Narrowed eyes and carefully minced words suggested that they weren't welcoming outsiders, particularly not the sort who wanted to know why, when one young man was lying close to death in a hospital bed, others were being paid to enter that same ring to aim blows at each other's heads.
'Well,' said a man in a suit at ringside in Bethnal Green, 'if one of your mates fell down dead at work, would you print that night's newspaper? 'Course you would.'
A bell rang.
'Ladies and gentlemen,' the dinner-jacketed MC said to the audience of 200 or so, 'I would ask you to be silent for a few moments to give our prayers and thoughts to Bradley Stone and his family.'
The old men and the shaven- headed boys and the pretty blonde girls in skintight white Lycra tops rose to their feet and stood and stared at the floor in silence. After 15 seconds, the bell rang again.
Darron Griffiths from the Rhondda Valley was in the ring, an upstanding young man about to enter the 19th fight of an undefeated professional career which has made him Welsh super-middleweight champion and, on this occasion, was carrying him to an eliminator for the British super- middleweight title against Ray Webb, an experienced man from Stepney, whose dreadlocks were scraped back into a French plait.
Twenty minutes later, Griffiths had hit trouble in the fifth round and the balcony was on its feet, screaming for the local fighter as the blows hit home: 'Take it to him, Ray] Hit him]' Punch. 'Yesss]' Punch. 'Yesss]' Punch. 'Yesss]' Now the referee, circling beside the two fighters, had eyes only for one of them, searching Griffiths's face for signs of distress.
Back in the corner at the end of the round, the urgent words of Griffiths's cornermen were being anxiously eavesdropped by a small, dapper man in a pale grey suit: Frank Maloney, the evening's promoter and Griffiths's manager. As the fighter rose from his stool, Maloney poked his royal-blue shorts with a furled programme: 'C'mon, Darron,' he shouted. 'Let's go to work]'
Thirty seconds later, Griffiths's work was almost done. With one unexpected punch, he had knocked Webb down. The Londoner struggled to his feet, but Griffiths launched himself across the ring and a hail of blows put his opponent back on the canvas. This time, when Webb got up it was to find the referee calling a halt.
'The way I look at it,' Griffiths reflected later, 'is that we know the risk we're taking. And accidents can happen to anybody in sport - in rugby, when you catch the ball and somebody hits you, or from heading the ball in soccer.'
But aren't they different? In a fight, isn't the whole idea to hurt the other guy?
'Not really. To me, it's an accident when something like this happens in boxing - because we're taught to defend ourselves.'
Griffiths, who is 24, started boxing at 10, encouraged by his family. He turned pro four years ago, and still works as a builder - 'not for much longer, though'. He was thinking about the kind of future Maloney has in mind for him. 'They're talking about a Yank next,' he said hopefully.
Does he feel adequately protected against the known dangers?
'Oh, yeah. Specially for a big fight - an eliminator or a title fight - when we have head scans and all that kind of thing. I think it's all right. If anything happens, see, to me that's an accident.'
ON 13 July it will be exactly 10 years since the British Medical Association published a report that shook the senses of the boxing world by calling for a complete ban.
'I predict,' announced the BMA's secretary, Dr John Havard, on the morning he revealed the recommendation, 'that it will take five to 10 years before we secure a ban.' Ten years and a great deal of argument later, Britain is no nearer to prohibition, despite the furore surrounding accidents to Michael Watson, Young Ali, Steve Watt, Johnny Owen, 15-year-old Joe Sticklen and the rest.
For many people, that BMA report represented their first exposure to the medical facts implicit in the act of being punched. Even now it is impossible to remain undisturbed when reading a description of what happens within the cranium when a blow lands on a boxer's head. This version is from Tony Van den Bergh, a former British Boxing Board of Control inspector turned abolitionist: 'The skull, which contains the brain, is not a smooth, hollow globe, but has bony reefs as well as stiff and sharp parchment-like strips of membrane. The brain itself is of a thick, table-jelly consistency. If you handle a fresh human brain you will find it so vulnerable that your fingers can only too easily break through the tissue.' That jelly is not anchored within the skull, but is attached by frail vessels. When a blow lands, the brain is subject to the same forces - although, floating free, it does not move in unison with its casing. Instead, as the skull comes to a halt, the brain is still moving, with the result that this delicate substance dashes itself against the hard, sharp surface.
