Dark clouds gather over a brutal business

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The news that Gerald McClellan has undergone brain surgery and is in a serious if stable condition after being counted out in the 10th round of a brutal contest against Nigel Benn at London Arena late on Saturday came as a chilling reminder of the awful perils that exist in the professional ring.

There is the question of morality too. Some of us who find boxing the most basic, natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions have no quarrel with those who sincerely regard it as a vicious business that should be legislated out of existence. Other sports - Formula One and National Hunt racing, for example - are no less dangerous, but an awareness that the express object in boxing is to separate opponents from their senses utterly invalidates references to it as a game and evokes frequently a profound sense of ambivalence.

People who honestly believe that boxing should be abolished have every reason to cite the McClellan case in support of their position. This was no mismatch. The 27-year-old American was made an odds-on favourite to wrest the World Boxing Council 12st championship from Benn, who was not expected to be still on his feet after three or four rounds. Following the death last year of Bradley Stone, a young London boxer, and the physical impairments sustained by Michael Watson in a defeat by Chris Eubank, every possible medical safeguard was in place.

After collapsing in his corner, McClellan was attended by three doctors and an anaesthetist. He was given oxygen and a relaxing injection. In accordance with instructions laid down by the British Boxing Board, two ambulances stood by outside the arena. Once it was felt safe to move the stricken fighter he was quickly in the care of neurosurgeons at a nearby hospital who had been alerted to his condition. That they confirmed the results of a standard pre-fight brain scan, finding no evidence of cumulative damage, calls boxing further into question. All the old doubts crowded in when McClellan slumped to the canvas in his corner, a sight to remove immediately the notion that his resolve had collapsed before the remarkable intensity of Benn's spirit. Dark clouds were again gathering. It is possible that McClellan, who declared last week that he is a natural light-heavyweight (12st 7lb), seriously miscalculated in his preparation for Benn and was weakened by wasting. There were doubts about his stamina, but they do not account for the distress he began to display in the latter part of a ferocious contest.

If this latest tragedy, and God knows there have been too many of them, carries boxing closer to extinction than ever before, it will have no effect upon those who choose to fight professionally. When Johnny Owen of Merthyr Tydfil failed to recover from a coma after being knocked out by Lupe Pintor for the world bantamweight title, a famed compatriot, Eddie Tho-mas, said: "It broke my heart to see Johnny lying in his coffin and made me feel that boxing isn't worth the candle. But there is something mysterious that keeps drawing you back."

Saturday's bleak events were not lost on Owen's father, Dick. "A lot of me died with Johnny and I pray for McClellan and his family. You know something like this is always going to happen, but how can you stop men from boxing? It was Johnny's life, the thing that gave him identity." Many of us at Owen's graveside knew that soon we would be at at the ringside again. Jimmy Doyle died in 1947 from injuries sustained challenging one of the greatest champions, Sugar Ray Robinson. "Did you intend to hurt the deceased?" Robinson was asked by the coroner. "That sir, is what I am paid to do," he replied.

Normally boxers accord each other the utmost respect, taking pride from the irrefutable fact that no other sport takes so much from a man or is more vicariously observed. Traditionally, the most brutal contests end in a genuine embrace.

They are wrong, of course, those who think that boxing can be driven from society. It has been tried before, but there were always men ready to fight for prizes on a barge or in some back room. As the distinguished American sports writer Red Smith wrote: "It is hard to believe that a nation bereft of such men would be stronger or better for it.''