling.

Murray's death brought thoughts of Bradley Stone bubbling to the surface yesterday as the fighters turned up for training. But most, it seemed, had long ago weighed up the risks. Certainly they had done so after Stone's death.

Jason Rowland, 25, a professional for the last seven years, was one of Stone's closest friends. They would go on five-mile runs together at 7am each morning, and then train for the rest of the day, skipping and hitting punchbags. "Bradley Stone was my best mate. His death hit me like a sack of potatoes," Rowland says. "I fought just before him the night he died. I saw his girlfriend at the hospital. She told me not to go on. It wasn't worth it. I know if he's up there looking down, he would just be saying, go out and give it your best. You believe it's not going to happen to you."

Rowland, a father of two young children who fights out of West Ham, never seriously considered quitting. Boxing is something he has done all his life. His father pushed him into it at the age of 12, and he has never looked back. "I was good at football too, but I preferred boxing because it's all down to you, and so is the glory. I enjoy it and I'm talented."

When he turned professional at 18, with no qualifications, he knew it was the only way forward for him. "There is nothing for me in this area. Without it I'd be nowhere. The only thing around here is thieving. All my mates are on drugs. I'm almost the opposite. I get a real buzz out of being fit. It's nice to get up early and go for a run."

Not that the gruelling schedule has proved lucrative so far. He is undefeated in 19 professional fights; for his 20th and most important, for the Southern area light-welterweight title at the end of this month, he will get pounds 2,500 whether he wins or loses. But the fight is an eliminator for the British title, which, he says, could bring much bigger earnings and help him to better the lot of his family.

The real prize for him is not money, he says, though that would be a welcome benefit. What he desperately wants is to be a champion. "If I won the Lottery tomorrow, I know I'd still want to go out and win the British title," says Rowland. "It's what I've thought about ever since I was a kid. The money that might come afterwards would be nice, of course, but it's not really the most important thing for me."

John Bosco, 28, covets a Commonwealth light middle-weight title and is said by those who know to stand a good chance of realising his dream. His route to the Peacock gym was very different from Rowland's: through the Ugandan Olympic squad in 1988, to Denmark and finally to Britain, where he turned professional in 1991. But were it not for boxing, he accepts he would have little prospect of making his way in the world.

Yet, like Rowland, he was shaken by Stone's death and forced to examine whether the risks were justified. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion to go on. "It's just like any other sport, there are advantages and disadvantages. In the sport we're well aware of the disadvantages. But when you step in the ring, you just look at the plus side. Other sports are more dangerous. Accidents can happen anywhere. You can be hit walking down the street."

Their trainer, Jackie Bowers, is equally phlegmatic, though not cavalier about the dangers his fighters face. "I worry when Damon Hill gets behind the wheel of his car. I worry about mountaineers like Alison Hargreaves. But in the end no one makes them do it. No one makes boxers get into the ring either. It's a gamble, and if your name's on the ticket, then your time's up."

Bowers attempts to minimise those risks by instilling in his fighters the idea that boxing is the art of self-defence. "I'm a fully paid up member of the not-getting-hit club. I teach these kids the noble art, to try to get their opponents to throw punches that miss. That's the real skill."

An independent panel was set up to examine safety in boxing after Bradley Stone died. Chaired by the consultant neurosurgeon Peter Richards, it delivered its report to the British Boxing Board of Control only a few weeks ago. It is now going to be recalled to consider whether additions should be made to its recommendations.

The panel has, so far, suggested replacing pre-title fight CTC brain scans with more sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans; carrying out pre-match checks that boxers are not dehydrated to meet weight requirements; and reviewing the number and length of rounds and the intervals between them. Barry McGuigan, former world champion and president of the Professional Boxers' Association, emphasises the severe effects of dehydration: he remembers feeling "drained and listless" himself after having to make featherweight for a title fight from his natural non-fighting weight, which was several pounds higher.

Yet in the end Jackie Bowers, like his fighters, is sceptical about the benefits of the rule changes suggested in the wake of Stone's death. Longer gaps between rounds and shortened bouts would only, in his estimation, increase the punching power of fighters who are already much fitter and stronger than those of yesteryear. Weighing-in earlier to avoid dehydration would benefit some fighters and disadvantage others.

On one thing, all at the Peacock are agreed: banning boxing is not an option. "That would merely drive the sport underground," Bowers says. "I've seen bare-fists shows and they frighten the pants off me. It's terrible and extremely dangerous. It would just be like cock-fighting."

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