My old man has a lot to answer for when it comes to my boxing obsession, and I’m not even sure obsession is the right word. Addiction is closer. Sometimes I hate myself. It’s a quiet evening, the kids are in bed, there’s important literature or thought-provoking cinema I could be engaging with, massive world events that deserve my attention, but invariably I’ll flick through the sports channels and come across one of those cheerfully nostalgic (to me, anyway) retrospectives. Instantly my interest ignites.
“Ooh!” I think. “Naseem Hamed v Wilfredo Vasquez from 1998, I must watch that again!”
If it hadn’t been for my Dad’s fistic lineage and the stories he used to fill my head with, the anecdotes of his own ring days and those of my other relatives, I would perhaps have developed more refined interests. I could have nurtured a tender passion for experimental mime or obscure sculpture. I could have spent my life in museums, opining about jazz-guitar solos or puppetry. Instead I have devoted a large chunk of my time on this earth to watching blokes punch each other in the face.
Of course that description does not come close to doing the whole thing justice. It’s not as ignoble a calling as it appears and I’ve always felt that somewhere between the rending of flesh and bruising of bone, among all the dead brain cells and rubber-lipped victory speeches there exist flashes of artistry, deeply profound yet delicate and often overlooked. How can you watch George Foreman skittering around Ali in Zaire in 1974, doubled over like a miner on his way to the floor, equilibrium deserting him while The Greatest stood poised, right hand cocked, not thrown, as if frantic swinging would ruin the aesthetic of the moment, with cameras popping and the crowd incandescent, without realising that as a scene, in its naked reality, it is more vivid and beautiful than any ballet?
How can you bear witness to the stories of boys who lost everything chasing a goal, trading health and faculties for a cause, without understanding how they are as heroic and tragic as a Greek myth or Wagnerian opera?
It may not be a sport discussed at polite dinners or the garden parties of the chattering classes, but the thinkers, poets and painters of the past would have understand its primal allure. Struggle purifies the soul. Battle defines it.
In case you’re wondering what brought on this case of keyboard diarrhoea, well, I’m coming to that. I’ve just realised that 33 years ago yesterday, on Tuesday 7th December 1982, my Dad took me to my first ever live boxing show. I had just turned ten years old.
Looking back, the whole evening seems to belong to a totally different era, like Steptoe-and-Son or Galliano sweaters, which I suppose it really does. For a start I had school the next day, to which Dad’s attitude was nonchalant. “It’s fine, you can have the day off.” He said. Can you get away with that sort of thing anymore? For a second the show took place at the Royal Albert Hall, which no longer hosts boxing. Its impressive domed hallway and architraves gave the whole thing a sense of history and grandeur. We walked there from the tube and as it loomed up before me it was as if we were going to the palace.
“So this is boxing.” I thought, chest pounding.
My memories of the night itself are scatty. We had decent seats that a work acquaintance of Dad’s had given to him. Not ringside, but perhaps only ten or fifteen rows back. I recall lots of men in the audience wearing hats, which must have been a period fashion, as, I guess, was their casual racism. Just after we arrived, East London based Nigerian, Funso Banjo, came out for a heavyweight fight. The man sitting in front of us, who had cropped hair, shoulders like boulders and a neck that met his head in three rolls of fat, turned to his mate in the next seat and said,
“He’s a fucking’s chief’s son this one. Looks like a right savage to me! Might as well stick a bone through his nose and have done with it.”
The pair of them rolled up laughing. Throughout the bout they shouted comments about cannibalism and strangely, former president of Uganda, Idi Amin. No-one seemed to mind. Perhaps that’s a measure of 21st century social progress.
Other than Banjo, who won on points, the only other undercard fight remaining in my brain featured middleweight Mark Kaylor, who impressed me by coming into the ring in West Ham coloured shorts (this was the era of Bonds, Brooking and Devonshire and my heart was claret and blue, too) then KOing his opponent in the second round.
“He looked good, that boy.” Dad said to me. “Good potential. He’ll do something, I expect.” I made a mental note of the name.
The top of the card brought genuine excitement. Britain had been waiting the whole of the 20th century for a world heavyweight champion, since Bob Fitzsimmons had relinquished the crown to James J Jeffries in 1899. The hopes of our deprived, bedraggled nation rested on the broad back of South Londoner Frank Bruno, who I had already watched dispatching hapless plodders with ease on TV. Memory did not preserve the name of his opponent, but the internet tells me it was Gilberto Acuna, from Costa Rica. It hardly matters.
Bruno clambered up between the ropes and peeled off his crimson robe. He glistened under the lights. I didn’t think people looked like that in real life. He was huge. And he was absolute physical perfection.
“He must be a good trainer” Dad remarked. I concurred without speaking, not truly understanding the dedication that such physical condition suggested. As far as I knew he achieved all that with the effortlessness of a God. To me it was like seeing a comic super-hero in the flesh.
The bigoted wags in front of us whistled through their teeth.
“Looks like someone carved him out of chocolate” one said.
Dad shifted forwards on his seat. As the bell rang there was a lowering of the volume. Conversations stopped then murmurs turned to roars of encouragement, creating a palpable sense of anticipation. This was what everyone had come for. I was swept along and something happened to me, surged inside me. I felt stronger somehow, energised, as if Bruno’s testosterone was contagious.
There were a few jabs and a bit of circling, then a right hand – a wrecking ball right hand. Acuna got up but wobbled like a trifle. The ref stopped it. It had lasted less than a minute. A few scattered boos rang out.
I had a sense of deflation, of wanting more, but at the same time of revelation. On TV you don’t realise how hard these men hit. In the flesh you heard the shots and the feet on boards, you felt the vitality of their movements, you understood. I spoke about it for weeks afterwards.
“Bruno punches really hard doesn’t he Dad?” I remember asking, as we walked back to the tube.
“He does, but the question is what happens when someone hits him back. Nobody knows that yet.”
The words hung in the air of the chill London night. I turned them over, pondered them. Could it be possible that someone who looked as magnificent as Bruno could lose? How could that be?
Inside my ten-year-old mind, a flame had lit.
It still burns now.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian and is still available from all usual outlets.