Sport: Fed into the process of growing up, boxing appeared unfailingly heroic; refracted through time, noble images flourished in the mind

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The Independent Online
Sure, it is more of a business than a sport, at times callous and cruel, exploitative, and all too often tragic, but no matter how legitimate the case against boxing, fascination prevails over ambivalence.

Fed into the process of growing up, boxing appeared unfailingly heroic; refracted through time, noble images flourished in the mind. I would learn, it is not a metaphor for life but, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "a unique, closed, self-referential world, in which the individual is in one sense possessed of a will tantamount to God's, in another totally helpless."

Donald McCrae first sensed boxing's mysterious thrill as a boy in Germiston, South Africa, confused by the brutal indignities of apartheid endured by his black friends. Excited by their descriptions of Muhammad Ali, he later undertook a journey that led to the publication Dark Trade (Mainstream pounds 14.99), a vivid study of the one sport that should never be referred to as a game.

Anyone who has ever wondered what goes on in the minds of fighters, what strange instinct draws them back, time and time again, to the vicious realities of the ring, will gain from the confidences McCrae established on his travels.

Two months before indictment for rape, shortly before fighting Donovan "Razor" Ruddock for the second time, his undisputed world heavyweight championship gone, Tyson told McCrae: "That's the only thing that's certain in my life. Fighting Ruddock. Who knows what else is coming? I don't... an' sometimes, you know, I don't even care. Sometimes I get a real bad feeling in my stomach, that it's gonna come crashing down an' I'll be back where I started."

Dark visions of doom. One of the greatest heavyweight champions, Joe Louis, glad-handing pitifully from a wheelchair at Caesars Palace. Sonny Liston, broke and drugged up when found dead in Las Vegas. "Even Ali, look at Ali," Tyson said. "I love Ali but when they introduce him at my fights I look away. Sure, they cheer him, but where's his beauty now, his speed, his talent? It's gone, it's gone."

For some of us McCrae's experiences have a familiar, disturbing ring. The loss of innocence, the onset of cynicism. Only the names are different.

Ring tragedies eat into our conscience. "When something like this happens you wonder whether boxing is worth the candle," Eddie Thomas said when Johnny Owen's body was returned to Merthyr Tydfil. Bradley Stone, James Murray; the terrible shadow that fell across Gerald McClellan's life as the result of a ferocious contest against Nigel Benn. Poor Michael Watson.

McCrae got close to Watson, listened while he prepared for the second of two tussles against Chris Eubank, noted his earnest expressions of faith in God - and then saw it happen. More probably the result of cumulative punishment rather than the heavy blow an almost beaten Eubank landed at the end of the 11th round, Watson slipped into a coma from which he will never fully recover.

As Hugh McIlvanney states in McIlvanney on Boxing (Mainstream pounds 15.99), an update of two previous collections, "Of course, sad stories are never hard to find in boxing. All too often the game's cruelties seem too much to be balanced by its exhilarations... I shall spare myself and everyone else another confession about a lifelong enthusiasm increasingly assailed by misgivings."

That McIlvanney, the most celebrated of British sportswriters, admits to shivers of unease about an activity embedded deep in his psyche is certainly far more important than objections based only on the principle that boxing has no place in a civilised society.

Over the the last 25 years not much in boxing has escaped McIlvanney's attention, and nobody in that time has matched the high quality of his analytical prose or been more acutely aware of the sport's implications.

A big advantage, one I shared with McIlvanney, was to be around at the time of figures far more notable than nearly all those McCrae interrogated. What, one wonders would McCrae have made of Ali, Joe Frazier, a young George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran? And on this side of the pond, Ken Buchanan, Howard Winstone, John Conteh, Chris and Kevin Finnegan, Barry McGuigan and others?

The publication of Frazier's autobiography (Smokin' Joe; Robson Books, pounds 16.95) revealed him to be bitterly at odds with Ali, a man unable to forgive the taunts he suffered throughout their epic saga. Attempts have since been made to bring about a reconciliation.

As usual, the sport is well served by The British Boxing Board of Control Yearbook, edited and compiled by Barry J Hugman (Queen Anne Press; pounds 14.99), and the A-Z of World Boxing by Bert Blewett (Robson Books, pounds 22.95) is a well produced work of reference. From Zero to Hero (Andre Deutsch, pounds 15.99), written with Norman Giller, brings the curtain down on Frank Bruno's career.

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