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Puncher’s Chance

Where there’s deprivation, there’s boxing

When I think of him in my childhood, my father is an evening man: impatient, loud, sporadically gentle. His days were spent outside, in this period uncertainly so, at the disposal of mostly unscrupulous subcontractors, corrupt and flagrantly benevolent to a gang of favorites of which he was never a member. The little I knew about what he did was put together piecemeal, in private; it was rarely discussed, aside from the odd overheard complaint about poor treatment, docked pay, being cleaned out by this latest bunch of cowboys. On the rare evenings when he returned late, his hair plastered to his head with sweat, his face was a red light meaning don’t ask.

Nor did many of his colleagues make appearances at home. The only one I can recall now is Peter, site partner from a time spoken of in more glowing terms: a few years in the late 1970s spent working for a man named “Gavin.” This might have been a forename or surname, especially with my father’s Irish pronunciation, an accent I’d come to think of as unreliable, its vowels beyond transcription. Through the tangled cross-connections of the Irish in our patches of north London—Enfield, Edmonton, Tottenham—Peter was married to a friend of my mother’s, or at least a fellow traveller from the school gates. I gathered he was possessed of an extraordinary work rate, partly because he was late on Saturday evenings to pick up his wife and son from our house in between cab fares, his weekend evenings spent on the meter after a six-day concreting job. There were mentions of occasional run-ins with customers, bad luck to them, and something which passed into family myth and is surely exaggerated in my memory: his falling thirty feet to the ground from a scaffolding and walking out of the hospital hours later, affronted by the lost time.

Boxing, like the world of work my father was in, was a trap—of sorts—overseen by corrupt, self-serving men getting rich off the work of—usually—first and second-generation immigrants.

It was into this atmosphere of Saturday evening and its after-dinner sense of in-betweenness and mild rancor that boxing transplanted itself. My first memories of the sport are at the feet of my father, cross-legged, sitting a little too close to the television, on a carpet residually green and coming to the end of a distinguished service, a painting of the Sacred Heart, himself a noted bleeder, catching the corner of my eye. My father’s chair was separate from the rest of the seating plan, a standalone unit, caving slowly in on itself; left unoccupied during the day, it was mostly slept in at night.

This was the beginning of the 1990s, which would prove to be something of a golden, or at least silver, age for British boxers. At the time, only a few big events made it to terrestrial television broadcasting, and we had no recourse to dishes or cables. But these fights burned more brightly than anything else in my recollection of that period, which lasted from about the age of seven until the end of primary school. It was an era of a few tabloid stars, of boxing on back pages and news broadcasts. The fighters we followed had a cartoonish aspect, especially for me at that age, versed as I was in the language of superheroism and myth. But they also had something in them of my father, and of Peter, some sense of their being manual workers, of earning their bread with the sweat of their backs and other such Biblicisms. Boxing, like the world of work my father was in, was a trap—of sorts—overseen by corrupt, self-serving men getting rich off the work of—usually—first and second-generation immigrants. The glory the sport seemed to offer, or at least hint at, was a light at the end of a long tunnel, but this was more likely a train coming the other way. The tantalizing hope that by dedication, luck, and perseverance, its participants might free themselves from the old life, one of sacrifice and denial, abided, suggesting there might be something tangible to show for all those years of deferred gratification. For a lucky few, there would be, at least fleetingly—belts, big pay days, glory nights. But the only people who seemed consistently to thrive operated outside the ring, controlling the purses and taking their generous share.

Not Only in America

My father came to London in the 1960s, with thousands of other migrants from the rural west of Ireland, a drop in a wave of mass migrations from a net exporter always struggling to accommodate its young. By necessity, his own father had worked away from home much of his life; he in turn came to London in his early twenties, dossing down in lodging rooms around Finsbury Park, the ones that didn’t display the infamous “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” signs. These were days of wolfing down meager meals provided with their board, of several young men to a house, of doing casual work, found via word of mouth, on building sites scattered across London, in the holes and tunnels that were the city’s scar tissue.

