Floored by the fighting spirit

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THEY start them early in the fight game. As we walked up the steps of the National Indoor Arena on the evening of the Amateur Boxing Association Senior Finals last week, a father and son preceded us. The lad, who was about six, was beating seven kinds of something out of his dad. It was good work, too: quick in-and-out, the odd low blow, inevitable when you're hitting from knee height. The father responded with a couple of none-too-paternal right jabs. Mother followed a few paces behind, smiling broadly.

The family is very important in amateur boxing. Many of the potted biographies on Wednesday night's card in Birmingham included lines like "One of two boxing brothers", and "His older brother is a former two-times ABA title- holder". As James Branch, a London light-heavyweight, stepped into the ring for his bout, the ever-present Mickey Duff reminisced: "'is father was a good fighter . . ."

The ABA Finals are one of the great institutions in English sport: they were first contested on 18 April 1881. But last week's event was sadly short of evocative trappings: the sparsely populated barn of the NIA is a thoroughly inappropriate venue, and it is a shame that the ABA decided that disco lights improved their show. The traditions of the sport lived on, though, through the different age groups in the crowd. Tomato-nosed old men sharing reminiscences; their sons, just now running to fat, their ring days not far behind them; their grandsons, lean, fit, tattooed, fighting for championships last week. The next generation punched the air in the queues for the burger bars: "Pow! Pow! Pow! Yeah!"

It was a shame that security had to be so tight, but there had been trouble in previous years. So everyone was frisked on the way in, and cohorts of burly security men stood in doorways or patrolled the echoing concrete corridors. We saw nothing worse than good-natured - if vociferous - heckling between rival groups of fans.

ABA contests are fought over three rounds of three minutes each, and the boxers wear protective headgear. This is the way that many people feel the professional game should go in the future, to reduce the likelihood of serious injury. To boxing agnostics like us it seems an attractive prospect.

Such fights are hardly neutered. The short duration means that "tactics" - for instance the endless posing and clinching that makes so many 12- round contests seem interminable - are out. The boxers have to come out with all guns blazing. This doesn't mean that they just flail away like lunatics, of course: the kind of tactics that apply to shot selection and the pacing of a round are as important as ever. Some purists may find the headgear unsightly but it is not as unsightly as a boxer on a life- support machine.

The padding offers no protection to the chin, after all, and that is the key to most knockouts. Just ask Gary Grounds, the ex-Royal Marine who fought Jason Matthews, from London, for the middleweight title. Matthews connected with a superb right hook and Grounds was grounded, making those cartoon-drunk attempts to stand that are the touching, tragi- comic epitome of the fighter's courage.

The importance of tactics and composure was illustrated by Kelly Oliver, the light-heavyweight who was fighting Branch. Oliver was after his fourth straight ABA title at the weight, and his experience showed. He allowed Branch to come at him in the first round with rat-a-tat-tat left jabs while he circled, absorbing blows on gloves and forearms, letting his opponent tire. Then, sensing fatigue, Oliver came forward, raining blows to the body to drive out what breath was left, and starting to land cunning shots to the head. Branch's seconds threw in the towel halfway through the second. Branch kicked it out again, but he knew the game was up.

The best thing of all at the ABA finals was not the boxing, which was excellent, but the spirit. All 24 boxers conducted themselves with dignity in defeat and victory. It might have been an arm around a beaten opponent, or a loser's word with the winner's cornermen, but the aftermath of every bout was followed by some token of the respect that these men have for each other, and for their sport.

THERE was a poignant irony in the way that one of rugby league's greatest players, Vic Hey, died on the day that his old club, Leeds, was working out how it will combine summer rugby with cricket at Headingley with the advent of the Super League. For the Australian international stand-off is the only man to have won a rugby match on the cricket ground.

On Christmas Eve 1938, by some quirk of the Yorkshire weather, the cricket ground was fit for play while the rugby pitch was frozen solid. For the only time in the history of the two sports' co-existence at Headingley, the action was switched to the other side of the main stand and Hey scored the try as Salford were beaten 5-0. Now Hey, who also coached Australia in the 1950s, has died at the age of 82 - just as his old club is committing itself to sharing a season with cricketers.

A WORD of praise for the reception hosted by the racehorse trainer Lady Herries at Angmering Park, her base in Sussex, so that the press could watch the maybe-great Celtic Swing at work. It was an idyllic, bright morning on the Downs, the sloe gin flowed, the buffet was superb and the company was convivial. But the most delightful thing was that no one was selling anything. No sponsors, no message, no angle, just a horse. Some horse.