The BMA report confirmed the earlier findings of an influential article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, whose authors identified four types of injury to the brain among boxers. First came rotational acceleration, created by a blow to the side of the jaw, twisting the head and tearing both the bridging veins and blood vessels buried within the brain tissue, allowing blood clots to develop. Second, linear acceleration - the effect of a punch on the nose or the point of the jaw, whose deleterious effects can include retinal detachment, tears in the cerebellum and damage to the brain stem. Third, blows to the side of the neck, perhaps aimed at the jaw, can damage the carotid artery, reducing the supply of blood to the head and inducing the sort of grogginess that reduces a boxer's ability to defend himself against further blows. Fourth, impact deceleration caused by a boxer's head hitting the mat or the ropes during a knockdown, bouncing the brain against the skull - the sort of thing that injured Michael Watson's brain during his fight with Chris Eubank in 1991.
'Yes, I'm surprised that boxing is still allowed,' said Dr Havard, the man who predicted in 1984 that it would be banned within 10 years. Speaking a few hours after the announcement of Bradley Stone's death, he reflected on the campaign's failure so far. 'The contents of the report we issued then certainly haven't been disproved. There are still the four different types of damage to the brain which occur only in boxing.'
A schoolboy boxing champion while at Malvern, Dr Havard retired from the BMA five years ago but continues to monitor the arguments, which don't change much. 'I've just been listening to the discussions on the radio,' he said, 'and all these people are still missing the point, which is that the whole purpose of boxing is to strike blows to the head. That's the point, to inflict injury on a particular target. And the target in question happens to be the target that matters. These people argue that plenty of people die playing rugby, but in rugby everything is done to prevent injury. It's not the purpose of the exercise, as it is in boxing.'
So why hasn't the campaign made better progress? Where have the doctors failed?
'The BMA has probably done as much as it can,' he said. 'And I doubt whether, at this point, there are many votes in legislation that would ban boxing.'
SITTING at the York Hall ringside on Wednesday night, providing expert commentary for Sky and with all his faculties seemingly intact at 29 after a career whose record reads 40 fights, 32 wins, one draw and seven defeats, was Glenn McCrory, the former IBF world cruiserweight champion.
'I think it's quite good at the moment,' he said afterwards, talking about the current level of safety precautions for British boxers. 'They've got a lot more strict in recent years, and they do as much as they can. There's a bigger eye on boxing nowadays, particularly since the Watson fight.'
In the aftermath of Michael Watson's injury, the British Boxing Board of Control issued a compulsory eight-point plan for reducing the risks to fighters during tournaments. As a result, any boxing promoter now has the responsibility to alert emergency and neurosurgical units of the hospital nearest to the venue in advance, establish direct telephone contact with the hospital, ensure the presence of adequate resuscitation equipment and fully trained operators, arrange for ambulances crewed by trained paramedics to be on the site throughout the tournament, organise stewarding to allow doctors to work without hindrance, ensure that the senior medical officer monitors these safety procedures, not permit TV or radio interviews in the ring or at the ringside after a bout, and allow no boxer to leave the venue without the permission of the Board medical officer.
'The medicals are getting stricter and stricter,' McCrory said. 'At some world title fights, the precautions are unbelievable - you can find yourself getting fed up with all the CAT-scans and brain X-rays. As a fighter, I believe they do as much as they can without interfering in the actual sport.'
Headguards are one suggested improvement that all pro fighters are concerned to avoid. 'I detest them,' Darron Griffiths said. 'I think they're worse for you, to be honest, because if they don't fit properly they vibrate and make more damage to your head.' Others say that the greater circumference of the target increases the rotational force of a hook or a cross-shot, spinning the skull faster and smashing the brain against it with even greater impact. 'They can be dangerous,' McCrory agreed. 'Often they don't fit, and they slip so that the fighter can't see properly. And wearing them can encourage fighters to disregard defence.'
