Joe Brolly: Is it good enough that a young man be beaten to death in a cage for our amusement?
Sometimes humans have to be protected from themselves
Is it good enough that a young man be beaten to death in a cage for our amusement? Is it good enough that as he begins the slow process of dying, lying on the canvas like a tranquillised cow in the abattoir, Conor McGregor, our most famous sportsman, is giving high fives all around, laughing, and beating his chest? Is it?
Before he died in poverty, living upstairs in his decrepit gym, sleeping on a camp bed and heating his beans on a primus stove, the legendary heavyweight champion Smokin' Joe Frazier said, "The stuff we deal with is life and death. I got my brain shook, my money took and my name in the undertaker's book."
He fought Ali in Manila in a fight that is held in awe. Both men went to the boiler room of the damned that night. If the brain is a computer, they ripped each other's out and smashed them with gloved fists. When Frazier was pulled out before the bell for the 15th, he was blind and suffering severe internal injuries.
His trainer Eddie Futch stopped it because he thought another round would kill him. What he didn't know was that Ali was about to quit. As Ali put it: "I had gone through the trap door. I was close to dying."
Ali, diagnosed soon after by Dr Dennis Cope of UCLA with "Parkinson's Syndrome, secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome" slowly disappeared inside himself, leaving only a hologram. Frazier loathed Ali forever with a hatred that consumed his life. The voice message on his answering service was, "Joe Frazier, still floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. Not like someone I know."
I used to love the boxing. I was a bad amateur boxer myself, eventually expelled from the St Canice's club for kicking an opponent during a bout. Henry McAuley said to my da, "He may stick to the football, Francie."
When my club-mate Paul McCloskey turned pro, he turned to me for advice now and again. I sat at his fights in terror and watched him knock out a series of opponents to become European champion. The atmosphere was hateful, spiteful and inhuman. When he fought the ex-soldier Dean Harrison in Widnes, the venue was thronged with powerfully built squaddies, tattooed and drunk. There were only a handful of travelling supporters and when Paul was announced, the soldiers began to chant: 'You murderin' Irish bastards, you murderin' Irish bastards'. We tiptoed out of that place feigning English accents.
The end of it for me was the night Paul fought Giuseppe Lauri to defend his title at the King's Hall. BoxRec described it afterwards as "an all-out war." By the tenth, they were in the boiler room and the crowd was going insane. I thought I might vomit. Halfway through the 11th Paul threw a murderous right which seemed to go straight through Lauri's head. He was unconscious as his head bounced off the canvas and as he lay there, eyes dead and body twitching as if he were having a fit, the girls in the row beside me celebrated hysterically.
There's the rub. Something deep in us thrills to serious violence. Up to the end of the 19th century, public executions were the premier spectator sport in England. At Tyburn in London, seats in the grandstand (named Mother Proctor's Pews) were expensive and highly sought after. There was a fine house overlooking Tyburn with large balconies, from which the Sheriffs of the City of London and Middlesex watched the executions with their invited guests. A sort of corporate box where you could hobnob with the executioner. Maybe get his autograph.
When Henry Fauntleroy, a gentleman fraudster, was hanged at Newgate in 1824, the crowd was estimated at 100,000. If a smart promoter like Barry Hearn (above) had been alive then, he'd have hired Michael Buffer to say, "Let's get ready to haaaaaaaaaaaaaaang . . ." and get a half-naked dolly bird to hold up notices between executions.
The violent professional sports lobby reacts violently to criticism, like the US gun lobby. They say "the fighters want to do it. It is their escape from the ghetto. Their means of expression." When the young Welsh boxer Johnny Owen died in the ring, Hugh McIlvanney, one of those great writers who like Norman Mailer mythologises fighting, said, "It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a violent language". As though nothing could have been done about it. He was fucking dead, Hugh. Dead! Do you comprehend what that means? For him. For his family.
The fact that there are young men with violent tendencies who are prepared to put themselves on the line is neither here nor there. As a young fighter said in RTé's recent documentary on MMA: "I like to hurt people." Put it this way. If an American hedge fund millionaire started 'Ultimate Combat', where the fighters use weapons and the battle is to the death, he'd have a queue of men wanting to sign up.
They could sign consent forms. He could put them in an amphitheatre and he would most certainly fill it to overflowing. Come to think of it, that's already been done. In Ancient Rome. And didn't it work brilliantly? The new sport would sweep the planet. We'd all be glued to our screens. PPVs would break all records. Young men would die. But hey, it's their tragedy if they find themselves articulate in such a dangerous language.
