Boxing: Boxing's shadowlands, Mellor's blunderland

SPORT ON TV

IT TAKES some doing to mix bright-eyed cheeriness with knowing fatalism in the course of two sentences, but Brian "The Bull" McHugh managed it effortlessly. "I keep boxing because I love the game," he told Johnathan Maitland, a reporter with ITV's new current affairs flagship, Tonight. "If I'm going to die, I'd rather die doing something I love."

McHugh is not the sort of boxer you find on Sky Box Office. He lost his British Boxing Board of Control licence back in 1985 when he was diagnosed with diabetes, since when he has fought about 100 unlicensed bouts, winning "about half". He was the lovable - and seriously bashed-up - face of underground boxing, in a 15-minute report which tried to walk the tightrope between investigation and voyeurism, but ended up splattered on the floor of the Big Top after just a few steps.

The very first shot was a grainy amateur video from an unlicensed fight, in which the referee seemed to be taking the boxers through the familiar pre-fight ritual - "keep your hands up, break when I say break", and so on. Except that before he had finished, one man headbutted the other, and then swung at him with such a wild right that he fell flat on his face. Whereupon his opponent started to kick and punch him in the head as he tried to stagger back to his feet.

Maitland was watching all this with a rather strange look on his face. It was disturbingly reminiscent of Damien Day, the amoral reporter in Drop The Dead Donkey, who used to nod earnestly as he listened to some tale of woe, while also trying not to dribble at the thought of how marvellously lurid the footage was going to be.

His next interviewee was Roy Shaw, who claimed to have made enough money from his fists in the 1970s to build a flash house and buy a pounds 50,000 Roller. After seeing some footage of Roy in action, only a madman would care to argue. While he watched himself "boshing" Donny "The Bull" Adams back in his heyday, Shaw flicked his tongue around his lips like a greedy lizard with his eye on a beetle. Mentally, Maitland was doing the same.

"You're smacking him when he's on the floor," he pointed out. Rather needlessly, as it happened, since we had just spent five seconds watching Roy do just that. "Now you're stamping on his head." In fact, Shaw had clearly gone berserk, in the original sense of the word. Several big men were trying and failing to drag him away, but he kept going back for another boot to the face or slamming haymaker to the back of the head. "He's gone, Roy," someone was shouting. "He's dead."

Whether Adams was truly dead, Maitland did not ask, although it seems unlikely that even the ratings-hungry Tonight would sink so low as to show the first snuff movie on British television. But the crowd did not seem to care either way. They were loving every minute of it.

The same was probably true when Nigel Benn climbed into the ring for his first, unlicensed fight. "He looked like Marvin Hagler," he recalled. "I smacked the granny out of him, punching him through the ropes, everything." "What did he look like by the time you'd finished?" Maitland asked. "Joe Bugner," came the sniggering reply.

Benn admitted that he still goes to unlicensed fights, and doesn't see much wrong with them. Maitland himself went to see McHugh fight for the "unlicensed heavyweight championship of the north", and sat in the audience looking suitably appalled. Yet this fight did not look a great deal different to a regular bout. Both men went at it hammer and tongs from the bell, without the first thought for self-defence. This, as many veteran boxing commentators regularly point out, is a common shortcoming of modern professionals.

So does a piece of paper from the BBBC really make that much difference? This was the question that Maitland did not want to ask. His premise seemed to be: boxing, good; unlicensed boxing, bad. The lasting impression, though, was more like: boxing, bad; unlicensed boxing, worse.

There were hearty draughts of testosterone too in last night's Correspondent (BBC2), in which Helen Rollason wondered why the commentary box in British football remains off-limits to women. In Italy, as she pointed out, there are several female commentators and pundits, and this in a society which is hardly noted for its lack of chauvinism.

The simple answer to Rollason's query seemed to be that bloke fans and, more importantly, bloke producers reckon that football is a blokeish sort of thing which can only be truly appreciated by... well, blokes. The prejudice was dumbfounding, even before you got to a typically gormless contribution from David Mellor (the Labour-appointed head, lest we forget, of the Football Task Force).

The first female commentator, he suggested, should not be merely a token appointment. Instead, she would need to be "John Motson with looks". That's right, with looks. David Mellor was insisting that a football pundit should be easy on the eye. Gall just isn't the word.

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