Boxing into trouble

Recently a boxer called Derek Chisora took his chance in a match against a world champion called Vitaly Klitschko.  In the ring, he apparently performed with great credit, losing on points after a brave challenge.  Outside the ring he caused controversy by, slapping Klitschko during the weigh-in, spitting at Vitaly’s brother Wladimir in the ring, then having an impromptu brawl in the press conference with another British fighter, Davy Haye.  This earned him threats of legal action, indefinite bans and steep fines from one of the boxing authorities, and much opprobrium  from the boxing fraternity.

In fact, I listened to a programme on the radio this evening about this very issue, at which there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Chisora had sullied this honourable, nay, noble sport by his actions.

The hypocrisy borders on the ludicrous: a professional sport which consists of men hitting each other about the head in a regulated and licensed way is shocked by a punch-up at a press conference?  Time to take a reality check here, guys!  Forget for a moment that this is a hyped-up “sport” with at least five rival governing bodies and which behaves like a combination of Jerry Springer and a soap opera, and instead focus on the purpose of the event.

Let’s start with a distinction though: amateur boxing is different to professional.  Out of curiosity I booked an evening of Olympic amateur boxing for the summer, which will be the first time I have attended live boxing.  Amateur boxing matches consist of three rounds between two people wearing head protection and gloves with white circles.  The objective is not to knock the opponent into next week: the boxers are awarded points for contact with the head or body of their opponent, with the points being recorded in real time and open for scrutiny.  The winner is clearly evident and in the event that things get rough, the referee breaks up the action. So far as I know, no amateur contest conducted by these rules has ever resulted in brain damage or serious injury.


The professional ring is a totally different beast.  Here’s how it started – shamefully and without any honour, nor yet any result.  You might say the proliferation of control boards, governing bodies, with the farcical situation that you can have no fewer than four world champions in any one weight division. Fighters win titles, get their belts stripped for choosing to or not to fight the official challenger from one body rather than another, and very rarely do you get an undisputed champion.

Rich promoters create a sham contest to raise pay-per-view TV takings is outrageous enough, certainly not how a truly professional sport should be run, and the apparent concern for safety is largely for show.

The rules might have moved on since the early days days, but there are still many myths from which the observer should be disabused before being able to put this into perspective. Chief among them is not to listen to those who tell you boxing is the sport of gentlemen.  Don’t believe for one moment the codswallop they tell you about the “art” of boxing – this is not even a sport in the true sense of the word.   A distinction between “boxing” and “fighting”? Not in my book.  It exists solely for two men to try to knock each other out – if they can, they will.

Stopping the fight (“technical knockout” or TKO) is the next best option any contestant will aim for, but enduring the full 12 or 15 rounds in a punishing war of attrition, decided by points, is what boxers will avoid if at all possible – and the “points decision” often bears no basis to the reality of what you’ve seen.

In short, this is showbiz, not sport.  After all, the points are not determined by any scientific method like punches landed, but the arcane and subjective view of often biased officials at ringside, which frequently bear little relation to the reality of the fight they have witnessed.   So many occasions the neutrality of referees has been called into question and you wonder if they saw the same fight you saw.

It’s often said that a British fighter can’t win in the US because of biased referees, a fate suffered by Amir Khan recently – though in his case the blatant interference in the referee cards did at least mean he won the right to a rematch.  Let’s face facts here – this is not only not a sport, it’s corrupt too.

Whatever improvements have been made to the welfare and health of boxers in recent years, the fact is that some have died as a result of the beating they have taken in a fight, some (Michael Watson, Gerald McLellan and doubtless many others) have suffered blood clots, have nearly died but have suffered permanent brain damage.

And many more have suffered permanent damage from the results of a career of taking punches.  No matter how brave the contestants, brain damage is no respecter of courage or durability, and the effect of repeated blows to the head can and does affect every boxer to a greater or lesser degree.

Ah, I hear you say, but they do know the risks and choose to do it.  Sure, they took the risk, but we would not allow animals to suffer in this way – why humans?   Audiences and TV channels pay for the privilege, boxing generates cash – that’s why.  They hate dull contests, they bay for blood and usually get it.  Ban boxing and it would go underground, they say, back to its origins in bare knuckle contests as in the Cribb-Molineaux bloodbath from 1810?  That argument does not make boxing right, it just glamourises – or worse still, normalises – the brutality.

But coming back to the Chisora brawl, I seem to recall that it’s not just press conferences suffering unseemly and unpleasant impromptu punch-ups (assuming this was impromptu and not staged, which, given the nature of the promoters would not surprise anyone in the slightest), I seem to recall Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield‘s ear in the ring.  There may well have been many other instances.  TV loved it, but don’t let anyone convince you that this is sport.  If anything lowers the dignity of the human spirit, boxing is it.

And if you’re in any doubt, see the sad state many ex-boxers get into.  The great Muhammed Ali suffers from Parkinson’s disease, brought on, so say his medics, from being repeatedly punched about the head. It’s hypothetical whether he would still have got Parkinson’s disease had he not been a boxer, but there is a massively high incidence of neurological illnesses in boxers that is entirely preventable.

