Boxing: Hide, hype and the hotheads: Jonathan Rendall traces the long and colourful history of pre-fight hysteria

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The Independent Online
ONE of the more absurd statements of last week came from the usually ambassadorial ITN newscaster Trevor McDonald. When commenting on the Herbie Hide-Michael Bentt spat on a balcony at the Sheraton Hotel, McDonald glibly invoked the name of Muhammad Ali as if to suggest that such behaviour could not have happened in Ali's day.

Ali, of course, was a pioneer, perhaps even the inventor, of the goading brand of pre-fight hype that always threatens to get out of control, right from the day he arrived on the world scene and hysterically tried to provoke Sonny Liston at the weigh-in of their first title fight in 1964. And 10 years later, Ali was a participant in boxing's most famous out-of-the-ring brawl when he and Joe Frazier ended up entwined on the studio floor during a live interview with ABC's Howard Cosell.

It was five days before their rematch at Madison Square Garden and Ali and Frazier had been invited to review a tape of their first encounter. Midway through, Frazier remarked that Ali had had to go to hospital after the fight. Ali responded by saying that Frazier was 'ignorant' and grabbed Smokin' Joe in a bear hug. This was not a good idea, and Frazier struck out.

According to Dave Wolf, a journalist and later fight manager who was in the studio: 'Cosell seemed terrified by it all, and Ali looked scared too. At that point, he realised Joe wasn't playing. If nobody in the studio had intervened, I don't know what Joe would have done to Ali. If they'd been left alone, I think Joe would have taken Ali's head off.'

Despite Wolf's convincing testimony, the majority of viewers who watched the Ali-Frazier incident, just like the millions who watched Hide and Bentt writhing in a puddle on News At Ten, will doubtless have concluded that it was all a put-up job stage-managed by the promoter to sell tickets. Such incidents, though rare, are genuine, and those that are not are easy to spot (minutes after unconvincingly 'attacking' Lennox Lewis at a press conference in Los Angeles last year, the heavyweight challenger Tony Tucker apologised, spluttering: 'they made me do it').

The truth is that life is hard enough for most pugilists that they would take a dim view of having to put in extra punches without getting paid, not least because it is they, rather than the promoters, who are fined afterwards. Ali and Frazier were fined dollars 5,000 each by the New York State Athletic Commission. Hide and Bentt will almost certainly be handed far more substantial penalties by the British Boxing Board of Control. Similarly, in 1985, the British middleweights Mark Kaylor and Errol Christie were heavily fined by the Board after a brawl following a press conference at a London casino.

One of the reasons for such incidents is the proliferation of boxing press conferences in Britain. In the United States, only the super-fights qualify for such outlays from promoters. In Britain, boxing writers would not be surprised to be invited to a shindig to celebrate the announcement of a Southern Area super-bantamweight contest in Bethnal Green.

The Hide-Bentt affair escalated during a photoopportunity and Hide later said that he had sensed that Bentt, an American who had come from nowhere to win the WBO heavyweight title from Tommy Morrison, was unused to such occasions and was unsettled; unsettled enough to respond to a remark about his baseball cap by swiping Hide to the ground with an ease that might not appear to bode well for the prospects of the Romford-trained destroyer.

But there is no proof that any impression of superiority given by unscheduled sparring is a reliable pointer to what will happen in the ring. Frazier, it is said, went around in a blissful state for four days after the Cosell bust-up thinking he had embedded seeds of doubt in Ali's mind because of his studio performance: on the fifth day, Frazier was beaten.

Both Bentt and Hide looked shell-shocked after their set-to, and a couple of days later Hide said: 'I had a headache afterwards. It's no joke when a man that big starts hitting you with no gloves on,' suggesting, perhaps paradoxically, that prizefighters view the idea of an unexpected violent encounter with the same horror and fear as the rest of us.

(Photograph omitted)