They were British when they were winning, as it so often goes in sport.

There was a first-past-the-post system of waiting to be picked up or rejected by vans on their way to the building sites: a music-free re-creation of the dance halls they’d left behind, of lining up by the wall to be chosen. My father’s brother was the fight fan and the drinker, talking about Muhammad Ali’s ascent in Kilburn and Cricklewood pubs, playing the big fights on the radio for my father. But for a couple of years around my birth back in County Mayo—a short-lived attempt at repatriation—my father has lived in England more than half his life. Yet it would take a brave analyst to diagnose him as a native.

The fighters we watched when I was a child were mostly black and British-born, their parents part of the same wave of immigration as my father and his colleagues. They were in the process of carrying out a sort of round-robin among themselves, their rivalries real or confected, forced down the public’s throat with a mix of ignominy, pity, and terror. Unlike the trailblazers from their parents’ generation, when black fighters were forbidden from competing for British titles, they had been accepted by whatever amounted to public consensus as Her Majesty’s patriots. This was less benevolence or decency and more a nod to their talent, their ability to compete in the United States without shame or the air of the slaughtered offering. Unlike most of their white compatriots, they could fly the Union Jack in the rarefied air of Vegas or New York, going over as genuine contenders, with the possibility of returning with belts and plaudits. They were British when they were winning, as it so often goes in sport.

Nigel Benn, “The Dark Destroyer,” a scion of destructive force, perhaps the most elemental of the set: he’d been something in the military and specialized in explosive knockouts and glowering stare-downs. Michael Watson, a seemingly softer, more skilled and unprepossessing type, was a perennial underdog despite superior talent, averse to the vulgarities and promotional savvy needed to elevate himself to fame and its accompanying paydays. Frank Bruno, the overly muscular subject of national, mostly unfounded, optimism, his Adonis-like physique too heavy to port around for long enough to subdue the better class of opposition, had a strange tendency less to fall than to erode when under fire. And finally, there was Chris Eubank, a lisping hardnut with the temerity to embrace publicity on his own terms, cultivating a character part Jeeves and Wooster, part Mrs. Malaprop. In truth, his act was closer to a wrestling heel than a boxer, a combination of rope-vaulting, posing, monocles, and Tina Turner, seemingly allergic to the forelock-tugging and apology that British sportsmen traded in for public approval. His promotional tics were all, dimly, from the school of Muhammad Ali, but he had none of The Greatest’s overt politics, his nonconformist cultural expansiveness.

Eubank was born in the UK but spent the first six years of his life in Jamaica; his was a youth spent being expelled from schools and fighting on the streets, not for pay but—he would later claim—altruistic reasons. Out of ideas, or patience, or both, his father sent him in his mid-teens to his mother, by then relocated to the South Bronx, where he fell into boxing as a means of self-discipline, like his brothers had before him. Marshaling astonishing reserves of dedication, and having made his professional bow on the other side of the Pond, Eubank returned to the UK looking for a promoter to make him a star.

He specialized in a willed, utterly overblown performance of Englishness, with talk of “parliamentary procedure,” tweeds, and a stiff, military bearing—a whiff of Kipling’s deportment and fair play hanging over it all. When he began to have the wealth to allow it, Eubank would appear before the press in jodhpurs and tailored country gentleman threads; he even spent a small fortune on a spurious title, “Lordship of the Manor of Brighton.” There was a hovering, mostly unspoken dramatic irony to his display, something like faux naivety, as if he didn’t know how thoroughly the upper class whose fancy dress he wore would shun him, were they to cross paths with this Dulwich-born black middleweight in his imported American truck, another incongruous piece of self-actualization. Of course, hindsight and worldliness cast new light on all of this, but at the time his playacting seemed solely there for hating, his schtick made all the worse by his in-ring brilliance, a steeliness that ran beneath his cultivated air of vocal, polysyllabic contempt for boxing, his claims that he was above all this crudity, this violence, and was using it only to socially further himself. His claims to be above boxing’s vulgarities, however, couldn’t inure him against its darkest elements—a late Hail Mary punch thrown in a 1991 rematch with Michael Watson left Watson with a near-fatal brain injury.

