Death is always lurking in the shadows of the ring, as it does in any sport with the potential for tragedy. Boxers shy away from this unwelcome fact: the contemplation of death or injury is not conducive to success in their violent profession. But it happens, though mercifully rarely, and when it does the survivor often finds it achingly difficult to adjust to the fact that he was involved in another man's calamity.
Some, like Richie Wenton, find it almost impossible to punch an opponent; he simply turned his back and walked away in his first fight after Bradley Stone died following their British title clash in 1994. Others can cope, though often at the cost of a private pain which does not fade with the passage of time.
In 1991 I co-authored Barry McGuigan - The Untold Story, an ill-fated volume which had to be withdrawn as part of a libel settlement. It was not a ghosted book in the accepted meaning of the term: every first-person word in the book was McGuigan's, precisely as he said it. That meant endless hours of conversation and tape-recording as we discussed his career, but always we stepped around his own tragedy, when a Nigerian called Asymin Mustapha, who boxed as Young Ali, lapsed into a coma after McGuigan had stopped him on a London sporting club show.
Ali stayed unconscious and was eventually taken home to Nigeria, to die on 13 December 1982. Finally, though, when every other aspect of McGuigan's extraordinary career had been covered, we had to face the need to talk about Ali.
For all his breezy public face, McGuigan is a deep and intense man, and he was clearly dreading the moment. He struggled for self-control, the knuckles white on his big countryman's hands, but even after nine years the wound was still raw and the emotion swamped him and the tears flowed. He stared at his fists and said: "I couldn't believe that I could kill somebody with these, with my own hands. I never thought something like this could happen. I had always thought that boxing was just a sport, just a game."
It was a profoundly moving moment, and a salutary reminder that boxers are real people not fighting machines to be switched on and off as required. McGuigan coped in solitude. "I used to go down to the handball alley on my own for hours, just hitting the ball up, trying to get it out of my system, or I'd go ferreting in the fields with my dogs. Sandra [his wife] was bewildered: she knew I was going through a trauma, but didn't know how to cope with it. But I suppose nobody really knows . . . ."
I covered McGuigan's first fight after Ali, when he fought Jimmy Duncan, a tough and competent Liverpudlian, in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. It was a routine victory, achieved in four rounds, but there was a bizarre moment which I noted at the time, and which he explained to me nine years later as we worked on the book. Duncan was dazed and ready to go, propped on the middle rope, and McGuigan was normally a merciless finisher. But this time he started to move towards Duncan, and then abruptly stepped back and threw out a harmless jab. "I went to hit him, to finish it, but then it wasn't Jimmy Duncan I was seeing on the ropes - it was Ali," he told me.
That, it seems, is a relatively common occurrence among fighters who have shared McGuigan's experience. Sugar Ray Robinson reported a similar hallucination when he returned to the ring following the death of Jimmy Doyle, whom he knocked out in eight rounds in June 1947 to retain his world welterweight title. Robinson had had a vivid dream the night before the fight that precisely such a tragedy would occur, and even told his trainer that it would happen in the eighth round. He was so distressed that only the intervention of Doyle's parish priest persuaded him to go through with the fight.
At the inquest, the coroner asked: "Mr Robinson, you must have known Mr Doyle was in trouble - why did you go on hitting him?" Robinson's reply has a brutal honesty which echoes down the years, and which may offer Drew Docherty some comfort as he prepares to face his own demons this week. "Mister," Robinson told the coroner, "it's my business to put people in trouble."Reuse content