Boxing: Amateurs caught in a chaotic regime: Painters and postmen struggle to pursue careers in a ring of uncertainty. Paul Hayward reports

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SELF-DESTRUCTION is supposed to be the fighter's prerogative. But nobody told the Amateur Boxing Association, which staged its national finals in Birmingham last night against a backdrop of financial crisis and fierce political squabbling. Vegas will have seemed a long way off to the poor souls in the ring.

And so it is, given the ABA's penurious state. So strapped for cash are the ancient guardians of unpaid pugilism that Paul Ingle and Anthony Todd - two of Britain's best amateurs - have had to seek emergency help from the Sports Council so they can compete at the world championships in Finland. The council found pounds 2,500 for both boxers, but are still witholding the ABA's annual grant of pounds 108,000.

Alison Atherton, a Sports Council spokeswoman, said yesterday that 'concern over financial and administrative procedures' at the ABA had led to the suspension of support. She said the ABA was guilty of 'mismanagement' and 'weren't really accounting for the way they were using public funds'. The money was for 'coaching, sports science, that sort of thing', and not the general financing of the ABA, which has just recorded a pounds 300,000 deficit and is said to be skirting the edge of bankruptcy.

That is just the polite stuff. Some of the accounts of ABA meetings in recent months would make Welsh rugby union conferences seem like picnics for the Famous Five. Twice this spring the membership passed a vote of no confidence in the leadership, and twice William Cox (the chairman), Richie King (treasurer) and Colin Brown (secretary) refused to stand down, thus proving that the fashion for declining to resign is not confined to Westminster.

But then where else would you find bigger anomalies than in the notion of amateur boxing? Pain for no reward, possible mental impairment for nothing greater than the thrill of the bear cage. Not all of the 24 fighters at the National Indoor Arena last night have designs on Vegas and deals with the Duvas. Robin Reid, a medal winner at Barcelona, has said he turned professional only because he 'couldn't afford to stay in the (amateur) sport without sponsorship'.

In the first of the 12 bouts here a chef (Mark Hughes) fought a warehouseman. Later we saw a postman, a Royal Marine, a tree surgeon, a painter and decorator, a steel fixer, a security guard and a canal worker. None expressed much enthusiasm for following Frank Bruno and Nicky Piper (past ABA champions) into the pros, though there are rumours that Mickey Duff is courting Ingle, the flyweight regarded as Britain's No 1 amateur.

In the cavernous expanse of this hall you could have convinced yourself that all is well with the ABA. It is not, though at least the stories of rancour provide some amusement in evoking images of Groucho Marx's chaotic regime in Duck Soup. There was an accusation, after last year's AGM, for instance, that some northern delegates had staged a walk-out only to ensure they got the last train home. Arguments over London's supposed dominance of the ABA have provided much fuel for the bonfire of the vanities that is amateur boxing politics these days.

Nobody quite knows where the organisation (112 years old) stands now. Last month the members voted against disbanding the ABA, but still those two votes of no confidence hang over the leadership. A six-man steering committee has been appointed to implement the six recommendations (demands would be a better word) of the Sports Council, but as yet the latter body remains unconvinced by the declarations of good intent. 'Obviously we can't reinstate the grant just on promises,' Atherton said.

Harsher verdicts come from within the ABA's own hierarchy. 'It's a disaster', one highly placed figure said last night. 'Amateur boxing itself is all right, it's just the organisation. The main problem is the dominance of London.' Many feel that dissolution would be the best thing.

Such anxieties will not have transmitted themselves to viewers of Sportsnight last night. Nor did they appear to trouble the 24 boxers, who launched themselves at each other amid a sea of empty seats. Somehow, the human urge to fight survives through everything.

(Photograph omitted)