Introducing ... a sideshow to rival the main event

Judgement night: Before the real fireworks in the ring, the grand entrance masters are hoping to raise the tingle factor; Andrew Baker turns the spotlight on boxing's special effects department
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The Independent Online
There was a time - a very long time, in fact - when boxers made their way to the ring on foot. But that all changed one night in Millstreet in Ireland in March last year, when, to the strains of "Mars" from Holst's The Planets, Chris Eubank was lowered into the arena astride an enormous motorbike. Blinding lights flashed, fireworks erupted, and as the boxer dismounted his hog and strode posily towards the ring, the inevitable thump of Tina Turner's "Simply The Best" shook the speakers. The era of the "ringwalk" had arrived.

Since then, the method of conveyance has varied. Eubank has eschewed his Harley in favour of a rocket-powered crane lift, Nigel Benn floats down a laser-generated corridor. Most notably of all, Naseem Hamed was carted into his last contest in suitably princely fashion seated upon a palanquin, a kind of giant litter, supported by six Nubian-slave lookalikes, and preceded by flower-strewing maidens. What they will get up to at this weekend's hype-fuelled "Judgement Night" is anybody's guess.

Have British boxers become so stamina-conscious that they wish to conserve their energy and spare their legs on the short trip from dressing-room to ropes? Of course not. The fight game has been Skyed, and the ringwalk comes with the territory.

Mike Allen was in charge that night in Millstreet, and on many subsequent spectacular occasions. He explained that the phenomenon was a natural extension of Eubank's self- dramatising approach. "With Eubank it was a question of just improving on his existing persona," Allen said. "Because his ringwalks were already quite tingly, if you know what I mean."

But raising the tingle factor was a difficult and hazardous business. Allen and his crew checked out the hall and the facilities, and consulted with their fireworks experts. But there would be no rehearsal with the boxer - there never is - so the pyrotechnics people had to make things happen around Eubank, and just hope that the boxer stood still in the right places.

He didn't. "Well, he had a lot on his mind," Allen generously concedes. "He stopped in the wrong spot - the fireworks would have gone off up his back. So we saved them up. There are often things that we have held back on if they looked dangerous."

Perhaps significantly, while Eubank was escaping pyrotechnic perils, his opponent sat in the ring, cowled like a monk, listening to the theme music from Rocky. Eubank may have made the better entrance, but Collins had his title when the boxers made their exits.

Allen denies that the ringwalk has a deleterious effect on a fighter's concentration. "Most boxers are nervous before their fights," he said, "and this counts as a distraction for them, or a way of getting even more pumped up if they have to. Nigel Benn really enjoys his laser tunnel effect, and the crowds really identify with it. And I think what we've done has helped to build Naz's image as well. But if on the day a boxer says 'Bollocks, no, I'm not doing that,' then I'd just have to say, 'Fine, no problem'."

Such an unlikely outburst of reticence would at least save the producers from fretting about motorbike seizure, crane paralysis or woodworm in the palanquin. Hamed certainly seemed serenely confident in the strength of his unlikely transport (one previous careful owner: the actor Keanu Reeves, a palanquin passenger in the film Little Buddha).

Hamed's trainer, Brendan Ingle, insists that being borne to the ring on a litter had nothing to do with his boy's nasty shock in Newcastle, when he was knocked down by Daniel Alicea in the first before returning the compliment terminally in the second. "All this razzmatazz is the best thing that has ever happened to the game," Ingle said. "It's absolutely marvellous. It's all about spectacle. To be honest, I think back to John L Sullivan and Jack Johnson, great showmen, and Ali, think of the crowds that he drew. It brings new fans to the sport." But does it distract the fighters? "Not at all. It's part and parcel of the game, and I'm quite sure it does no harm to the fighters at all. Boxing has moved on, and you have to move with the game."

It is curious, though, that this progress - and by no means all in the fight game are convinced of the benefits - has not been imitated across the Atlantic, where egos are no smaller than here, and where television companies do not lack expertise in the special effect department.

Martin Turner, who will be producing the domestic end of next weekend's transatlantic world title extravaganza, has two explanations for this. "The first reason," he said, hot-foot from an entrance-planning meeting with Barry Hearn, "is that the Americans have a stupendous number of championship bouts, and that by comparison we were starved until our middleweights and heavyweights broke through in recent years. So we tend to make more of a fuss of our champions."

The other influence discouraging extravagance, Turner reckoned, was Mike Tyson. "Tyson sets the style. He is at the top of the tree, and his style is basic, black shorts, black boots, no flamboyance. When Tyson is top of the bill, you're not going to do a major walk-on for anyone lower down."

Both of these theories are sensible and plausible, but there is an exception to them. Don King, the promoter who dominates the fight game in the United States, was apparently wowed by the laser act that preceded the Frank Bruno v Oliver McCall title bout at Wembley.

But King, whose birds-nest-in-a-hurricane hairdo instantly disqualifies him as a man of culture and refinement, may be the exception that proves an unlikely rule. In the matter of the ringwalk - if in nothing else - Americans have better taste than the British.

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