Boxing is replete with contradictions. Not so much the sport itself, which is as fundamental and primal a contest as exists in the modern world – according to anthropologists the two most natural forms of competition are running and fighting – but the culture around it. And in some ways this adds to the fight game’s complex allure.
It’s a banal and clichéd statement, but obviously on one level the subculture is full of tough guys. Self-image and identity are formed in relation to others and in most walks of life and compared to most other people boxers are ‘hard’. It really is as simple as that.
Anyone who trains and spars on a regular basis becomes used to trading punches in a way that the average man on the street just does not comprehend. If someone smacked me in the face it would a pretty big deal as it happens so rarely. For a serious fighter this happens many a times a day.
Yet despite their physical resilience, which they can wear like a cloak, boxers are often complex, even fragile men who first came into the sport through insecurity or self-doubt. Is there that much difference between being scared of nothing and scared of everything? I’m not so sure.
What makes a character interesting is often what lies beneath their public façade. As the theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan famously remarked, “a neurosis is a secret you don’t know you’re keeping.” And it is this that makes boxing and the stories around it so endlessly fascinating, far more than the physical combat, the glamour or the money at the top.
Yes, fighters are prepared to kill or die in the ring, but very often they are also compassionate, tender individuals who care deeply about each other. Too often this is a side of the sport that is ignored. Mutual respect sells less tickets or Pay-Per-Views than mindless trash talk.
The fight game can be very individualised and lonely, particularly when it comes to getting in the ring, yet coaches, training partners, gym mates, even opponents form fierce bonds that last for lifetimes. Through all this the reality of boxing somehow manages to be brutal, callous, fake, artful, emotional, redemptive, caring, deeply honest, cruel, spiritual, perilous and rewarding at the same time. Last Saturday night showed all these sides at once.
Major shows took place on both sides of the Atlantic, in which Anthony Joshua did as predicted, setting up a domestic dust-up with the latest panto-villain Dillian Whyte. Danny Connor’s up and down career continued to be just that, with a victory over once hotly tipped Ricky Boylan. George Groves, not so long ago ascending assuredly to the firmament, flounced off and bounced back down to Earth, while to top it all, Floyd Mayweather did what he does best in making sacks of cash by easing past a guy who wasn’t in his league.
Yet while all this was taking place, sucking up the column inches and broadcast airtime, the great and good of Sheffield’s boxing brotherhood gathered in a bookshop in their city centre. The steel city holds as proud a fighting tradition as any in the land. The occasion for this coming-together? The official launch event for ‘Wiped Out?’ – the book I have written in conjunction with former light welterweight talent Jerome Wilson.
For those who are yet to learn of Jerome’s story, I have detailed it in this column before, here and here. With publicity picking up, it was also featured in last week’s Boxing News magazine. ‘Wipeout’ as he was known, was a gifted operator who never got to realise his potential after suffering major brain trauma and a ten day coma from ring injuries last September. Despite his lack of name or fame and his natural self-effacing humility, Jerome is held in such high regard in his home city that boxing legends such as WBO Light-Middleweight champion Paul ‘Silky’ Jones, former British and European champ Ryan Rhodes, Ex British light-welter titlist Curtis Woodhouse, one time British cruiserweight champ Jon ‘Buster’ Keeton, along with top trainer Glyn Rhodes MBE and current fighters like Ross ‘the boss’ Burkinshaw, Navid Mansouri and Sam O’Maison, came to support their fallen comrade and purchase signed copies.
The overall turnout was truly impressive and the level of good-will for Jerome poignant. The store manager remarked it was the best attended and most successful launch event they had held there. Never mind the authorities or the media giants. They have their own concerns. Boxers look after each other.
For Jerome the release of the book, coming shortly after a final operation to repair his skull with a titanium plate, finally gives him the chance to move on and look to the future. Yet throughout the wider boxing world, the response to the launch has been mixed, with some high profile figures and media outlets shying away from offering support – a great shame. For them, serious injury and near death belong to a side of the game they prefer to brush under the carpet. It doesn’t suit their product, or their bottom-line. All they want is hype, hype, hype.
But for anyone who understands, knows and loves the sport, this event really was boxing at its best, exactly a year on from a night of boxing at its worst.