So here’s the thing:  boxing is popular for one reason – it harks back to the murder and mayhem of contests going back to the Roman amphitheatre and beyond.  If it’s not Lions v Christians, it has to be a contest with the semblance of order by virtue of the Queensbury rules, to convince us that this is regulated and safe.  Baying for blood is a primeval human instinct, but the very antithesis of a true sporting spectacle, yet despite the protestations of nobility that is what spectators truly want.

People love the performance and the head-to-head hype and rivalry, knowing in the process that it degrades humanity.  There’s a guilt factor at work here, something we should have long since moved on from, but feel compelled to retain.  I’d say that if you want excitement, there are plenty of other options without seeing men (and now women) slug it out.

PS. This story becomes more farcical by the moment.  Yes, Haye will fight Chisora in the UK under licences issued by the Luxembourg Boxing Federation, or whatever they call it. Lots of threats of legal action, lots more publicity, total farce!!

PPS. To see a sober analysis of the brutality of boxing, see Scorcese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull.

PPS. This article by Justin Cartwright from the London Evening Standard represents a view that warrants repetition in full.  I certainly don’t agree with it but it goes some way to explaining the instincts that draw people to boxing:

Really, who would condone a sport that aims to beat the brains out of the opponent? Yet boxing has a deep-seated and primordial attraction — perhaps for that very reason. The fact that so many boxers suffer brain damage, and quite a few die young, doesn’t seem to disturb the fans unduly; they want to see their man’s opponent lying unconscious on the canvas.

Recently rugby has come under scrutiny as a number of top players have had to stop playing in the hope that the concussions they have suffered will not cause lasting damage. In rugby, maiming your opponent is not the main purpose. That’s the difference, which people in boxing tend to ignore. They say that boxing is much better organised that it was, with doctors on hand, oxygen and much more, but still a hit to the head is a terrible danger. I have never forgotten the sickening thud when Frank Bruno hit and knocked out a South African boxer at Wembley.

Years ago, when I was about 15, I boxed in the final of the novices competition of the Western Province of South Africa and spent the night in hospital with concussion as a result. I won only because the other boy fouled me three times. I wonder how many parents these days would agree to the prospect of their young boys damaging each other in this way. Then, the whole thing was taken very lightly; I am not even sure my parents were told of my concussion. Every time I have a headache I wonder if that fight is the cause.

The long-awaited fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao is tomorrow. Let us try to think of this as sporting contest rather than a bloody and potentially lethal battle. Mayweather and Pacquiao are relatively small men, but men with heart. Nobody without the sheer determination never to quit, without the bravery to fight to the end, time after time, makes it in boxing.

Not only that, but these are two of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen. And that is what is treasured by boxing fans. But then they don’t have to go into the ring.

What drives Mayweather and Pacquiao and others on, is the possibility of making large amounts of money. It would be easy to say that most boxers hope to make money, and that is true, but the more relevant truth is very few end up with anything at all, and many are forgotten as they sink painfully from the memory and into the twilight.

It is acceptable to many because boxers come, by and large, from the bottom of society, where dreams are short-lived and injury is permanent. To be brought up in a slum in Mexico or to be born in a ghetto is to have a wholly different perspective. Boxing is often related to poverty and deprivation, and in this society it is accepted, because there are no other options. But the dream of success in boxing is a false dream.

The men who have succeeded have devoted followers who see them as heroes, as role models. They are the proxies for the couch potatoes, the losers, the deprived. Both Pacquiao and Mayweather have earned huge amounts of money in the brutal climb to wealth and fame. Each is estimated to be worth $450 million. But it’s not a game for the faint-hearted; in reality very few boxers achieve any sort of success, let alone worldwide adulation and unimaginable wealth.

To these people, the broken noses, the inflamed brains, the closed and blackened eyes, the low blows, the deep cuts above the eyes and the floods of blood are the price they pay. These injuries are seen by many as all part of the game, but to recognise the truth, look at the fates of Muhammad Ali and our own Frank Bruno, stumbling about, half understanding what is going on around them, and all of this for boxing, for us to live vicariously.

Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are outstanding boxers. But both are a little old to be taking on this challenge, at 38 and 36 years old respectively. Some think there is likely to be a lot of sparring — but it is not in their make-up.

They both want to win what has been called the Fight of the Century. They are not doing it for money, although Mayweather’s father fears his son is going to end up bankrupt and Pacquiao has paid for 900 of his supporters to fly from the Philippines to Las Vegas at a cost of $4 million — so we are told. But nothing can be believed in boxing: Pacquiao’s trainer says that Mayweather may not show up for the fight.

He is trying to stir things up. He will turn up: they are both doing it for the glory of being recognised as the finest boxer of the age. And they are undeniably great boxers. Mayweather has never lost a fight; his record is 47 won, 0 lost. He is 5ft 8in and 147lb. Mayweather is a five-weight-division champion.

In his eagerness to prove his versatility, Pacquiao moved up a few divisions some years ago and lost a couple of times. Nonetheless he is an eight-division world champion. He has produced 38 KOs in 57 fights. He is 5ft 6in and weighs 147lb. These are small men with a devastating punch. It promises to be an explosive encounter.

I will be watching, while thinking all the while what a barbaric and brutal game this is. I reproach myself for being dragged in, but I can’t resist.

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