Without any notable Irish “stars” to root for—Barry McGuigan had retired, Steve Collins would only rise to title-winning stardom a little later—my father seemed to view black working-class boxers like Benn and Watson as surrogates. They had taken their early knocks among a separate, but in some ways analogous, berth of London’s steerage class; their communities had also been punchlines, outcasts, and worse. In contrast, Eubank, if anything party to an even tougher upbringing than most, had sought to become a tone-deaf toady, with his provocative bravado, his caricature of the blood-sport stock, his “notions.” It was a deliberate performance, born of an awareness that people will watch to root against as well as for someone, but it hit a nerve, or several; his desire to be accepted by, or imitate, the wrong sort of Brit was in my father’s view a betrayal of something important, not least the sense of self-awareness. Why would he want to be like them?

Sanctioning Bodies

Boxing has traditionally been seen as a “way out” for working-class boys—only in recent times has women’s boxing gained similar momentum. The scale and variety of immigration into America can, in crude terms, be witnessed in the communities who supplied the world-class boxers, the shift from Italians and Irish to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and now, increasingly, Eastern Europeans from the former USSR. To an extent the same is true in the UK, the Jewish boxers of the 1920s and 1930s giving way in turn to sons of the Windrush generation, and latterly, some of the UK’s prominent fighters have had African, Polish, Arab, and Romani backgrounds. The sense of boxing as a way out of jail time, an escape for those whose formal education was interrupted or non-starting, has its basis in fact, in thousands of personal testimonies; lives have been saved by the gym. Yet there’s a darker edge to a sport that draws its resources from such backgrounds. For these tough, indefatigable men, fine-tuned and battle-hardened, have proven all too easy to exploit outside the ring.

These tough, indefatigable men have proven all too easy to exploit outside the ring.

No one embodies this contradiction more powerfully than Mike Tyson, the squat Brooklynite destroyer of men. He came of age in Brownsville, then riven with gang warfare and street violence, of which he was an active participant. An unlikely pigeon-fancier, he’d first fought in anger when a bully hurt one of his birds, an odder origin story in the annals of boxing. On a fast-track from juvenile detention to prison, Tyson’s fate was intercepted by a charismatic, elderly boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, who had coached former champions and saw, in the teenager, an immortal in the making. Eventually adopted after his mother died, Tyson moved to D’Amato’s home in the Catskills when he was fourteen, where he was instilled with a devastatingly effective peekaboo style, an attack based on memorizing combinations through D’Amato’s “system,” ultimately proving himself to be a wrecking machine. Early opponents were as good as beaten before the bell sounded, cowering their way from their corners, relieved that their ritual sacrifice had ended so swiftly. In 1986, he became the youngest ever Heavyweight World Champion, aged twenty.

Tyson had been the high-water mark of his era when it came to returning boxing to its fundamentals. He dealt in none of the flashy ring walks or feel-good singalong anthems, his march to battle all fury and taking it personal; he was sockless, indestructible, impossible to appease—an approach we glimpsed most powerfully in his five-round demolition of the patronized Frank Bruno in 1989. Tyson had, briefly, existed within his own mythology, suggesting the possibility he might be that most tantalizing creation, a man who couldn’t be beaten.

Despite his boasts, often lifted from comic books, of “mortals entering my realm”—and despite his widely parodied, surprisingly high-pitched voice—my father held no ill-will towards Tyson, charged him with none of the arrogance he so loathed in Eubank, perhaps because Tyson’s ability to render opponents unconscious so unerringly, so rapidly, cast his words in a more reasonable light. And then, he lost. In 1990, seemingly at the height of his reign, he was subjected to the sort of humbling my father and I were willing on Eubank, bested by Buster Douglas, a 42/1 longshot in Japan, knocked down and out, largely due to a series of personal crises I was oblivious to at the time, coupled with a lack of dedication and an enthusiastic investigation of Tokyo’s night life. I remember mournfulness in my father’s voice when he saw it happen, on a borrowed tape, weeks later, a sense of transgression watching this king stooped to the mud of the execution floor.

