Hype versus hokum

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The Independent Online
UNTIL his death a few years ago I enjoyed the acquaintanceship of a remarkable man who once said in a wistful moment that he would go to the grave inventing stories for sportswriters. His name was Harold Conrad and Humphrey Bogart played him as 'Eddie Lewis' in The Harder They Fall, a film based on Budd Schulberg's novel about corruption in boxing.

Sports columnist, screenwriter, fight promoter and publicist, Conrad, in Schulberg's words, was 'a literary soldier of fortune in a world of guys and dolls, bemused by major wise guys like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis. At the same time, he was drawn to and could conversationally hold his own with literary godfathers like Ernest Hemingway'.

Coming across Conrad in Zaire shortly before Muhammad Ali sensationally knocked out George Foreman to regain the undisputed heavyweight championship in 1974, I enquired as to what recently had occupied his imagination and whether there was anything unusual to report.

It turned out Conrad had been busy promoting the abortive attempt of the stuntman, Evel Knievel, to jump a motorcycle across the Snake River canyon. Not holding himself responsible for the calamity, he said: 'Like everything else I get involved in it was a classy f. . . -up.'

I'm telling you about Conrad because this week's unscheduled contest between the World Boxing Organisation heavyweight champion, Michael Bentt, and the British title-holder, Herbie Hide, would have made him wince.

Bentt, a New Yorker who has made much of his British birth since gaining a foothold in the division by knocking out Tommy Morrison, meets the profile of an average fist fighter fully. The Nigerian-born Hide is a novice. That they are involved in a championship bout of sorts at the Millwall football ground in March tells us something about life among current leviathans.

It is also asking a lot of the paying customers, who ironically may be left with the thought that Bentt and Hide may find it difficult to improve on their first encounter, one that is bound to incur the wrath of the British Boxing Board.

Bentt and Hide went at each other seriously. Although blameless, the promoters, Barry Hearn and Bob Arum, may have felt that this amounted to a satisfactory degree of saleable ferocity. 'They tell me you don't mess with a Millwall fan,' Arum said, alluding to the allegiance Bentt has conveniently taken up.

Boxing entrepreneurs take the position that almost anything goes if it sells tickets. Hyperbole is a way of life for them. Rhetoric is their language. 'Get the Queen to send a message, like 'Good luck Dave',' a famed American promoter, Lou Viscusi, suggested to British fight writers before Dave Charnley challenged Joe Brown for the world lightweight championship in 1959.

Ali, of course, was a promoter's dream, calling the round in which he expected to conclude proceedings and feigning violence at press conferences sufficient to excite even veteran observers of his antics. It was never any more than pre-fight hokum, but it worked.

Ordinarily, fighters are not expected to light up a room. They get paid to damage people, not because they spread sunshine. When it was announced at a press conference in 1974 that Ken Norton would challenge him for the world heavyweight championship, George Foreman growled, 'I don't recite poems, I don't tell jokes. I'm just the best in the world at knocking people down.' Conrad, who had no connection with Foreman, nodded approvingly.

My view of this week's pathetic episode on the terrace of a hotel in Belgravia is shaped by long experience and an understanding that the promoters were unable to prevent Bentt and Hide going at each other in a manner that was injurious to the purpose sought.

The purpose was to drum up interest in a fight that even Conrad in his heyday would have struggled to sell.