Boxing: Flynn still fighting his corner

Veteran parliamentary campaigner determined to win battle to have 'damaging' sport banned
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The Independent Online

Paul Flynn has a fight on his hands, one he knows he cannot win unless someone dies. In the year set to see the banning of fox hunting, the veteran Labour MP is campaigning to outlaw boxing, which he considers another blood sportun-acceptable in the 21st century.

Paul Flynn has a fight on his hands, one he knows he cannot win unless someone dies. In the year set to see the banning of fox hunting, the veteran Labour MP is campaigning to outlaw boxing, which he considers another blood sportun-acceptable in the 21st century.

For Flynn, it has become the ignoble art, "a degrading spectacle of gratuitous violence that exploits the least advantaged people". Such rhetoric has followed a well-trodden path of political correctness, but the difference is that this comes not from some tub-thumping BMA zealot but a rational fellow who boxed as a youngster and enjoyed it.

He is even prepared to compromise. "Let's start by banning punches to the head," he argues. "If boxing professes to be based on skill, why is it necessary to belabour the brain?" Flynn, 69, the MP for Newport West for the past 17 years, turned from ex-amateur boxer to abolitionist some years ago, following the death at 24 of Johnny Owen, the waif-like Welsh bantamweight who suffered horrific brain damage when challenging unsuccessfully for the world title against the Mexican Lupe Pintor in September 1980.

Known as the "Matchstick Man" Owen died 46 days later in a Los Angeles hospital. While Owen lay in a coma, Muhammad Ali, a one-time idol whose physical deterioration Flynn also cites for his antagonism towards the sport, had been admitted to an adjoining ward after his penultimate - and most injurious - fight, against Larry Holmes. Ali said later that he frequently prayed for Owen, whose jawbone had shattered under the impact of Pintor's 12th-round right-hand punch and had crashed through his abnormally thin skull into the brain.

Flynn still recoils at the awfulness of that injury, and his renewed campaign - the most consistent in Parliament since the days of Dr Edith Summerskill - coincides with a new book* about the life and death of the young man for whom Flynn acknowledges that boxing was his one positive means of self-expression.

"Up to the death of Johnny Owen I had always been an enthusiastic supporter of boxing. I boxed a bit myself as a kid, and growing up in Wales my heroes were men like Joe Erskine, Dick Richardson and Howard Winstone.

"I remember looking forward eagerly to the broadcast of big fights on the radio. But it was largely the evidence about the injuries Johnny sustained and research into the effect on the brain that formed my [current] views. Now I just simply can't bear to watch it at any level, amateur or pro. There's this revulsion about it. Every time a punch lands you wonder how much damage is being done to the brain, plus the exploitative nature of it."

Banning boxing is just one of a fistful of campaigns by the MP who has established a reputation as one of Parliament's arch-crusaders. His website embraces causes from bans on boxing and bull bars on cars to the rights of animals and pensioners.

While he claims "massive public support" for his anti-boxing stance it comes at a rather unfortunate time, with interest reignited by the captivating Olympic performance of Amir Khan, and the amateur sport now back in schools and in some cases in the curriculum as part of an A Level PE syllabus. Moreover the present figurehead, Vitali Klitschko, recognised as the authentic world heavyweight champion, uses a brain that is clearly undamaged; he has a doctorate in philosophy, is fluent in four languages and displays a political conscience not seen in a boxer since Ali.

Further ammunition for boxing's protagonists is that in the last Olympics there was not a single knockout. In fact the only stoppage in the entire tournament was inflicted by Amir Khan. However, Flynn contrasts this with the beating endured by Danny Williams against Klitschko a couple of months ago, during which even some of us who support the sport shuddered.

Yet however much Flynn bangs on about banning punches to the head he must know he is banging his own head against a brick wall. His Private Members' Bill in 1998 failed and his campaign has been rebuffed by successive sports ministers.

He certainly got short shrift from Tony Banks. I recall once asking the then minister his opinion. "Effing bollocks!" he retorted and, while not quite as colourful, the views of both Kate Hoey and now Richard Caborn - who numbers the Sheffield ring guru Brendan Ingle among his best mates - have remained adamantly in favour of boxing.

Flynn says one puzzling aspectabout boxing is the rule that forbids punching below the belt, while there are none which protect the head. He laughs:"Women may disagree, but surely what a man has in his head is more important than what he may have below the belt.

"This campaign is something that won't go away. I will go on asking parents, 'For God's sake, why do you let your kids do this? Isn't there a better expression for their athletic talents?' "

I put it to him that more people die or are harmed in a day by tobacco than in a lifetime by boxing. Surprisingly he agreed, pointing out than among his numerous campaigns is anti-smoking.

Indeed, he admits his views may seem paradoxical. He says, "I've liked every boxer I've ever met, some are the nicest people on earth. I just wish they wouldn't do it. I'm not saying to boxers like Joe Calzaghe, who are making money from the sport, that it should come to an end. I just wish it would die of shame."

He agrees that legislation in the present climate is unlikely. "Sadly, if it has to come, it will come in the wake of a boxing tragedy, and I really don't want that to happen. As we've seen only too recently, the public conscience is moved by tragedy. None of us want it, but another ring death would really bring it home. Boxing has a memorable past but it has no future."

* "Johnny Owen", by Jeff Murphy (Mainstream, £15.99)

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