Light cast on a dark passion

Harry Mullan says the Sports Book of the Year will be a standard boxing text
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The Independent Online
Boxing has been largely ill-served by its chroniclers. For every Hugh McIlvanney, AJ Liebling or Thomas Hauser there is a battalion of grey nonentities endlessly recycling their own and others' work, converting clippings files into books in which the sloppy mistakes they invariably make constitute the only original material. Amid such sludge, the genuinely fresh and gifted offerings stand out sharply: books like Geoffrey Beattie's On The Ropes, a brilliantly observed study of the stars, supporting players and extras at Brendan Ingle's Sheffield gym, or Donald McRae's hauntingly titled Dark Trade - Lost In Boxing, which deservedly won this year's William Hill Sports Book Of The Year award.

Dark Trade, like On The Ropes (which was also short-listed for the William Hill award), is more about the characters than their sport. In both books, the author is an outsider, allowed to observe at close and intimate range the workings of an odd, almost alien world. Beattie, a Belfastman who is now an academic in Sheffield, is completely at ease with the assorted rough diamonds and low-lifes he encounters, but for McRae, a gentle and reserved man, breaking into the inner circle of a terrifying baddie like James "Lights Out" Toney, is an extraordinary achievement, made all the more impressive by the fact that he is a white South African.

His book, written over a time-span of five years, charts his growing and uneasy obsession with boxing. To that extent it is, as at least one critic wrote, a fan's book, but that does not diminish its quality. For a start, McRae is no ordinary fan, lurking on the fringes of Las Vegas press conferences in hopes of snatching a "here's me with a champ" snap with his instamatic camera. He approached his targets in the most disarmingly direct way, by walking up to stars like Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Chris Eubank and his tragic rival Michael Watson, Naseem Hamed and (most successfully) James Toney, and simply asking to spend time with them.

All of them, even the unreachable Tyson, agreed. In such circumstances, McRae's diffident manner is a positive asset rather than a handicap, since fighters tend to recoil from the phony "matey" approach but instantly respond to McRae's transparent honesty.

Toney and his mother Sherry, who is almost as intimidating as her son, found an instant rapport with this unlikely foreigner and afforded him unprecedented access, even to the extent of allowing him to stay with Toney throughout the afternoon of a title defence. He shared with him the tension of the dressing-room countdown, and even the adrenalin-pumping walk to the ring. It was, he wrote, "a rare moment, a bizarre privilege to feel the crowd's wild heat and noise, their rising fervour, as we walked down the long corridor until we could see the ropes ahead. Toney had revealed more to me about boxing that night than anyone had done before or since."

I must declare an interest in McRae's book, since, unknowingly, I published chunks of it in Boxing News in the days when I edited that venerable organ. I assumed that McRae was another gifted but struggling freelance, helped get him press credentials and was quite happy to print his work, never imagining that I was in at the birth of what will become one of boxing's standard texts.

He loves the game, but it is a dark passion. Most of us who make our living from boxing will acknowledge what McIlvanney calls "the old ambivalence" about its morality, but however guilty we occasionally feel, we are indeed lost in boxing. But McRae can afford the luxury of a conscience, and it troubles him. He sees the havoc boxing wreaked on Michael Watson and Gerald McClellan: looks past the hardness of men like Tyson and Toney to the fragile and essentially vulnerable men they really are; and fears for what will become of them when the cheers fade.

His previous book, Nothing Personal, was about prostitutes in London. I suspect it took no great change in direction for him to write about boxing, since he would acknowledge that the businesses are closely related. Like boxing, theirs is a dark trade whose practitioners, who are usually drawn from the same social under-class, are too often used and abused during their necessarily short professional lives. Both groups risk their bodies and their minds for cash, and McRae surveys their strange worlds with the same sensitive, observant and compassionate eyes.

Dark Trade - Lost In Boxing, by Donald McRae (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 14.99).