Boxing: Why Oliver's plight is so shocking

Ken Jones, at ringside, is appalled by the terrible injury boxing inflicted on Britain's Young Fighter of the Year
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The Independent Online
THE life-threatening injury that Spencer Oliver sustained when knocked out by Sergei Devakov in defence of the European super-bantamweight title at the Albert Hall late on Saturday cannot be easily dismissed as an occupational hazard.

Carrying, at least, the possibility of permanent disablement, Oliver's plight following the brain surgery he underwent in the early hours yesterday causes me to question again an instinct for sharing in the thrills of a sport many believe to be a blight on society.

There is nothing new personally in the realisation that ambivalence is no longer enough to salve the the conscience, that to write about boxing is to condone its self-evident madness.

Johnny Owen's death after being battered into a coma by Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles, the impairment of Michael Watson's senses, Gerald McClellan's sightless predicament as the result of a brutal contest against Nigel Benn and other recent tragedies are awful reminders of the risks in professional boxing, so why should the fate that befell Oliver seem particularly distressing?

Perhaps it is because Devakov did not appear as any great threat to Oliver's progression to the world title challenge that was being negotiated by his associates. It also may relate to the absence of bravado from Oliver's nature, the good impression he made less than two weeks ago when voted Young Fighter of the Year at the British boxing writers' dinner.

Seeing and hearing Oliver for the first time, guests from other sports warmed to his manner. "Nice kid, the sort you want to do well," one said.

Following a press conference last week I spent a few minutes in conversation with Oliver. Though holding out respect for Devakov he expected to win well inside the title distance of 12 rounds. "He can fight a bit," Oliver said, "but he's not a banger."

Thrilled to be showing his hands at the Albert Hall, his sobriquet "The Omen" rendered by a formally attired choir, Oliver went about his work briskly until he was sent over by a left hook in the opening round. Up at three he took a standing eight count before coming under heavy bombardment.

A style that required Oliver to absorb punishment in order to land his own punches had suggested that he would not have a long career and he found himself in trouble against a tough, well-schooled challenger who found himself in a position to cause an upset.

Worked on feverishly in his corner between rounds, Oliver fought back strongly but was still behind on my scorecard when stunned by a short right in the sixth round. The affect of this was more worrying, in retrospect a hint of what lay ahead. Dropping his hands, Oliver staggered back into Devakov's corner, saved only by the Ukranian's reluctance to follow up the advantage.

Looking weaker as the contest entered the later rounds Devakov's chance appeared to have gone. Then after two minutes 10 seconds of the 10th round, by then behind on two of the three official scorecards, he sent a right hook crashing into Oliver's head. Sent over sideways, the champion attempted to regain his feet but went over again and was counted out.

As the Ukranian leaped across the ring in triumph it became immediately clear that Oliver was in serious trouble. Shocked supporters stood silently, medical attendants rushed into the ring and fearful glances were exchanged at ringside. Relief at the sight of Oliver sitting up was dispelled when he was lowered back on to the canvas and an oxygen mask was strapped to his bruised face. "God, not another one," somebody said.

Horribly reminiscent of events at the London Arena in 1995 when McClellan slipped slowly from his stool to become a pathetic reminder of what boxing can take from men, recreating the fears that were held out for Watson when he collapsed in his corner after a knockout by Nigel Benn, the scene shocked everyone present.

Nobody felt it more than the contest's referee, Alfred Azaro, of France, who was in charge of the Benn-McClellan fight. "No blame can be attached to him," an official of the European Boxing Union said defensively. Nor to the British Board whose safety measures are considered to be the sport's most stringent.

As with most ring tragedies (an average of eight to nine annually over the last 50 years) Oliver's injury is more likely to have been caused by cumulative damage than the effect of one blow.

It places even more responsibility on the boxing authorities who are frequently threatened with legal action from fighters who foolishly challenge the evidence of brain scans.

Reported to be in a critical but stable condition after undergoing an operation for the removal of a blood clot from his brain, Oliver is clinging to life.

Just a few days ago he imagined a bright future, becoming a world champion, growing in stature, being a credit to himself and his sport. On Saturday there was a smile on his face that spoke of confidence. When he was struck down I shuddered.

Recent casualties in British rings

1991: Michael Watson needed brain operation after being halted by Chris Eubank. Watson is still partially paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

1994: Londoner Bradley Stone died three days after falling into a coma following title fight with Richie Wenton.

1995: American Gerald McClellan fell into a coma after being knocked down for the second time by Nigel Benn in WBC super-middleweight title fight at London Arena. Hospitalised in London for around two months before being allowed home.

1995: James Murray underwent operation to remove blood clot from his brain after being knocked out in 12th and final round of British bantamweight title fight against Drew Docherty. Put on life support machine but died the following morning.

1997: In June Chris Henry collapsed in the ring and needed surgery after fighting Dominic Negus. He is recovering. Carl Wright was taken ill after losing the British light-welterweight title to Mark Winters in Sheffield on October. He had surgery and is still recovering.

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