“If entertainment is the opposite of boredom, Iron Mike was a performer of immeasurable power,” Donald McRae, one of the sport’s finest writers, observed in his book Dark Trade. “What must have been done to him to make him that frightening? He grew tired of talking and so left us to put words to his punching.” That sense, of Tyson as the angry star of a silent, brutal movie, feels right to my memory of the time. He was a means of expression for my father’s, and by extension, my own, ambition, our wildest fantasy: that it might be possible for someone to be uniquely equipped to succeed.

Perhaps that isn’t quite all, though. As McRae also wrote, Tyson “lived and fought with the fury of knowing that ‘nothing is forever,’ as if it was hard for him to find any lasting joy in the present.” That nihilistic streak, the shadow of headlong death or devastation which he trailed in his wake, is what gave his destructive force its impact and starkness. It wasn’t rage that powered him but the terror of being wounded again as he was as a boy. He drove his body like the supercars he got into the habit of totaling and at a similar speed into the unflinching surfaces of the doomed fighters’ fates before him; he fought like a demon to overwhelm his fear, but it persisted and grew strong. It would get darker still; two years on from his loss to Douglas, Tyson was jailed on a rape conviction, his unarrestable headlong plunge no longer harming only himself and his well-compensated opponents.

In the end, Tyson had little to show for all this destruction, the ruined health and the sacrifices, the years given up to hermetic training camps, abstinence (or at least the pretense of it). Like most boxers, he was ill-equipped to handle his finances, and he was hardly likely to pore over the small print of often scandalous contracts, opening himself to exploitation at the hands of those who never had to get their noses or hands bloody. Like so many boxers before and since, the huge sums he made disappeared in a puff of alimony, prison, and entourage maintenance. “My parents were not accountants. I’m not versed in these matters,” Eubank reflected on struggling to come up with millions he owed the taxman—nor were Tyson’s.

A journalist, gambler, author, and sometime boxer’s adviser, the late Jonathan Rendall made a TV documentary in 1993 for the series Dispatches about the major players in British boxing—a parting shot from what he saw as a morbidly corrupt system. What he had uncovered—not that it was ever particularly concealed—was a small group of promoters and managers, nicknamed “The Cartel,” who had the ear, or more likely pocket, of the British Boxing Board of Control. They had secured exclusivity over the prime boxing venues and the prime BBC TV slots, in return demanding loyalty, compliance, and special favors. Fighters and promoters who were locked outside their influence, like Frank Warren and Barry Hearn, could—for a time—barely compete, and those who were under their watch found themselves in a classic take-it-or-leave-it bind.

Looking back, it seems unerringly like the world of work in which my father was then operating. Subcontractors, like the Cartel, controlled the plum jobs and would favor their own men over people on permanent salary with a company, the former being easier to strongarm for kickbacks. The portioning out of better opportunities, the absolute lack of recourse, the casual, paperless agreements, the threats of blacklisting—it all feels familiar, a similar malfeasance.

Through the Ropes

In Dark Trade, McRae undermines the myth that prizefighting offered a refuge from violent childhoods, salvation for these sons of immigrants, these lost boys—that it amounted to some sort of benevolent social promotion. “There was a tragic undertow to the fact that fighters’ increased status depended on their continued violence,” he writes. “It was as if, in wanting to improve their lives, they had to hark back constantly to the destructive memories they longed to escape. The one life fed the other, as unerringly as a dirty river does the sea.” Boxing can provide a haven, a shelter, if the ring is a safer, more controlled version of the chaos outside it; it can be eulogized, elevated, turned, like in Tyson’s displays, into a canvas onto which more articulate fears are projected. But in the end, it is a fight. This simplistic definition comes up again and again in interviews with boxers, and in the best writing about the sport, which is usually done by those who’ve been involved ringside or closely with fighters over a prolonged period of time.

