Eye witness: The Café Royal runs with champagne and blood

As boxing's image takes another beating, Cole Moreton sees a bout over dinner
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The Independent Online

The roast beef was served medium rare. Now we're watching a young man with a smashed nose fight for breath, his face and chest slick with blood. The ring is in the centre of the Café Royal ballroom, its floor level with the eyes of diners in evening dress. Light skittering off mirrors and chandeliers highlights a blob of pink mucus quivering on the bright blue canvas.

The roast beef was served medium rare. Now we're watching a young man with a smashed nose fight for breath, his face and chest slick with blood. The ring is in the centre of the Café Royal ballroom, its floor level with the eyes of diners in evening dress. Light skittering off mirrors and chandeliers highlights a blob of pink mucus quivering on the bright blue canvas.

"Oh God," says a red-faced gentleman next to me, tapping out a fat cigar. "This is a bit real, isn't it?"

He's one of several hundred guests at a boxing dinner run by the National Sporting Club, which has been holding similar events here for more than a century. In the old days the Earl of Lonsdale and aristocratic chums gathered to watch tough lads from the slums slug it out for a few bob. Now the spectators are mostly business people treating their clients to a champagne reception, roast dinner, and fisticuffs.

"They used to watch in silence and applaud between rounds here," says David Willis, chairman of the National Sporting Club. "The behaviour changed when we started to eat and hold fights in the same room. You can't fill people with booze and expect them not to cheer."

People who expressed serious misgivings about being at their first fight over the dessert course now stand and howl despite themselves, caught up in the brutal but intoxicating spectacle of a boxer trying to punch his way out of trouble.

I have come to see what life is really like for young men who box for money. There are about 600 active professional fighters in Britain, although Will Smith's new film about Muhammad Ali may lure more into the ring. For most outsiders the snarling face of boxing is Mike Tyson, who lost $20m (£14m) last week when the Nevada boxing board refused to allow a fight with Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas. There remains every chance another board will see things differently.

Tyson's desperation to keep fighting is the only thing he has in common with those in the ring at the Café Royal. They are mostly novices, who could lose their licence after four straight defeats. Getting one in the first place is not easy: a wannabe Rocky must go through medical and ophthalmic examinations, a brain scan, an HIV test, a vaccination against hepatitis B and an interview with the Board of Control. A good record brings sponsorship and television exposure but bottom-of-the-bill boxers may get only two or three chances to go into the ring for money. They have to find jobs that allow them to train for at least three hours a day.

Tonight's contestants are being paid no more than £600 each. Up in the ring Haroon Din is a bloody mess but his flashy opponent Ilias Miah walks straight into a punch. Miah is still shaking his head as the victor makes his way from the ring, weaving through the narrow spaces between tables. Nobody shifts their chair to let him pass more easily.

There is no silver service downstairs in the Laurel Suite where the fighters change – just empty Lucozade bottles, burger cartons, and loose abandoned piles of bloody bandages. Din strips down to his black Calvin Klein shorts and washes himself in the marbled lavatories. Men in tuxedos relieve themselves next to him but can find nothing to say. Wounded but magnificently conditioned, he stands among the slack-bellied diners like a member of another species.

How do you get like that, I wonder? How does it feel to get in the ring with another man? The next morning, slumped against the ropes and struggling not to throw up, I curse my damn fool questions. Clinton McKenzie was a British and European light-welterweight champion and won two Lonsdale belts. He is now 46 years old and runs boxercise classes above the Half Moon pub in Herne Hill, south London. You get to train like a fighter, using the skipping rope and punchbags, which is hard enough. But then you get into the ring with Clinton. "I can see it in people's eyes," he says, "They're living out their fantasy, boxing the champion, landing punches." Despite the evidence of a churning stomach and muscles screaming from the gym work, I feel strong and powerful with my hands strapped. Like a movie fighter, it turns out, not a real one. Thank God he doesn't hit back but ducks and dances, offering padded gloves to hit and shouting encouragement. Between rounds I'm gasping like a fish.

"Can I pour this over your head?" Clinton is holding a bottle of ice-cold water. I try to nod. He's the champ, the victor, the only man in the room. He can do anything he wants to me and I can't stop him. He smiles. The water feels great.

The gym goes quiet when I ask him to demonstrate what it would be like in a real fight. "Are you sure?" Now he's using the pads as gloves, not landing punches but cuffing me in the head, the ribs, the head again, the stomach. He's so fast I can't see it coming. I'm ducking, twisting, trying to get away but there's no escape. Biff! I'd be down now. Bash! I'd be winded. Bosh! I'd be on my way to hospital.

Come on, I think, be a man. My slow, feeble punch swings through empty air. Where's he gone? Bang! We're on the ropes now and it's like being shoulder barged by an elephant. I'm exhausted, frustrated, dizzy, and scared. Got to get away.

So it ends, I'm ashamed to say, with a Keystone Cops chase around the ring. That's how I defeat Clinton McKenzie: by making him collapse with laughter.

And what does it all prove? That boxing is incredibly hard, a sport of great skill, grace, and stamina as well as brutality. I wish I'd just taken his word for it. Clinton knows how unglamorous the real thing can be. "There is corruption in boxing," he says. "Boxers do not get their fair share of the money. They do get hurt, but then it is a hurting game. The crowd requires pain for entertainment. You go to watch a car race to see the crash. We all know that, but man will always want to fight. At least this way it is licensed. It's supervised. There's a doctor. Without those things it would be barbaric."

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