Boxing: Old boxers don't always fade away, some succeed in real life

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The Independent Online
A FELLOW toiler in this trade, a former colleague whose work is usually of the highest order, wrote earlier this week that the fate of some fighters is to take up residence under railway bridges; many, he stated, drift into the nether world of alcoholism and drug addiction or meet a violent death in domestic and gangland disputes.

If there are any statistics on this I would like to see them. How many fighters have died by gun, knife or needle, how many end up as drunks or derelicts? Boxing puts the senses so obviously at risk that nobody should ever think it a game but in proportion to other sports and professions it has no monopoly on sad figures.

David Bairstow's recent suicide was a wincing reminder that more than 30 cricketers have died at their own hands this century; old footballers of distinction who were criminally underpaid exist on a state pension, lost in nostalgia, many crippled by arthritis and refused disability benefits.

Trouble is that boxers are too easily the subject of B-movie conclusions; mumbling, beaten-up old pugs with cauliflower ears who hang around gymnasiums, adopting a fighting stance when woken by the telephone; from champion to bucket carrier; running errands for hoodlums.

An Olympian in his 17th year, Colin Jones held the British and European welterweight championships and went in three times for the world title. An astute businessman, if Jones looks at a bridge he is probably thinking about buying it. The former British and Commonwealth middleweight champion Johnny Pritchett took off for Spain with the substantial proceeds of his commercial acumen.

Still one of British sport's most revered figures, Henry Cooper is never short of an earner; John Conteh, Jim Watt and John H Stracey, all former world champions, are well paid for speaking at corporate luncheons and testimonial dinners. Watt, Barry McGuigan, Glenn McCrory and Duke McKenzie are employed regularly on television. Two members of my golf club, both comfortably off, once earned a living in the professional ring.

Pro rata, there are no more drunks among old boxers than there are among old journalists. An acclaimed sportswriter slipped so far through booze that, in time, he could be given no greater responsibility than the dog racing results, and that out of sympathy.

Arthur Christiansen shot to fame as editor of the Daily Express as the result of his late night response to news of the R101 airship disaster. The lone sub-editor who assisted Christiansen in that enterprise ended up bumming drinks and cigarettes in Fleet Street hostelries.

Among the guests at a birthday party I attended last weekend was Bobby Neill, who was British featherweight champion almost 40 years ago. After losing the title to Terry Spinks, whom he later trained, Neill fell into a coma and spent several days on the danger list. Neill's wicked sense of humour remains in place and he continues to train fighters. At sixty- odd Neill has memory lapses but then so do others of a similar age, myself included.

Many years ago the boxing promoter Mickey Duff refused the Kray twins admission to the opening of the Anglo-American Sporting Club at the Hilton hotel in London. So much for gangsterism in modern boxing.

There have been more than enough ring tragedies to make a case against boxing, plenty of evidence to establish that fighters are unlikely to reach later life without displaying symptoms of the punishment they have taken. Who can look at Muhammad Ali and not be saddened? Who could observe Joe Louis gladhanding from a wheelchair at Cesars Palace in Las Vegas without realising how much boxing can take from them? The sight of Sugar Ray Robinson being prodded into glazed acknowledgment to a warm response to his presence at ringside was withering.

Such things have long since intruded on my conscience, making me think that boxing may not be worth the candle. But drunks and drug addicts, victims of gang violence and living under railway bridges? If that is the case I have not been paying attention.

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