Boxing: A corner of dignity and grace

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The Independent Online
OF ALL the stories that are told about Ray Arcel, a favourite concerns Jack 'Kid' Berg, the gallant Londoner who took up residence in New York and became the junior welterweight champion of the world.

Arcel's pet name for Berg was 'Yidl', and the late Red Smith put it like this: 'Crouching in Berg's corner one night, Ray winced and shuddered in vicarious pain as a ferocious body- puncher poured lefts and rights into Jackie's middle. Sometimes the whistling gloves seemed to disappear altogether, bringing a gasp from Berg and a groan from his handler. Still up and fighting back when the round ended, Jackie did a smart about-face at the bell and marched back to his corner.

' 'Yidl]' Ray said shakily, 'How do you feel?' 'Fine, thank you,' the Kid said. 'And you?' ' If that says a lot about Berg it says as much about Arcel, whose death this week, aged 94, warrants more than a conventional tribute to his prowess as a trainer in the one sport that should never be referred to as a game.

Contrary to beliefs that have grown up around boxing, the code Arcel unfailingly observed throughout a career spanning more than seven decades and the activities of 20 world champions, was decency. The middleweight, Billy Soose, said: 'Arcel is one of the finest men I've ever met and what he taught us was not only boxing but also the true values of life. He was my trainer, my father, my psychologist, my teacher, my friend, my mentor.'

Arcel had no illusions about boxing. 'It can bring out the worst evil in people,' he said. 'It can be cruel. Fighters sweat and bleed, and frequently die broke. Nobody cares. It shouldn't be that way. The good ones are artists. The very art form is self- defence. But there are so many people who kill it for them . . . the politicians . . . the commissions made up of political appointments . . . '

In 1953, probably as a result of his outspoken contempt for the Madison Square Garden-based International Boxing Club that controlled championship bouts in most of the weight divisions and was said to be associated with criminal elements, Arcel was assaulted with an iron bar.

When Arcel sagged to the pavement outside a hotel in Boston, a chill fell over boxing. This wasn't another wise-guy product of New York's East Side. No hustler. This was a gentleman who gave the sport grace and dignity.

Disgust not fear prompted Arcel to retire from boxing, a decision honoured faithfully until 1972 when an old friend, the Panamanian millionaire, Carlos Eleta, persuaded him to work with the future world lightweight and welterweight champion, Roberto Duran. After acting as a second for Larry Holmes in the 1982 world heavyweight title defence against Gerry Cooney, he retired permanently.

The span of Arcel's career is remarkable, a veritable history of boxing. He trained the great Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Tony Zale, Frankie Genaro, Sixto Escobar, Jim Braddock and Ezzard Charles. He was in the corner with 14 of Joe Louis' opponents.

With his sparse white hair, hawkish features and wise eyes, Arcel never failed to convey the impression that he only had time for the truth.

The truth he saw in the future of boxing troubled him. 'I naturally don't think boxing should be abolished,' he said. 'But the way boxing is today, it wouldn't make any difference. It won't be long before the television networks tire of handing out all this money. Sooner or later the lack of talent will be even worse than it is now. Boxing is not really boxing today. It's theatre . . . it can't get better. Not as long as some of these fighters are being paid a million dollars even if they don't really know how to fight. With all respect to the current heavyweights, imagine them in there with Jack Dempsey, Louis or Muhammad Ali.'

When another great trainer, the 82-year-old Eddie Futch, was asked to speak about Arcel, he said: 'Ray brought class, dignity and a high degree of professionalism to boxing.' Those words said it all.