Rendall wrote about guiding the British featherweight Colin McMillan to a world title in his book This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own. McMillan, like almost every rising fighter before and since, had to learn what it meant to be hurt, to have his ambitions repelled. “You can talk about boxing all you like, but at the end of the day it’s a fight,” McMillian tells Rendall at one point. “That’s what it is.” On a night on which he won but was badly cut, his words finally clicked for Rendall, at an ill-attended after-party in a cavernous nightclub:

I noticed that Colin was slightly hunched up when he walked. The effect of Percy Commey’s punches were setting in and stiffening his body . . . “That was a hard fight, man,” Colin said, shaking his head. Then after a pause he started smirking and said, “So do you understand now, Jon?”

Rendall writes compellingly about the “blue curve,” which represents the upward, seemingly endless trajectory of a fighter on the rise (or a gambler who hits a rare, intoxicating winning streak), but for most fighters, and for my father, McMillan’s stiff walk, his slightly hunched shuffle, is the more recognizable picture. Growing up in a poor area, where crime was rife and there were regular run-ins over parking, noise, and all manner of other petty reasons for crossed words, I used to worry about my father’s temper, about him having an argument with the wrong person in the wrong mood.

I was reassured that he could handle himself by the strength he had despite his slight paunch, revealed in an open shirt and vest year-round—his temperature always running hot—by times we’d play-fight, by the power of his arms, the vice grip of his hands, facility without plan, without design, through years of hauling, digging, straining. I sensed something similar in fighters I would later come to meet when writing about them: their lack of showiness, the softness of their handshakes, their unwillingness to clench a fist outside the ring. As Rendall said of his early days watching fights before having any involvement, “It was as if all of them, the winners and losers and the managers and trainers, had touched something that only they could know about, something big, like truth. Because they’d touched it and knew what it was, they didn’t have to brag about it.”

I worry more now about my father, his once-dark, tight, curly hair turned wispy gray and slight, his paunch more exaggerated, his knees inflexible, his temperature only a fraction cooler. If self-consciousness is the fighter’s great enemy, so it is the enemy of a once-strong man with a temper in an area whose resources have stretched ever thinner, mired further in crime, heightened ill-manners, and civic neglect. The friends, the little Irish community, that was gathered around in my childhood has scattered over the years, back west, to leafier suburbs, to the Catholic hereafter, but the trouble with money never went away, work went on, retirement was pushed back further through necessity than it might have been; getaway plans, back-ups, escapes not possible, the effects of all that laboring have long since set in, stiffening the body.

If self-consciousness is the fighter’s great enemy, so it is the enemy of a once-strong man with a temper in an area whose resources have stretched ever thinner, mired further in crime, heightened ill-manners, and civic neglect.

For most boxers, it was always just one fight after another, and all the braggadocio in interviews, the trash talk and the show, the elation afterwards, were only symptoms and souvenirs of what had been faced and survived. Michael Watson recovered from his brain injury well enough to walk the London Marathon over several days to raise money for charities. For a time, we shared a barber, and I’d see him wheeled in or out by his devoted carer but always be too reluctant or overawed to approach him, to try his handshake’s strength. Rendall wrote toward the end of his time with McMillan—after a world title had been won and lost, money made and disappeared, boxing’s corrupt organization exposed as a moral sewer within which the men who fight are fodder for unscrupulous subcontractors—about the pull of nostalgia, the lure of one last fight or one final comeback, that is boxing’s most intoxicating drug. “For a moment it was almost possible to believe—or if not to believe, to suspend judgement. I mean, it’s what everyone dreams of, isn’t it? Not to wallow in cherished memories, but for the spirit of those same memories somehow to come back, anew, and start living again, as if time were cyclical.”

There will always be boxing while there is deprivation, and it will always be watched while there are people who can’t otherwise say what fighters’ punches allow them to. The pull is the same for me now, in a different front room, tearing myself out of bed at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to watch fights live from Las Vegas or New York, sitting cross-legged on the floor too close to the television, its volume so low as to make the pictures play out in near-silence. New boxers move among the outlines of those who fought before them, escaping nothing.