Bloodlust spilt at the ringside: The notion of boxing matches in which nobody could ever get killed is contradictory

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The Independent Online
IN THE ant world, it is the old ladies who go to war - or so says Miriam Rothschild, in her marvellous work on the society of the ant. This seems to me a first-

rate idea: much less waste of life and potential than the slaughter of young males. Old ladies are expendable, by and large, and they can be extremely spiteful; much more so than old men, who tend to be a dozy, self-pitying lot.

Old ladies would make doughty warriors.

It would never work for the human species, however. I do not believe that the bellicosity and love of violence displayed by young men is culturally indoctrinated. I think it stems from deep in their biological make-up, programmed to be at its most extreme when they are young and strong. It is as profound and unshakeable as the female's biological inclination to reproduce and nurture the infants of these same strutting and pugnacious young males, whose aggression is usually moderated when their urge to transmit their genes has been satisfied. A gross oversimplification, I know; but if we are to understand, and not just pontificate, it helps to trace the compulsions underlying human behaviour.

This is why the death of Bradley Stone, the young boxer who was knocked out a week ago in the British super bantamweight title fight against Richie Wenton, is sad but not surprising. Young men are programmed to be belligerent and boxing matches present a stylised version of that belligerence, civilised by being paired with evenly matched opponents according to a set of mutually accepted rules.

The notion of boxing matches in which nobody could ever get killed is as contradictory as that of a war without any casualties. Boxing is all about inflicting damage and pain, preferably to the point where one fighter is knocked out by his opponent, felled by a clean blow. The most cathartic boxing matches are those that end with one man prone at the feet of the other in the classic posture of the loser.

My colleague Ken Jones quoted last week the laconic and dignified response of Sugar Ray Robinson, who also killed an opponent in the ring. When asked by the coroner if he had intended to hurt the deceased, Robinson replied, 'That, sir, is what I'm paid to do.'

And who does the paying? We do - the spectators - those people who turn on the television or crowd into the arena to watch two superlatively fit and strong young males hurt one another a great deal, in return for a great deal of money. Until no one pays to see boxing matches any more, men will risk their lives by entering that brilliantly lit square fenced off by a few metres of rope. If going to boxing matches were made illegal, young men would still fight and spectators would still watch, but they would do it clandestinely and - judging by the example of dog-fighting - the result would be much uglier.

We don't pay to watch boxers play pat-a-cake; we don't pay to see them pretend (which is presumably why many people deride wrestling, where much of the pain is simulated). We want to see the split nose, the purple eyes, the bloodied mouth; we like it when the poor young ox sways his head in puzzlement, shaking blood and sweat out of his eyes. Bloodlust rises in our throats and we yell encouragement at one, insults at the other. Boxing, like Hamlet, is a purging of the emotions by pity and terror - vicarious pity and terror, of course.

Boxing dates back certainly to the time of the Greeks. (Did the ancient Chinese box? Or the ancient Egyptians? Perhaps someone can tell me.) The Olympic rules for boxing were drawn up in the seventh century BC. There were no rounds as we know them today; the contest went on until one man was knocked out or conceded defeat. Yet there are only two recorded fatal 'accidents' in classic boxing.

In 496 BC one fighter killed another by committing a 'foul'. The other death occurred in about 400 when, two opponents having boxed until nightfall without a result, it was agreed that each should be allowed one undefended blow. The second man drove his outstretched fingers straight at his opponent's solar plexus, penetrating his abdomen and rupturing his intestines. The injured man died, but was awarded the crown posthumously: an extraordinary outcome.

The fascination of boxing as a spectacle lies in the fact that it is miniaturised war, as Arnold's great poem Sohrab and Rustum makes clear. When the armies of the Persians and the Tartars had fought to a standstill, the problem of deciding whose was the victory was resolved by having each army put up a single champion. These two would engage in hand-to-hand combat until one killed the other. It eventually transpires that the father has unwittingly killed his son - a powerful indictment of war; but that is not my point.

Boxing is a microcosm of war, it purges (perhaps) fairly harmlessly (we hope) our need for savage violence: and if there is no risk to the combatants it cannot fulfil that function. Since we cannot render all human nature peace-loving, young men like Bradley Stone will continue to suffer as victims of our savage nature - even though they were only intended to be symbolic, cathartic, vicarious victims.