Boxing: 'The risk we take is the price we have to pay and we budget for it': Harry Mullan, our boxing correspondent, says that calls for the sport's abolition ignore a basic and often noble instinct

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE reflection is unlikely to be of much consolation to the grieving family of Bradley Stone, but I doubt if he was ever happier than at the moment in the eighth round at York Hall, Bethnal Green, last Tuesday when Richie Wenton went down and Bradley believed himself to be just 10 seconds away from becoming British champion. Boxing was his life, his passion, his magnificent obsession, and the thought that his dream was so close to realisation must have been overwhelming.

Whatever validity boxing can claim is contained in that image: young men such as Stone, Michael Watson, Mark Goult and Johnny Owen expressed and fulfilled themselves in the ring in a way they never could outside it. They were aware of the risks, understood them and accepted them.

One might have expected Watson to rage against the sport which wrecked his body and denied him his dreams. Instead, prompted by his old rival Nigel Benn (whom Watson knocked out in 1989), he has taken to attending shows again, and talks with determination of recovering sufficiently to be able to work as a trainer and second. Boxing is at the core of his life, and he would be appalled by the suggestion that his present condition constitutes an argument for the abolition of the sport he loves.

Goult, wheelchair-bound after injuries sustained in winning the Southern Area bantamweight title in 1990, flew to Las Vegas in May for the Lennox Lewis v Tony Tucker World Boxing Council heavyweight title fight. He attended press conferences and receptions, and was thrilled to be part of the scene once more. His presence there underlines the assertion that boxing breeds obsessives rather than mere fans, and even when the evidence for the prosecution is presented as forcibly as it was last week with the double blow of Stone's death and Evander Holyfield's enforced retirement, the game's supporters remain defiantly loyal and protective.

Those who do not share the obsession find it hard to understand, or to believe that boxing's defenders can be anything other than uncaring, callous, blood-

hungry sadists. It would be naive to claim that such an element does not exist, or to believe implicitly in the socially redemptive qualities of the disciplines of the gym. Inspirational trainers such as Phil Martin in Moss Side, Manchester, and Brendan Ingle in Sheffield have indeed redirected the energies of a great many youngsters away from crime and drugs towards the ring, but Mike Tyson offers a fairly weighty counter-balance to that particular argument.

Boxing has its saints and sinners in much the same proportions as any other business, although 20 years of immersion in the sport (the last 17 as editor of its trade paper Boxing News) qualifies me to observe that boxers, on the whole, are the gentlest men I know. Aggression is a principal tool of their trade, and they are understandably reluctant to waste it on civilians.

It is unlikely that Stone's tragedy will dissuade a single fighter from the ring. They share his risks, and his dreams and will not be easily deterred by his death. In a business as fundamental as this, there is no place for a man who is not prepared to acknowledge the hazards. As the former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan once observed: 'The risk we take is the price we have to pay for success, and we budget for it.'

That attitude may be pragmatic, but it is far from uncaring. I co-

authored McGuigan's book (later withdrawn as part of a legal settlement) and know from that experience how hard he finds it, even a decade on, to talk about the fight in which the Nigerian Young Ali died at his hands. It is an awesome burden to carry, although mercifully few are asked to do so. Statistically, boxing has fewer fatalities than most sports.

The last British professional to die in the ring was Steve Watt, the Scottish welterweight champion who collapsed after a fight with Rocky Kelly in 1986. A competitor has died in each of the past two London Marathons, yet their deaths rated little more than a couple of lines amid the detailed race reports and analysis. No headline-grabbing MPs appeared on television demanding that the event be banned, nor did the British Medical Association campaign against it, nor even point out that it is not always wise for men in their fifties to undertake 26-mile runs.

If the standards of medical supervision and checks were as slapdash in boxing as they seem to be in some other sports, no one with a glimmer of conscience could attempt a defence. In fact, boxing's administrators are always seeking new ways of improving procedures, and of learning from the infrequent tragedies which occur.

