Michael Norgrove was unbeaten, winning his latest fight, not struggling with weight and had taken all required medicals, including an MRI scan, but still he died on Saturday morning after collapsing in a professional boxing contest on 28 March.
Norgrove, who was 31, is the fourth boxer to die in 27 years and the 21st fighter in that same period to require emergency surgery after either a professional fight or an amateur contest in Britain. In the same period two boxers, one of whom did not hold a professional boxing licence, have also been operated on after suffering injuries during sparring sessions.
I prefer to be inclusive with my figures and not an apologist looking for statistics to justify a sport. I don’t need to know that mountain climbing is more dangerous; I don’t write about mountain climbing.
The end of Norgrove’s six-round contest with Tom Bowen was disturbing to watch and both Bowen and Jeff Hinds, the referee, have received justifiable praise for the way they acted.
Norgrove had dropped Bowen, who had won just three of his eight fights, in the opening round and was cruising to his sixth win. However, at the start of the fifth round Norgrove started to move about the ring in an odd way, jerking slightly and looking like he was about to lose his balance. Bowen stood off, never threw a punch and after just 29 seconds Hinds stopped the contest, took Norgrove into his arms and lowered him to the canvas.
The ring at the Ring, a venue in south London previously used for white-collar boxing promotions, is very low to the ground, allowing immediate access. Hinds was instantly joined by the British Boxing Board of Control’s doctor and the emergency paramedics, a legal requirement at all professional boxing events, entered the ring seconds later to begin their awful duty. The rest of the boxing was cancelled.
Norgrove was operated on late on the 28th and had a tricky weekend in the intensive care unit, but was doing well enough last Monday to have some of his sedation reduced. I have been in waiting areas at ICUs about a dozen times in the last 25 years with mums, girlfriends, managers, trainers and promoters; it is a grim and relentless scene. Every single word by the attending neurosurgeon is digested in the desperate hope there is something positive hidden beneath the restraint. It’s horrible.
Last Monday, as reports from Norgrove’s bedside sounded promising, I had Spencer Oliver and Kieran Farrell on my weekly BoxNation show. Oliver collapsed during a European title fight at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998, survived massive surgery to make a stunning recovery. Farrell was rushed to hospital last December after losing an English title fight and was narrowly spared surgery when his blood clot started to disperse.
Oliver is on the phone to Farrell every day, talking the younger man through his new life and listening for signs of the darkness that gripped him during his own recovery. Farrell will never fight again, which is clearly causing him some problems, and has plans to develop his own boxing gym and stay in the business, which is what many of the injured have done. Oliver has trained professional fighters and continues to work with white-collar warriors to supplement the income he gets as an occasional pundit on Sky. “It’s not been easy and it never will be,” he told Farrell. He’s not joking.
Norgrove was not, unlike 17 boxers to have suffered serious head injuries in British rings in the last 27 years, in a fight where making championship weight was a factor. He was also winning at the time it ended and the final fight of his career has been recorded as a “No Contest” in the record books. He had also undergone and recently breezed an MRI scan, which all active professional boxers in Britain are required to take each year. Last week as he tried to recover there were suggestions Norgrove’s final sparring sessions had been particularly hard, but that was not the case and the trio of fighters that helped him prepare for his last fight did nothing wrong.
In nearly 30 years I have never been as confused by a boxer’s death or injury as I am by Norgrove’s. I have a notepad from 1995 splattered in the blood of wee Jimmy Murray, the last boxer to die in a British ring, and I also have a memory of Michael Watson’s boots at the end of a hospital bed as he waited for attention one sickening night in 1991. They are vivid, disturbing memories from a life at the fights and both were in grim struggles that I’m not afraid to say were great championship fights to watch. Norgrove did nothing wrong, the sport did nothing wrong and there is nothing that could have been done to prevent this death. There is no hidden story attached to this tragedy.
Kieran Farrell testimonial night 12 April, Renaissance Hotel, Manchester. Ticket info: @viciousfarrell