My dad used to box when he was younger and still bears the scars — a cauliflower ear and a perforated eardrum. He tried to teach me the noble art when I was younger, him on his knees showing me how to guard my chin with my fists and my body with my elbows.
He wanted to make sure I could look after myself when the rough and tumble got out of hand. I quickly discovered though that it was an even better idea not to put myself in that position in the first place and I managed to get through school without ever being the subject of the chant: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
I’ve continued to practice that pacifist philosophy throughout my life, at least as far as keeping my own skin intact is concerned.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the skill and bravery of boxing. It is brutal and appeals to the baser instincts of the crowd, but it can indeed be noble and heroic, as immortalised in literature.
Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser is a novel that tells the story of Tom Molineaux, the black American bare-knuckle fighter who made his career in England in the early 1800s, and the prologue is both stark and moving.
Then there is Poe Must Die by Marc Olden. Despite its lurid title, this is a rather fine Gothic novel and the chief heroic protagonist is Pierce James Figg, another ageing bare-knuckle fighter whose skills play a crucial role in the denouement.
And how can I forget Rocky Balboa?
The boxers of fiction tend to be huge, battle-scarred boulders of men, but also men of quiet dignity and with an almost elemental, force-of-nature inner strength, something we have seen at times in the modern boxer.
Muhammad Ali was truly the Greatest in that regard and I will always remember watching the Thriller in Manilla on a pub’s black and white tv set. Ali exhausted, but finding reserves of energy to keep climbing from his stool and the sheer guts of Joe Frazier wanting to box on, though effectively blinded. It was an epic contest, probably the epitome of the sport.
It’s all a far cry from boxing today which is more about hype and mismatched bouts and money than heart and muscle. And the introduction of pay-per-view. That was when I stopped watching. Why pay £15 or whatever when the contest lasts no more than a round or two?
Which is why I can’t understand the furore about the Hayes/Harrison fight at the weekend. The criticism that it was a farce; that Audley Harrison threw just one punch; and that the tv and live audience had somehow been cheated.
Harrison wasn’t over the hill because he hadn’t climbed it in the first place. His career ended after he won the Olympic super-heavyweight title ten years ago, but that didn’t stop the promoters selling him as a potential professional world champion and people believed it. He really didn’t stand a chance on Saturday and it seems everyone knew this except the boxing cognoscenti.
Boxing has become show business without being able to put on a show. Perhaps it needs a return to the bare-knuckle days when the hat was passed among the crowd at the end of the fight and the size of the purse was decided by the ‘entertainment’ provided.