The promoters would become richer than Trump. The fighters would mostly die, or be disabled, or die in poverty. Just like they do now. They would take to crime and drugs, or alcohol, like Jermain Taylor, or Kelly Pavlik, or Riddick Bowe, or Mike Tyson, or Arturo Gatti or so many other ex-world champions. And that's the cream.
The truth is that violent sports are a rich man's play thing, where poor men try to put each other into a coma for our amusement. When Joe Frazier took on George Foreman (pictured above in action against Ali) in Jamaica, promoter Don King drove to the fight in Frazier's cavalcade, sitting with the champ in his vast limo. Foreman knocked Frazier out and when he got back to his dressing room, the new champion was warmly embraced by King. When Foreman's cavalcade pulled out to return to the hotel, King sat beside him. An example of switching limos mid-stream.
When the knockout artiste Gerald McClellan came to England to fight Nigel Benn for the world title in 1995, it was two fighting dogs ripping each other to bits, only legally. McClellan said beforehand, "You go to war and you win or you go to war and you die. I'm not afraid because it's my job."
He knocked Benn right through the ropes in the first round. But Benn recovered to win in the tenth. McClellan didn't die, but he was beaten into a coma. He is penniless and lives in a small bungalow in Freeport with his sister Lisa, who has devoted her life to him. He is blind. He can barely hear. He is in a wheelchair. His face is puffy and happy in the way that people with severe brain damage often look. He likes to be hugged and touched constantly, because he is afraid of the dark. When a visitor is introduced to him he squeezes their hand and shouts, "Get him a cookie, Lisa."
Benn (like McClellan a juvenile delinquent) said later: "They brought him over here to bash me up - look at him now." Benn never recovered either. He himself suffered brain damage, found God and became a preacher.
In 1991, Benn's nemesis Chris Eubank almost killed Michael Watson. Watson spent 40 days in a coma and had six brain operations. After regaining consciousness, he spent over a year in intensive care and rehabilitation and six more years as a wheelchair user while he painstakingly recovered some movement and regained the ability to speak.
Just a fortnight ago, Eubank's own son Chris junior almost killed Nick Blackwell after a "brutal war". Blackwell was left in a coma but is gradually recovering. The extent of the brain damage is not yet known. Our own Barry McGuigan killed a man in the ring. Young Ali couldn't withstand the heavy knock-down from those orangutan arms. He was in a coma for five months before the life support machine was unplugged.
Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini was the glamour fighter of his era. The fellas' favourite slugger. A sixth Beatle for the ladies. A world champion by 21, in 1982, he fought the South Korean Duk Koo Kim for the WBA lightweight title. It turned out to be a night of unmitigated savagery. Ray had come into the ring handsome as Chachi calling at the door to pick up Joanie.
By the second round, Ray's ear was badly damaged and his face was already a mess. The commentators may have worried and the spectators squirmed. But Ray was loving it. He boomed away regardless and by the last quarter of the fight the South Korean was wilting. The boiler room of the damned.
By the 12th, Ray was bludgeoning his man. But Kim somehow stayed on his feet as the fistic swarm descended upon him, so the referee Richard Green did not intervene. In the 13th round Mancini delivered 39 consecutive head shots. In the 14th Kim was finally despatched to the canvas by a thunderous salvo. He never got up again. Lying in the ring, he fell peacefully into a coma and died a few days later in hospital.
Before leaving his hotel room for the fight, he had scrawled 'Live or Die' on the lampshade. Kim's mother travelled from Korea to be with him in the hospital, holding his hand to the bitter end. Then, heartbroken, she committed suicide by drinking weedkiller. A few months later, the referee Richard Green took his own life. Ray himself fought on for a short while, but his boom was gone and he quit when he was 23, coming out of retirement several years later for two fights no one remembers.
These violent life-and-death sports are fun. They bring us to somewhere primitive inside us. It is why the spectators in the Colosseum gasped and cheered as the knife was thrust home. Or why the toffs on the balcony at Newgate paid big money to watch the hangman pull the lever. It is why young, penniless men are queueing up to try to murder each other in cages and boxing rings. And why Conor McGregor high fives and beats his chest as a young man dies.
It's not the fighters' fault. Nor the referees'. Nor the promoters'. Nor the audiences'. The law permits it. And it shouldn't. Time to ban these violent pro sports. Sometimes, human beings have to be protected from themselves.
Sunday Indo Sport