Book review: Novel look at the ring cycle

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The Independent Online
unlicensed By jon hotten

As a novel, Unlicensed - Random Notes from Boxing's Underbelly by Jon Hotten (Mainstream, paperback pounds 9.99) reads well enough to entertain for two or three hours. Unfortunately, it's not a novel. Ah, an expose then? A searing, scintillating indictment of an edge of the law, fringe way of life; an exploration of a pocket of society harder and more corrupt than anything "above ground"? Well, no.

Then, what on earth do we have here? The back-cover blurb claims Hotten has "journeyed into the margins of contemporary Britain to strip this world bare". The cover hype concludes with the grand announcement that we are about to be confronted by a story which is "unflinchingly honest about this secret underside of the fight game".

Oh, really. Then how is the reader supposed to equate this unflinching honesty with the tame admission in the introduction: "Some of the names of the people have been changed, the order of events has been altered and some characters are amalgamations of two or more people"? Worse, we are asked to believe Hotten has witnessed some of the toughest, most brutal men in the world in blood-curdling matches, beyond the prying eyes of the police and miles from the relatively ordered world governed by the British Boxing Board of Control.

To anyone who has watched licensed, world-class boxing, this is laughable. If the protagonists are so lethal, why do they fight over four two-minute rounds with 14oz pillows for gloves? Those are Hotten's details, not mine. Licensed professional title fights are held over 12 three-minute rounds, with either six- or eight-ounce gloves. The assumption must be that Hotten's supposed hard men are some way short of professional class. The prime case is his central figure, John Barnwell, originally from Coventry and now living in south London. John Barnwell is not his real name, of course. Or perhaps it is. Maybe he's one person, or two rolled together.

Whichever, he's interesting enough. Apart from being an elderly unlicensed fighter, who balances a love for working out in the gym with a taste for Guinness, he claims to be an ex-member of the 1960s chart band "The Ivy League". Barnwell manages a doorman with a reputation for mayhem, recorded here as "Billy Heaney", who also answers, when he speaks at all, to the monicker of "The Galway Bull".

Hotten slides outside the mysterious unlicensed world a few times, most entertainingly to the second, infamous Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight in Las Vegas; and to the Birmingham gym of maverick fight figure Norman Nobbs, whose stable of willing unfashionable pros is labelled, with self- deprecating honesty "Losers Limited".

I know Nobbs well, and Hotten does him proud. I was also at Tyson-Holyfield II, and again he captures this nightmarish occasion effectively, including a good portrait of promoter Don King in full flow. However, his limited knowledge causes problems again when he reports the end of the fight in round four. It was round three.

One other character's name has not been changed: Roy "Pretty Boy" Shaw, a star of the unlicensed circuit in the 1970s, along with the late Lenny McLean. Hotten saw these men on film. I did, too, and he's right: their fights were vile explosions of violence that had little to do with boxing. Shaw has long disappeared from the scene, but Hotten does well to track him down to his home in Essex, and produce an intriguing interview. That was one of the high spots of a flawed read. In perspective, no. Fun, yes.

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