Boxing: How the game was the real loser in Birmingham: Following Saturday's violent scenes at the NEC, questions are being asked as to how such behaviour can be prevented at future contests

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

DESPITE appearances to the contrary on Saturday night, professional boxing has been relatively untroubled by hooliganism. The scenes at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, witnessed by a substantial television audience, were the worst since Marvin Hagler was the centre of attention for a bottle-throwing mob following the American's defeat of Alan Minter at Wembley Arena in 1980.

Robert McCracken and Steve Foster, the two light middleweights whose fans brawled amongst themselves while Nigel Benn retained his WBC super-middleweight title again Juan Carlos Giminez, are among a small band of fighters who command a loud, passionate and potentially hostile following. It must be stressed that neither man has ever encouraged such riotous behaviour, and both will have been disgusted by the events of Saturday.

Those involved within the sport insist that, despite occasional disturbances, crowd trouble is the exception. 'Is there a hooligan problem in boxing? Basically, no,' said John Morris, general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control. 'This was an example of football violence translating itself to boxing. Only a small minority were involved, but unfortunately, it doesn't take many to cause trouble. What we have here is a temporary malaise, not a disease.'

The promoter, Frank Warren, maintains that the blame lies with the NEC's security and the tardiness of the police response. 'We knew the reputations of both boxers' fans and had several meetings to discuss the necessary arrangements. Ticket sales were one hundred percent segregated. Yet on the night, the NEC's security was a disaster. The serious stuff lasted seven or eight minutes and only stopped when the thugs ran out of chairs to throw at each other. The police arrived after it was over to my knowledge, they didn't make a single arrest inside the building. If I can't trust the police, who can I rely on?'

'The policing of the NEC is down to their own security personnel,' said Supt David Claydon, spokesman for West Midlands Police. 'We were called after the initial scuffle. We had a presence outside the building, where the Commander in charge decided to await the arrival of additional units before going inside, at which point the matter was dealt with quickly.'

Ken Baker, head of security at the NEC, admitted: 'We had been told to expect trouble, but we did not anticipate the scale of the disorder. We did not segregate fans away from the seating areas, and I understand the trouble began in one of the bars. Perhaps if one has a situation where segregation is necessary, where you need police standing by in riot gear, you have to question whether it is worth staging the event.'

The manager and promoter Terry Lawless feels the situation could have been averted by the presence of more experience security personnel. 'We've promoted McCracken fights before, and although there has been the potential for trouble, nothing has happened because we've manned it adequately,' he said. 'The NEC insisted on using their own security, but they don't have experience in dealing with volatile crowds. I don't think the venue was secured properly either you certainly couldn't rip seats out like that at Wembley.'

The Leicester promoter, Johnny Griffin, who was present on Saturday as a fan, believes that action can be taken to help eliminate the problem. 'Perhaps we have to ban alcohol at boxing matches,' he said. 'I know a lot of venues need the revenue generated by bar takings, but if a ban keeps the undesirable element away, we have to think about it.'

The Board's inquiry into the affair is unlikely to yield any surprising results. Despite the appalling scenes of Saturday, boxing remains a sport where violence is largely restricted within the confines of the ring. The problems arose because rival sets of fans, fuelled by drink, were able to get at each other. A ban on alcohol at the venue and the efficient segregation of supporters would have drastically limited the likelihood of trouble.

The real losers are the likes of McCracken and Foster, genuine men who are being undermined by a small percentage of idiots. 'Who's going to want to get involved with McCracken now,' asked Warren. 'How many television companies would touch that?' McCracken, the reigning British light-middleweight champion, is a fighter of rich potential. The thugs who have attached themselves to him are endangering a promising career.

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