Both men believe that the weighing-in procedure can be improved, to guard against boxers weakening themselves by trying to get below the limit at the last moment. (Bradley Stone had apparently fought inside the 8st 10lb limit at which he competed on Tuesday only once in the last four years.) Under a comprehensive arrangement, fighters would be weighed each week for four or six weeks before a bout, ensuring a steady state. McCrory admitted that he had manipulated his own weight, in an attempt to 'get an edge' - and once with potentially dangerous consequences. 'When I lost the world title,' he said, 'I had to get rid of a lot of weight in a hurry - over a stone in four weeks - because the fight had been brought forward. About 2lb a week is the safe limit - that's just fat. After that you're dipping into your fluids, and you can get into trouble. I hid my weakness from the doctors, and I went through the fight just hoping not to get injured. That was silly.'
McCrory thinks that a total proscription is unlikely. 'So many people realise the dangers of a ban,' he said. 'People will always fight - go and look at a playground. So the worst possible thing would be for it to be banned, and then to go underground - with no precautions for anybody. A lot of do-gooders say it's bad to hurt another person, and in theory it is, but there's a lot worse things than boxing going on in the world. We're all boxers, and we're all agreed on what we're doing. There's a certain amount of risk in everything, isn't there? People jump out of aeroplanes at 30,000ft. That's not safe, is it? Men have dropped dead playing darts or dominoes. We're all going to die.'
NO VOTES in abolition? Perhaps Dr Havard is right, although various Parliamentarians nevertheless continue to take an interest. Yet when a group of prominent boxing promoters appeared before a Commons select committee on Thursday, the arguments were so predictable and exhausted that it was like watching a repeat of a 10- year-old Eurovision Song Contest.
In this argument, taking anything but a doctrinaire position is so difficult that even quite intelligent people can find themselves tripping over their own contradictions. In 1987, when Joe Sticklen died after a schoolboy tournament, the Times published a leader calling for the abolition of boxing in schools, thus beginning 'the process which would cause adult boxing to wither and die. The libertarians would have no young men to champion. They have far better causes'. Last week, while Bradley Stone lay in hospital, the same columns took a different view: 'Predictably those . . . who advocate the banning of boxing will renew their crusade against the ring after this sad incident,' the leader said. 'This crusade, although well intentioned, is misguided. To ban boxing would be to misunderstand both the sport and the need of the hour. Of course it can be brutal: and even its most ardent admirers will admit to a certain ambivalence. It is in the heart of this ambivalence that the attractions of boxing lie.' The Board of Control, it concluded, owes it to the boxers to improve safety precautions still further: 'Boxing needs reform because it is worth preserving.'
The case for boxing seems momentarily to vanish as one reads the medical evidence, only to rematerialise in the honest words of a Glenn McCrory or a Darron Griffiths. Its advocates are helped neither by the distorting effect of the television companies, whose recent infusions of cash have been largely responsible for the doubling of the number of professional boxers in Britain over the past 10 years, nor by the increasingly grotesque publicity tricks deemed necessary to build the ratings to justify TV's investment. They do, however, have realism on their side, and something closer to an understanding of human nature.
Analogies are slippery things, and it is never advisable to excuse one form of activity through comparison with another, but the statistics for deaths among climbers and walkers in the Scottish Highlands are nevertheless worth a look. Last year, 54 died there; in the first two months of this year, 15 more. These, too, were people doing something they loved. But they killed themselves, and in so doing may have drawn others into peril.
This is not a plea for a ban on mountaineering. But back at York Hall, watching men do what men have done since forever with no damage to anyone other than themselves, it seemed that there might be better things to be getting on with than trying to ban boxing.
Born Mile End, London, 27 May 1970
Lived Canning Town, London
Began boxing at age of 11
1986 National Schools finalist; Junior ABA semi-finalist
1989 London ABA featherweight finalist
Turned professional March 1990
Pro record: 17 wins, 2 defeats, 1 draw
Unbeaten in first 18 contests. Lost unbeaten record 4 March 1994 when stopped in 5th by Boualem Belkif at York Hall, Bethnal Green. Lost vacant British super-bantamweight title fight on 10th-round stoppage to Richie Wenton at York Hall, 26 April 1994
Died 28 April 1994, aged 23
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