Young Ali and Johnny Owen were found to have had abnormally thin skulls, a condition which was not recognised at the time: testing for them now forms a routine part of the licensing procedure. Had Michael Watson been taken immediately to the nearest hospital with neurosurgical facilities, the consequences of his injuries would not have been nearly so severe. In the light of what happened to him, promoters are now obliged to have an ambulance on stand-by at the venue with a fully briefed crew, and to inform the nearest suitably equipped hospital that a tournament is taking place in their area that evening.

The Watson episode also prompted the Board of Control to require that boxers who had been knocked out be detained overnight in hospital for observation, but since Stone had been rescued by the referee as he took punches against the ropes, that stipulation did not apply. Had it done so - and henceforth, it should - tragedy could have been averted.

Clots on the brain can take several hours to manifest themselves. Bradley Stone collapsed at his fiancee's house after leaving York Hall, and the middleweight title challenger Rod Douglas also collapsed at home a few hours after losing to Herol Graham in 1989. Douglas was taken immediately to the hospital where he worked as a porter, and the speedy treatment he received has enabled him to return to a normal life. But Stone reportedly had a lengthy wait for an ambulance, and the delay may have been crucial.

Peter Hamlyn, the neurosurgeon who operated on Michael Watson, stresses that 'speed is of the essence when treating injuries like Michael's. Had he been taken first to a hospital with the proper facilities, his chances of recovery would have been greatly enhanced'. Interestingly, both Hamlyn and John Sutcliffe, the London Hospital surgeon who operated on Stone, have distanced themselves from the BMA's strident calls for boxing's abolition. They take the view that a doctor's role is to heal, rather than to get involved in moralistic arguments.

The BMA's attitude has been consistently unhelpful and counter-productive. Much of their evidence is based on studies carried out on the brains of men who boxed in an era when 200-fight careers were commonplace; nowadays, an average career consists of about 50 fights, and in the case of British boxers many of the early contests would be over two-minute rounds rather than the three minutes at championship level.

The BMA must accept that boxing is simply too deeply rooted in the sporting tradition to fade away, and there is no doubt that if it were to be banned it would merely go underground into the twilight world of backroom prize- fighting, where medical supervision is non-existent.

The abolitionists argue that this is the only sport in which the sole object is to inflict sufficent brain damage to render the opponent unconscious, but that is to ignore the fact that a significant number of boxers lack a knockout punch and rely instead on skill and technique. Howard Winstone and Colin McMillan, majestic boxers who claimed versions of the world featherweight title, did not score a dozen knock-outs between them in their entire careers.

There is, in any case, a thin moral line between a sport such as boxing, in which accidents and deaths occasionally occur, and activities such as mountain-climbing in which the lives of participants and rescue workers are routinely put at risk. Consider, too, the death toll in grand prix racing, or in the Isle of Man TT races, both of which far outnumber boxing's fatalities. Racing drivers die in pursuit of enhanced profits and sales figures for the manufacturers of the cars they drive, but boxers battle in a purer and more noble cause.

Nobody embodied the warrior spirit better than Holyfield, whose retirement was announced in his home town of Atlanta, Georgia, last Tuesday. He grossed around dollars 100m, so clearly his last few fights had more to do with the love of combat and pride in his place in history than with cold cash. His success is in itself a justification for boxing. Without it, he would still be pumping fuel into 747s at Atlanta airport to support his family; because of boxing, he can now afford to buy his own 747.

It is worrying, though, that he was - perhaps unknowingly - able to conceal a heart condition from the doctors who, presumably, examined him before and after some of the most gruelling and punishing heavyweight championship fights since the unforgettable series between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Hard questions should be asked of those doctors, and the standards of testing urgently re-evaluated. The consequences of the world heavyweight champion dying of a heart attack during a title fight do not bear contemplating, yet it seems that was an ever-present possibility as Holyfield time and again drove himself beyond the normal limits of endurance in the ring.

