I spar, you spar

Fight the power

Colin McMillan <em>M Publicity (available on 020 8599 6823), 201pp, £9.99</em>


Here are two books by professional writers who briefly became pro- fessional boxers; and one by a professional boxer who was the WBO's featherweight world champion, and was acclaimed at his peak as one of the stylists of the ring. Guess whose books are published by mainstream houses, and whose is self-published with sponsorship from a curry house and an Essex nightclub? In boxing, money reaches everyone before the fighters. As one British boxing promoter said: "Boxers are like whores. The more you fuck them, the more they like it."

Colin McMillan was not an easy lay. His West Indian family valued education above sport, so he had A levels as well as a startlingly fast and elusive fighting style. "Sweet C" was only ever knocked down once in the ring. The moneymen were harder opponents.

Pro fighters are extremely vulnerable: young men with no job security and often no education, chasing money for medical tests, publicity and a trainer. The standard managerial contracts when McMillan entered the business - plenty of which are still signed today - were not too far away from an indentured labour system. McMillan refused to knuckle under, so promoters refused to give him fights. McMillan, on his own and with the Professional Boxers' Association, worked for change. The promoters made some concessions on the provision of medical back-up, but that had less to do with the PBA than with Chris Eubank's crippling of Michael Watson on prime-time television. McMillan now manages the Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison, raising hopes that there is at least one more honest manager in the game.

McMillan managed himself - advised by the writer Jonathan Rendall - and was trained by Howard Rainey, a deeply knowledgeable man who later trained David Matthews. McMillan vehemently denied he enjoyed fighting: he needed the money. But after Watson was injured, he defended boxing as "the highest form of competition . . . In a world cloaked in prejudice, the ring is the one place where all men are equal."

His second world champion-ship defence was against Ruben Palacio, who by Rendall's account, published in This Bloody Mary (1998), deliberately broke McMillan's arm, an injury that blighted the rest of his career. McMillan lacks Rendall's gift of concise evocation but - assisted by the late Harry Mullan, a former editor of Boxing News - he tells his sad story in unaffected prose.

Matthews - one fight, one defeat (retired) - is a crime reporter who hung around boxing gyms brooding on his weight and masculinity. His book opens with an account of an Iranian-born Margate boxer losing in front of a handful of spectators for a miserly "purse". Matthews knows what can happen to boxers, but still thinks that, by fighting once himself, he will discover why men box. Having one fight and walking away with a publisher's cheque and a boost to the CV is precisely what no pro could ever do - but admit that and there would be no book. Far too rarely, Matthews talks to the likes of Tyrone "Sugar T" Forbes, an amateur champion, unsuccessful pro, mentor to street kids and a bouncer. Listen to Forbes and you hear the kind of voice that is excluded from, or caricatured in, contemporary British writing. Martin Amis would no doubt sneer at Forbes from the safety of his desk; but it is Forbes, not Amis, who would be worth listening to on the subject of London street life.

Kate Sekules - two fights, two defeats - boxed more seriously than Matthews. She grew up in London, going through tomboy rebellion, bereavement, heroin addiction, dieting and aerobics. She specialises in hyphenated solipsism: self-image, self-mutilation, self-hatred. She was in her thirties, a New York-based travel-writer, when she took up boxing. Here, at last, was pain for some purpose. Here, too, were other people: the ring is a lonely place, but boxing gyms contain all sorts of competition and co-operation.

Sekules sparred, and then wanted to compete. Ruled too old for the amateur game, she turned professional. In the changing room before her first fight, she was cold-shouldered by the male boxers, - until, that is, she worked the pads. "Girl, you can hit," said one fighter. She lost, but the tough Philadelphia crowd cheered her on (as "Shorty") and voted her bout - not any of the men's - as the fight of the night. The notoriously cynical US boxing writers were, despite themselves, impressed by the skills and courage of the first women fighters. If boxing ever makes a comeback, it may well be because of the women.

Through boxing, Sekules found challenge, fear and respect - and, perhaps, that she could endure pain more easily than inflict it. She frequently quotes the maxim "I spar as you spar". You have to treat people with respect in boxing gyms, for obvious reasons; consequently, braggadocio is much less common there than in the average pub football team. Through boxing, Sekules hardly became "masculine", still less "laddish". Laddism is sinking your own weight in alcohol. Masculinity is . . . what nowadays? Grooming and fashion? Insecure office work? Sekules didn't tread on male turf so much as find territory that men have been fleeing, or have been forced off, for the past three decades.

Some rejoice in seeing them flee. Sekules quotes from Dr Edith Summerskill's jeremiad The Ignoble Art (1956): "The first step to world peace is to control by example the destructive impulse." Ban boxing, in other words, and young men will no longer be violent. Thirty years ago, there were 100,000 registered amateur fighters in the UK; now there are fewer than 10,000. Most of us consume huge quantities of simulated violence, but shy away from any reminder that real violence is painful, unpredictable and dangerous.

Not all fighters are angry or hungry: of these three writers, it was the true boxer, McMillan, who came from a happy and secure home - as did, say, Muhammad Ali before him. But on the whole, amateur boxing does attract wounded people, and probably helps them in their struggles. Every amateur gym offers some angry kids an environment that does not treat their rage as an insult and their strength as a threat, which is one compelling argument for the amateur game. An argument against it is that at least some of those fighters will dream of "turning pro".

Boxers gamble with their health and lives - but then, so do racing drivers, mountaineers and even rugby players. But only professional boxers enter a market so dedicated to cheating its workers. We may talk less about the exploitation of the poor than we used to, but that doesn't mean it no longer happens. McMillan writes: "I had learned that, at least within the ropes of a boxing ring, no colour prejudice existed and the system was designed to thwart the efforts of all fighters, both black and white."

Greg Dyke has brought boxing back to the BBC because he knows it has mass appeal; the Home Secretary allowed Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, to fight in Glasgow. No one asks what happens to the fighters on the undercards, the hopefuls with dodgy contracts, the "opponents" and the "tomato cans" (hit them long enough and the red stuff squirts out). As a society, we are liberal enough to tolerate professional boxing, but not civilised enough to protect boxers from the lowest forms of exploitation.

Dan Hardie is a boxer

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion