Bethnal Green: home of the brave and land of the lad

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The Independent Online
The first thing you come across at an evening of professional boxing at the York Hall, Bethnal Green ("home of London boxing") are the stretchers being disgorged from two ambulances parked outside.

The just-in-case stretchers, which make their way into the hall and are parked discreetly out of sight inside, just underneath a poster advertising the next entertainment at the hall: "A Tribute to Elvis" featuring Brian Lee, "Essex's own Elvis".

The next thing you notice are that several schoolboys, aged no more than nine, are dotted through the crowd. They have been brought along by their dads for the evening, to be inculcated in the rhythm of life round these parts; to learn that springtime's arrival in Bethnal Green is traditionally heralded by the sound of leather on cheekbone.

The third thing you notice is that give or take a few schoolboys and a couple of women, everyone in the crowd has shoulders wide enough to block a country lane. Dressed in the sharpest of casual gear, the York Hall regulars would give short shrift to the low-rent flotsam from Chippenham and Devizes who follow the England football team.

They are also a racially mixed crowd. Blacks and gangs of East End Asians mingle comfortably with the local white boys, knocking knuckles in respectful greetings ("Arright Gal?" "Arright Talish, how's it hangin'?") and amusing themselves by supporting any black boxer who makes his way into the ring.

When the boxers do make their entrance, it is with none of the fanfare of Chris Eubank, for example; there are no cherry-pickers down Bethnal Green way. At the bottom of a modest boxing card, you wander to the ringside at the appointed hour and stand there, shadow-boxing while the master of ceremonies struggles with his microphone feedback.

And when the fighters enter the ring and have done with the hand-shaking preliminaries, there is none of the restraint of more celebrated performers: these lads start immediately, with fearsome intent.

First up was a welterweight fight between Danny Stevens from Bermondsey in south London, and Ray Dehara from Ashford in Kent. Stevens had brought a large contingent of followers across the river, who, positioned up in the balcony, offered him loud and constant advice: "Do 'im Dan".

Dehara had come accompanied only by a backful of tattooes and an unshakeable bravery. The more Stevens smacked him, the more Dehara bounced back for punishment, until a minute into the last round when the referee, starting to worry about the dry-cleaning bills associated with blood washing over his dress shirt, stopped the fight.

Dehara responded to the decision with an astonishing show of sportsmanship. He couldn't stop congratulating everyone, shaking them by the hand: the winner, the winner's second, his own second, the referee. He seemed reluctant to step out of the ring. When he did, by chance I was the first person he encountered. Eyes mad with adrenalin, he came up and stared in my face.

"What do you reckon?" he asked breathlessly. "I should've stayed in. I should've made it to the bleedin' end. Unlucky or what?" He probably thought it rather less a matter of fortune when he got back to the dressing room and took a look in the mirror.

He would have seen his nose smeared over his cheekbone, his bottom lip ballooned up to resemble a ketchup-filled condom, and his ears like mashed beetroot. He looked, well, as if he had just gone six rounds in a boxing ring.

The next fight in this Mickey Duff promotion was a mismatch of farcical proportions. Joey Calzaghe, a Duff prospect at super-middleweight, was confronted by Frank Minton, described as a "veteran". This meant that Minton, having flown 3,000 miles from Indianapolis, stepped about two feet from his corner and stood there, hands covering his face, while Calzaghe pummelled him.

After all of 75 seconds, the crowd whistling its derision throughout, Calzaghe found his opponent's chin and he toppled over. Rather a long way to come for a couple of hundred quid. It was Calzaghe's ninth professional engagement, and someone calculated he had fought for all of 25 minutes. Which made me think that if I were a young boxer, I'd want Mickey Duff selecting my opponents too.

But the headline scrap, between Johnny Armour of Chatham and Tsitsi Sokutu of South Africa for the Commonwealth bantamweight belt, soon made you forget the earlier nonsense. Two men of infinite resource and nerve, they slammed into each other. It was instructive to sit there right at the ringside and test your responses.

To see the punches landing with a sickening "thwapp"; to hear the snort as they tried to clear their nose of snot, sweat and blood; to feel the liquid of battle splashing out of the ring into the front row. And yet to be so invigorated by the adrenalin of it you found yourself shadow- boxing and howling along with the crowd as the battle reached its climax.

"Great fight or what," said one man, as Armour disappeared off to the dressing-room at the end, with the Lonsdale belt around his waist. "Know what I mean," agreed his friend, croakily. "Me throat hurts, what with the shouting innit."

Meanwhile, outside the York Hall, the paramedics were wheeling the stretchers out of the building and back into the ambulances. Unused, this time.