How ironic that the bravest battler of his generation should be forced out of the game by such an ailment. Of all the parts of his spectacularly assembled anatomy, one would have thought the heart was the least open to challenge.

Michael Moorer, the cautious southpaw who dethroned him in Las Vegas four days earlier, deservedly assumes Holyfield's mantle as the real world champion, although I doubt if he will wear it with as much distinction as his predecessor. Britain's Lennox Lewis, who defends his WBC version against Phil Jackson of Miami in Atlantic City next Friday, is probably a better fighter than Moorer, but until he proves it in the ring his claim to the championship is spurious. Moorer is, as he reminded us at the post-fight press conference, 'the man who beat the man who beat the man'. He is the genuine champion by right of lineage, while Lewis was crowned in the WBC boardroom after the then champion Riddick Bowe reneged on an agreement to defend against him.

A unification match had been agreed between Holyfield and Lewis for 11 November in Las Vegas, for a combined purse of dollars 25m. 'There is little chance that Moorer will keep the date in Holyfield's place, since the new champion is virtually unknown outside boxing's hard-core fans and does not command anything like Holyfield's recognition factor in the all-important American pay-per- view TV market. He will be required to raise his profile with a couple of easy defences first, while Lewis must mark time with the sort of 'challenge' he faces on Friday.

Jackson, 29, did not take up boxing until he was 21, turning pro in December 1988. Statistically, his record is impressive enough, with 30 wins (27 inside the distance) from 31 fights. But for the first half of his career he only once scaled above 14st, which makes him a blown-up cruiserweight going up against a big, powerful and hard- hitting heavyweight. That's the kind of match in which people can get hurt.

He has faced only two opponents of recognised quality. The first, Lionel Butler, was outpointed over four rounds in his third contest. The result meant nothing at the time, but Butler has since matured and improved into a respectable contender himself. The other, more significantly, was Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, the Canadian-based Jamaican whom Lewis crushed in two rounds to earn, retrospectively, WBC recognition as champion. Jackson simply froze against Ruddock, and was counted out on his knees in the fourth round. He was fully conscious and acknowledged afterwards that he could have beaten the count, but chose not to.

That suggests a conspicuous absence of fighting spirit, but given what happened to brave Bradley Stone this week, who can fairly blame him for that? Sometimes the price of victory can be just too high.

Grim landmarks in the history of boxing

July 1736: Between 13 and 20 July, reported the Northampton Mercury, there were 420 deaths in the City of London. The cause of death ranged from convulsions (144), smallpox (83), dropsy (20) to killed by boxing (2).

February 1741: Jack Broughton knocked out George Stephenson in 35 minutes for the bare-knuckle championship of England in Tottenham Court Road, London. Stephenson died of injuries suffered in the fight some weeks later at a nearby pub, The Adam and Eve. As a result, Broughton insisted rules to govern boxing were devised. 'Broughton's Rules' governed prize-fighting until 1838.

30 May 1833: James 'Deaf 'Un' Burke knocked out Simon Byrne in 98 rounds and 196 minutes for the championship of England near Ascot Raceourse. Byrne died of his injuries three days later. Opposition to fighting drove Burke to the US, where he boxed before coming home.

27 September 1845: The Illustrated London News said: 'For years the practice of pugilism has been one revolting to mankind, degrading to all the honourable and honest feelings of human nature . . . A recent exhibition - with an illusion to which we will not pollute our page - has placed The Ring in a position to damage the character of any man who shall hereafter be known to endure a prize fight.'

7 September 1892: First gloved heavyweight title fight between John L Sullivan and James J Corbett. A sparring partner of Britain's first heavyweight champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, died - but the champion was exonerated when the victim was found to be drunk.

6 December 1897: The Englishman Walter Croot died of brain injuries after losing in 20 rounds to Jimmy Barry for the world bantamweight title.

24 May 1913: Luther McCarty, a great white hope of heavyweight boxing, died after collapsing from a light punch in the first round of a contest with Arthur Pelkey in Canada. The autopsy showed his death was due to a broken neck and attributed to injuries received when he was thrown from a horse shortly before the fight.

