A life, and the future of boxing, hang in the balance

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The Independent Online
WHEN Spencer Oliver was carried to an ambulance at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, his body strapped to a stretcher, an oxygen mask encasing his bruised face, members of boxing's brotherhood stood around in anxious huddles, like relatives at a mining disaster.

Theirs was not the shock of spectators coming to understand a grim truth about boxing (injuries in the professional ring have caused more than 400 deaths since 1939) but that of men realising they were not inured to the perils of a sport that should never be referred to as a game. Richie Davis, who had refereed an earlier bout, had tears in his eyes when it became obvious that Oliver's life was in peril after being knocked out in the 10th round of a European super-bantamweight defence against the Ukrainian challenger, Sergei Devakov. "I love this sport," Davis said, "but I have never been as close to anything like this before. It's awful."

Last night Oliver was in a "critical but stable" condition after brain surgery to remove a blood clot. The spokesman at the National Hospital, Queen's Square, London, said he was on a ventilator.

Safeguards that were further improved after Gerald McLellan was blinded and crippled by injuries sustained in a loss to Nigel Benn in 1995 gave Oliver the best possible chance of survival, but cannot remove the inevitability of tragic events.

His plight will strengthen the case against boxing on grounds that it is a vicious business that should have no place in a civilised society. If motives, not statistics, make the most powerful argument against professional boxing, Saturday's incident causes some of us who have spent many years reporting from the ringside to wonder whether it is worth the candle.

Oliver's condition is made especially poignant by the absence of bravado from his nature and the potential that brought an overwhelming vote from British boxing writers two weeks ago for Young Fighter of the Year.

Saturday's defence, one that did not appear to present any great difficulties for Oliver, carried the possibility of a a world title contest later this year. Instead. it turned out to be a hard contest that left the 23-year-old from Barnet fighting for his life. Put down by a left hook in the first round, hurt again in the sixth, Oliver appeared to be gaining control of the contest when his head caught the full force of a right hook after two minutes and 10 seconds of the tenth round. Sent over sideways, he tried to struggle up but fell back to the canvas and was counted out.

Clearly in a serious condition, his worried supporters were silent. A girl who had urged Oliver on throughout the contest wept. Old fighters followed his departure anxiously. Did heat caused by television lights above the ring combine with difficulties in weight-making to dehydrate Oliver? Leaving the arena, I came across the former world flyweight champion Charlie Magri. "They say the kid's in a bad way," I said. Magri embraced me. "I'm praying for him," he said.