Why boxers will smile at cricket's predicament

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The Independent Online

No sooner were newspaper headlines screaming about the alleged complicity of South Africa's cricket captain, Hansie Cronje, in a betting scandal than an old fighter telephoned to argue the comparative purity of his former profession. "There's a lot wrong with boxing," he growled, "but nothing like this, not in my experience anyway".

No wonder that the timing of tonight's annual Boxing Writers' Club dinner in London is thought to be a happy coincidence by members of the flat-nosed society; it will be surprising if there aren't snide references to cricket's historical incorporation in the language of integrity.

After all boxing has had plenty to put up with, not just repeated howls for its abolition by medical authorities and the prissy sermonising of some fellow toilers in this vineyard, but the hackneyed Hollywood theme of wholesale corruption. Charges of rigged ratings brought in a US court this week against the International Boxing Federation president, Robert Lee, are consistent with unavoidable suspicions raised in an era of fragmented, self-serving international administration.

However, to suppose that the fighters themselves cannot be relied on for an honest performance is as faithful as any to the out-worn cliché. In more than 30 years of attendance at ringside only two contests have caused me to think that one of the participants had been influenced by mercenary forces. One, an American middleweight, unquestionably had a Mafia connection.

Gangster influence has long gone but the squalid view many people hold about professional boxing was probably nailed to memory forever by a scene in Budd Schulberg's screenplay of On the Waterfront. Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) is the middleman in the mob's wharf operations. His younger brother, Terry (Marlon Brando), once a promising light- heavyweight, has become anenforcer on the docks.

Recalling the night he was persuaded to throw a fight that would have brought him into contention, Terry explodes in the back of a taxi. "I'd have taken Wilson apart. I was ready. So what happens - he gets the title shot - outdoors in the ball park!- and what do I get - a couple of bucks and a one way ticket to Palookaville."

The spurious notion that all fights are not above board may arise from the fact that the contestants may not be equal in accomplishment. A problem in making matches for up and comers was eloquently put by A J Liebling in the Sweet Science. "In any art the prodigy presents a problem. Given too easy a problem he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged... the trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum."

In September 1978, a few days after watching Muhammad Ali regain the heavyweight championship from Leon Spinks in New Orleans, I arrived in Copenhagen for a football match between England and Denmark. When checking into the England team's hotel (there was no segregation of the press in those days) I fell into conversation with Kevin Keegan who had seen the contest on television. "You have to believe that the first fight [Ali's sensational loss to Spinks in Las Vegas] was fixed," Keegan said.

Patiently, I attempted to point out that this was loose thinking on his part. What point was there in Ali giving up the title when he was guaranteed as much for a defence as a return against Spinks?

Later that day, homing in on the long odds against Spinks, one of the England camp's followers expressed a suspicion that the first fight was fixed for gambling purposes. This revealed total ignorance of Ali's deep commitment to the Muslim cause. And he clearly knew nothing about betting procedures: even if Ali could have been got at, who would have taken a bet large enough to make corruption worthwhile?

The truth was that Ali underestimated Spinks and gave scant attention to his fitness. He got in shape for the return and profited from Spinks's confused state of mind.

Anyway, the fighters and their associates who will gather in London tonight can argue that they know what a shady sport looks like. They found out when Hansie Cronje was pitched out of office.