14 February 1933: Ernie Schaaf died four days after being knocked out in the 13th round by Primo Carnera in New York by what was described as 'a light punch' from Carnera. Eight months earlier Schaaf had been unable to leave his dressing-room for several hours after a pounding by Tony Galento and, in August 1932, Schaaf was carried from the ring after losing to Max Baer. A few weeks before fighting Carnera, Schaaf was in hospital with severe influenza.

24 June 1947: Jimmy Doyle died of brain injuries 17 hours after being knocked out by Sugar Ray Robinson in the eighth round of a world welterweight title fight. Fifteen months earlier, Doyle had suffered severe brain concussion in a contest with Artie Levine and had promised his family never to box again.

December 1953: The Ring Annual, which had catalogued deaths in amateur and professional boxing since 1918, reported that 22 boxers had died as a result of injuries sustained in the ring during the year. This remains the highest figure since records were kept. From 1965 onwards, the toll has been in single figures, except for 1972 when 11 men died.

3 April 1962: The Cuban Benny Paret died of brain injuries after defeat by Emile Griffith in a world welterweight title fight. Paret was in a coma for nine days before dying. The referee Ruby Goldstein, though cleared of blame by the New York Commission, never worked another bout.

21 March 1963: Davey Moore died after collapsing in his dressing-room after defeat by Ultiminio 'Sugar' Ramos in Los Angeles for the world featherweight title. Following this, TV turned away from boxing briefly, only to return with the arrival of Muhammad Ali.

16 June 1964: After a six-round featherweight contest at Shoreditch Town Hall, Lyn James, from Pontypridd, died in hospital from a brain injury. This was the decade's first fatality in British boxing. James's injury was thought to have been caused by his neck striking the bottom rope as he fell from a knockdown punch.

15 March 1969: Four days after a points defeat in eight rounds by Joe Bugner, Ulrich Regis died after surgery to remove a clot from his brain. Regis collapsed after what was considered a dull fight. Fans jeered and threw programmes into the ring at the end.

2 February 1972: Mick Pinkney choked on his own blood after a five-round knock-out by Jim Moore in Leeds. The inquest report said there was no sign of where the blood had come from. Traces of aspirin were found in his body.

19 July 1978: Several hours following a technical knock-out inflicted by Alan Minter in 12 rounds for the European middleweight title, Angelo Jacopucci collapsed after attending a party. He died of brain injury. European title fights were shortened to 12 rounds following this tragedy.

19 September 1980: Lupe Pintor of Mexico beat the Welshman Johnny Owen in Los Angeles for the WBC bantamweight title (technical knock-out in 12 rounds). Owen died six weeks later in a Los Angeles hospital of brain injuries. He had never regained consciousness.

14 June 1982: Young Ali (Asymin Mustapha) collapsed on the way out of the ring after being knocked out in six rounds by Barry McGuigan at the World Sporting Club in London. He lay in a coma for months after being flown home to Nigeria. He died on 13 December 1982. He was found to have an unusually thin skull. Skull x-rays are now compulsory in British boxing.

13 November 1982: The Korean Duk-koo Kim was beaten by Ray Mancini after a technical knock-out for the WBA lightweight title. Kim was in a coma when he was carried from the ring, but was kept alive for four days after the contest on a life-support machine until his mother arrived from Korea. Millions saw the bout on TV. World championship bouts were cut from 15 to 12 rounds thereafter.

31 August 1983: The Mexican 'Kiko' Bejines died of brain injuries after defeat by Albert Davila for the WBC bantamweight title in Los Angeles.

14 March 1986: The Scottish-born Steve Watt died of brain injuries in hospital after defeat by Rocky Kelly in a welterweight contest in Fulham.

28 April 1994: Bradley Stone died at 8pm after collapsing at the home of his girlfriend two days earlier following defeat in 10 rounds by Richie Wenton. He was found to have a massive blood clot on the brain.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments