Haunting nobility of Jim Murray

Harry Mullan shares the unease about a sport whose casualty rate is rising
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THE invariably middle-class headline-seekers whose knee-jerk reaction was to demand boxing's abolition after Jim Murray's death in his British title bout with Drew Docherty should listen to the dignified response of Murray's father, Kenneth. "The people who call for a ban don't know boxing," he said. "You have got to be mixed up in boxing to know it. Jim knew about the dangers; he was a shrewd man."

His words echoed the attitude of the families of Bradley Stone and Steve Watt, the other two British boxers to die in the ring since 1986. (For what such statistics are worth, Sports Minister Iain Sproat told the Commons last week that other sports had claimed a total of 265 lives between 1986 and 1992.) Stone's family provided him with enthusiastic and vocal support during his career, and are rightly proud of the statue which commemorates him outside the Peacock Gym in East London.

In 1991, after Michael Watson had been injured against Chris Eubank, I was a panellist on a Sky TV phone-in on the subject. One caller, Stuart Watt, identified himself as Steve's brother, and I braced myself for recriminations. Instead, he said: "Boxing gave my brother a sense of purpose. It gave him discipline, and a direction to his life. He got so much from it that, despite what happened to him, I wouldn't want to see other men denied the good things he got from the sport."

Boxers know, understand and accept the risks they take; that is a well- worn defence, but none the less valid. However, it does nothing to diminish widely felt unease about a sport which, despite the best efforts of its administrators and safety officials, is exacting an ever greater toll on its participants. Including the three fatalities, 11 boxers have required brain surgery in Britain since 1986, and that is not a statistic which anyone who derives his living from boxing, in whatever capacity, can comfortably accept. When Frank Warren, who co-promoted (but did not attend) the Murray fight, said, "I don't believe I could look the Murray family in the eyes and tell them there's nothing wrong with boxing", he was articulating the ambivalent feelings which so many of us in the business now share.

Thirty years ago, when medical knowledge and safety precautions were not at today's levels, ring deaths or serious injuries were rare. Now, they happen with numbing regularity. A young Filipino boxer died on the same day as Murray, and it is only five months since world title challenger Jimmy Garcia lost his life in a Las Vegas ring. Safety standards are constantly reviewed and improved, with lessons being learned from each incident, but the casualty list continues to grow. Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan entered the ring in February with the most advanced and sophisticated medical back-up made available at a British boxing promotion, yet both finished the night in adjoining hospital cubicles. Benn, happily, made a full recovery, but McClellan's life is wrecked.

Maybe the casualty rate is rising because today's boxers are so much fitter and better-conditioned, trained to administer and absorb punishment on a scale beyond their predecessors, able to strengthen and enhance every part of their body with the crucial exception of the brain. A generation ago, fighters made weight by starving or sweating in saunas; their modern counterparts have the benefit of advanced understanding of diet, metabolism and training techniques.

There was a suggestion (refuted by his camp) that Murray had struggled to make the bantamweight limit of 8st 6lb. He had scaled 8st 123/4lb for his previous contest, a routine marking-time fight against featherweight Danny Ruegg, but with that exception had never exceeded 8st 9lb since his professional debut in March 1993. Certainly, he looked pinched and drawn, but that is not necessarily the sign of a weight-drained fighter. Steve Ovett used to look just as gaunt, and he wasn't battling the scales.

The Boxing Board Inquiry will no doubt examine that issue, but it should also look at the circumstances in which Murray fought. The banqueting room at Glasgow's Hospitality Inn was polluted with cigar and cigarette smoke. The room was crowded, with non-dining customers (paying pounds 20 each) allowed in to stand at the back. When the TV lights were switched on, the temperature rose even higher, making conditions ever more difficult for the boxers who struggled for oxygen in a fast-paced and fiercely contested title fight. Docherty, with more top-level experience, lasted the pace but seemed on the verge of exhaustion in the final round.

The heat in the room would also have led the partisan spectators to drink more alcohol, thus creating the volatile atmosphere which resulted in such appalling scenes of disorder at the finish. The television image of Murray on the canvas, his leg twitching in spasm while chairs and bottles crashed around the ringside, does not sit easily with any perception of boxing as the Noble Art.

And yet there is a haunting nobility about Murray's death. In his hometown of Newmains, a community ravaged by recession since the closure of its colliery and steelworks and now poisoned by widespread drug abuse, he was remarkable for several reasons. He had a steady job as a landscape gardener, he was a professional athlete who shunned drugs, and he had a dream of earning enough to improve his life and escape that environment. He tried, by doing what he did best and enjoyed most, and he failed. But there is a defiant and understandable pride in the epitaph his father spoke for him: "Jim Murray did not die with a needle in his arm. He did not die up some back alley. He will always be remembered."