Boxing takes it on the chin

Andy Beckett has a ringside seat to witness a fight to the finish
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The Independent Online
SINCE early last Sunday morning, when a Scottish bantamweight called James Murray was declared dead, his brain still clotted with blood from a bout two days before, a ritual contest has been fought in the British press.

Boxing abolitionists have decried the sport's escalating violence and casualties, citing four fatalities or near-fatalities in British rings in barely a year. Boxing preservationists have defended the sport as an irrepressible force of nature, citing the expanding appetite of the television public.

Neither side has looked like winning. Instead, positions as old as the sport itself (boxing deaths were recorded in London in 1736) have been stated, recorded, and filed away - until the next time a young man hits the canvas with medical finality.

One veteran of this contest, however, has had something new to say. On Wednesday Tony Van den Bergh, a former Boxing Board of Control inspector turned relentless anti-boxing campaigner, published a long letter in the Times arguing for the return of bare-knuckle fighting. Fighters, he argued, would either break their fingers on opponents' heads and give up, or aim less effectively at the body, driving away bloodthirsty spectators.

Two days later, he is on the phone to his agent. Panorama wants to do a boxing discussion programme on Monday and Van den Bergh, who is 79 and walks with two sticks, wants to be on it. "And not just in the studio audience," he says, blue eyes glowing through the afternoon gloom of his Hampstead sitting room.

Van den Bergh is an anti-boxing fundamentalist. He has no time for those who defend fighters' free will: "How do you explain to a boy of 16, who's got a manager saying, 'By the time you're 21 you're going to be a millionaire', that he'll be a cabbage by the age of 50?" Nor does he tolerate justification by primal instincts: "One has the urge to fight - man has the urge to steal - and one should suppress it."

These conclusions were not arrived at by moral theorising. Van den Bergh started as an amateur boxer in 1933, having already fought at Repton School, then ran a gym in Covent Garden when a duodenal ulcer forced him out of the ring. He moved to BBC radio commentary and television in the 1950s, while also checking for dodgy weigh-ins and faulty canvas at innumerable bouts as an inspector for the Board of Control.

It was not until the 1980s, when he had diversified into medical and crime journalism - he calls London gangster Charlie Richardson "a lovely man" - that Van den Bergh had misgivings about his favourite sport. "I saw the effect of boxing on the people I had sparred with," he says. "I saw them deteriorate mentally in middle age."

His explanation for this is well-rehearsed. "If I hit you with a hook," he says, raising a fist towards his own chin, "the head twists, and the brain accelerates to catch up with it. Inside the skull are bony reefs, and on those reefs the brain - which has the consistency of a well-set jelly - hits and tears."

Van den Bergh's concerns are spreading through boxing. Next week the Board of Control will announce new ringside medical procedures. Some countries have banned the sport outright: Sweden and Norway outlawed professional fights in 1970 and 1982 respectively. But the reasons were more to do with criminal involvement - fights were being fixed - than with medical concerns. Amateur boxing, which insists on shorter bouts and head protection, continues in both places. Unlike many abolitionists, Van den Bergh sees no real difference in the damage done by the two codes anyway: "Protection makes you a bigger target, you get more twisting, and fewer rounds makes the fight faster."

At his old gym they disagree. The Repton Boys' Club, where Van den Bergh trained as an amateur, was set up by Repton School in Bethnal Green, east London, in the year the Marquis of Queensbury's Rules were agreed (1884), as a paternalistic institution for the betterment of youth. A programme of sport between rural Derbyshire and the Victorian inner city ran until the 1940s; then the public school withdrew, leaving the boxing club to its own devices in 1970.

Today "The Repton" is a busy oasis, sited in a semi-derelict Victorian wash-house surrounded by council blocks and taxi repairers under railway arches. Thumps and shouts still seep out of its double doors; inside, thin boys of all colours hammer hissing bags under old fight posters while sweat fugs up the windows.

Tony Burns has run the amateur club with an unblinking stare for 30 years. "Reggie" Kray used to box there. Burns says: "What do you do in Bethnal Green? There's not many golf courses. Boxing is in decline, but we don't feel it in this area... Where do you get discipline today? You can't get it in school." Boys come to the Repton at eight and start boxing properly at 11; the good ones - if they stay amateur - enter a world of international tournaments and success on a shoestring. "If we have a couple of kids going to Atlanta [for the Olympics] - which we expect to," says Burns, "we'll have a dinner show and a dance to get some money." Lists of club honours line the tiled walls. Burns points out Maurice Hope and Johnny Cheshire, both world champions.

But his pride is mixed: "I haven't got a lot of time for professional boxing. One of our kids just died in the ring - Bradley Stone [also from a blood clot]. It's barbaric - money is the main thing. The public just want to see knock-outs and blood."

About this "industry" Burns and Van den Bergh agree; and neither knows how to halt its growth. Across the gym, a small boy of 12 called Charlie waits to go in the ring. Why does he like boxing? "I like it because I'm good." He has won four bouts out of four; his thin arms already hang like a professional fighter's.