Irresistibly drawn to the crucible of cruelty

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The long-awaited announcement of his comeback to the ring sounded to many like conclusive proof that Chris Eubank is not as smart as he thinks he is. Smart fighters do not come back, they simply get hurt. But there he was last week, all lisp and frippery, posing in front of his monster truck - an appropriate enough conveyance for his ego - and persuading the multitudes this was all about his deep love of boxing, of "showing off", of the adrenalin rush, of anything but money. No, no, Eubank would not come back for a reason as sordid, as downright common and despicable, as cash, not with 20 Range Rovers in his outsize garage, a roomful of suits and a season ticket on Concorde.

It is not the sole preserve of boxers to retire and then return, though they do it more frequently than most, and with greater risk. Plenty of athletes have found life on civvy street very much less attractive than they presumed. Away from the relentless regime of training and competition, the mind plays tricks with the reality of the body, the whispers of counsellors drown the pain and the temptation to take one last drag becomes overwhelming. Yet there is a particular sadness in this return, for all of us, at least, who secretly admired the courage of the man both in and out of the ring.

Love him or loathe him - and Eubank's bank manager cared not a decimal point either way - Eubank was different. He took boxing on his terms. His absurd posturing and homebaked philosophical ramblings invited ridicule, along with the monocle and the cane, but as one seasoned journalist put it, "he was a great fighter when he had to be", notably in his defeats of Nigel Benn and, more cruelly, of Michael Watson. We like our boxers to be men of action not words. Eubank talked too much. But his real crime was far worse than verbosity. Eubank would not subscribe to the theory of the noble savage, much espoused by those who view boxing from a front row seat. "Nobility can get you killed," he once told a journalist who queried one particularly conservative choice of opponent. And we silently applauded the sentiment, thankful that at last the slave had proved more calculating than his master.

One of the shibboleths trotted out in defence of boxing is that the fighters "know what they're letting themselves in for". I have used the justification myself, though I suspect it to be untrue. Footballers do not go on to the field fearing injury; boxers do not go into the ring fearing death. Logic says they should, but risk balances reward and a boxer must believe the dice will fall in his favour or his corner stool would be empty.

Eubank once described the decisive physical and psychological phase of a fight. "When the heat in the ring reaches a certain temperature, when the pitch in the arena reaches a particular and exact tempo, it is at this vital time the fight can be taken by either fighter. This moment is called the killing time..." Eubank does not need the image of Michael Watson's wheelchair to remind him of what he is letting himself in for, which makes his moth- like return to the flame all the more dispiriting.

It is easier to apply such a phrase as chilling as "the killing time" to the primeval beauty of boxing than the studied ritual of the golf course. But, make no mistake, there will be killing time in the climax to the Ryder Cup. When Nick Faldo was paired with Greg Norman on the final day of the 1996 Masters, the golf had a hypnotic and draining effect no different from boxing in its mental cruelty. Faldo remarked on Norman's changed demeanour that day, on his fidgeting and fussing. Without needing to stare him in the face, Faldo sensed a chance which the scoreboard at the start of the day did not give him. Perhaps only he and Fanny Sunesson, his caddie, knew it. But the slow disintegration of one of the greatest players in the world was not an attractive sight, not least because the humiliation, the killing time, lasted a whole agonising afternoon. Norman must have longed for the soothing finality of a right hook to end his misery.

The final day of the Ryder Cup has stretched nerves beyond bearable tension over the past two decades. Davis Love, faced with the need to beat Costantino Rocca on the last green at the Belfry in 1993, recalled that his only physical urge as he walked down the fairway was to throw up. Love, as it happens, is one of the most relaxed competitors on the United States tour, but team competition, all those hopes and fears funnelled into one golf shot, can warp the senses. Good matchplayers, like good football managers or tennis players, feel an opponent's weakness and then exploit it without mercy, much in the way Faldo did with Norman. It is not something you can teach, but on the ability of the two teams to find the killing time will doubtless rest the fate of the 1997 Ryder Cup.

Eubank will renew his acquaintance with the trade he professed to despise next month in a WBO Inter-Continental light-heavyweight title fight against the unbeaten Mark Prince. A tilt at the world crown will surely follow a victory; rehabilitation will be complete. Though he denies it, Eubank's comeback is prompted by the need to pay his shopping bills. Boxing, as ever, is the cash dispenser. But this is dangerous territory. Eubank, once the controller of his destiny, is chasing rather than spinning fortune's wheel now and bankrupt gamblers will tell you where that road leads. With luck, Eubank's defensive skills and instinct for self-preservation will have stayed sharp during his time away. But the man who once said "I'll fight anyone I can beat; I'm a businessman first and a boxer second" has already had to shuffle his priorities. In the ring, necessity is as dangerous a companion as nobility.

An unpretentious 18-page document was unveiled by the English Sports Council last week. Entitled England, the Sporting Nation - a Strategy, it outlined common sporting aims for the turn of the millenium and urged all sports bodies in the country to work towards them. Targets, for example, included a 50 per cent increase in the numbers of young people receiving at least two hours of secondary school PE a week, a 20 per cent increase in the numbers of over-16s taking part in regular sporting activity, topping the medals table at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and making our cricket teams number one in the world by 2005. At roughly the same time, Craig Reedie, of the British Olympic Association, launched a critical attack on the Sports Council for their delay in announcing final plans for the National Academy, which would be a central agent for ensuring the success of such an ambitious strategy.

The reason for the delay, it seems, is that the concept for the Academy has changed from the original vision of a central institute based on the Australian model to a series of regional centres of excellence loosely linked to a much smaller, more administrative, central organisation. That would probably rule out the BOA's plans for a purpose-built facility at Upper Heyford. Either way, it is a severe comment on years of neglect that, at the close of the 20th century, we are still defining a national strategy for sport, let alone arguing over how it should be implemented.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday