Watching combat sports is a conflicting experience. On the one hand, how can we possibly enjoy two people beating the hell out of each other, doing everything they can to discharge maximum damage to the body and brain of their opponent; on the other hand, well, er, we really enjoy it.
So to make it work we force ourselves through a series of semantic and emotional contortions to convince ourselves that it’s all fine. “It’s just mental chess,” we reason; “what really hurts is the mental disintegration and we see that in every sport,” we insist; “if the fighters didn’t like doing it they wouldn’t do it,” we bleat.
The reality, though, is that this is a load of bollocks. We’re taking pleasure from violence and thrill from danger; other people’s danger. There’s no getting away from that; no making it more palatable.
On Saturday night, Kell Brook defended his IBF world welterweight title against Errol Spence Junior. The fight took place in front of 30,000 people at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane – Brook is from Sheffield and a United fan.
The last time we had seen Brook in the ring was September 2016, attempting to relieve Gennady Golovkin – perhaps the world’s finest boxer – of his middleweight belts. Plenty of men in Golovkin’s bracket wouldn’t fancy matching the 37-0 phenom, but Brook stepped up two divisions an from 147lb to 160lb, risking his 100 per cent record in the process. Of course, he did not do so for free, he did so for the biggest purse he may ever make, but even so, it was an awesome show of confidence and testicles. And he gave a decent account of himself too, but the bigger man was able to walk through his biggest shots while landing plenty of his own, and eventually Brook’s trainer threw in the towel towards the end of the fifth round; it later turned out that Brook had broken his right eye-socket.
Though Brook has always struggled with cutting down to 147lb, he was determined to defend his title. So a fight was made with Spence – at 27, five years Brook’s junior, and 22-0 with 19 of those wins coming by way of knockout.
The early exchanges were more or less even, with Brook shading things on most ringside scorecards – and also, as it turned out, on those belonging to two of the three judges. But then in round 7, Spence landed a shot on Brook’s left eye, breaking the socket, and won every subsequent stanza.
The tenth was particularly brutal; he decked Brook early and put it on him thereafter, the resistance he encountered bringing to mind two of boxing’s favourite euphemisms – “a good chin” – translation: the ability to absorb terrifying punishment with no thought for your safety or future well-being – and “incredible heart” – translation: the ability to absorb terrifying punishment with no thought for your safety or future well-being. And Brook took them further still, somehow dredging up the moxie to hurt Spence with some shots of his own before the bell.
But in the eleventh, Spence came again. Brook’s left eye was swollen more or less closed, and a succession of body punches opened a route back to his head and the champ took a voluntary knee that was eerily reminiscent of that taken by Gerald McClellan, beaten into a coma by Nigel Benn in 1995. Effectively, he had stopped the fight himself.
Later, Sky’s experts – Tony Bellew and Amir Khan – discussed this unusual ending. Bellew took pains not to call Brook a quitter because calling a fighter a quitter is not really allowed, before calling him a quitter without calling him a quitter and intimating that he owed his home crowd better.
“I love Kell to bits,” he said, “but you can’t do that. He had the fight beaten out of him tonight and Kell chose to end that. I know he’s saying that he can’t see and stuff … I’m sorry, I can’t have it. You’ve gotta bite down on your gumshield and give it. Kell Brook is a man who can end the fight with one punch, and you have to keep going until you possibly can’t no more”
Khan agreed. “You’d rather get knocked out sometimes, get hit with a good shot instead of taking a knee and saying ‘that’s me done’. As a fighter you’ve trained weeks, months, your life, your title means more than anything in your life.”
Then it was back to Bellew: “You’ve gotta remember, he’s been through a horendous injury, and in the back of his mind he has got the Golovkin fight there and he’s probably thinking, ‘I could go blind if I don’t do this,’ but you have to expel all them things from your mind. We’re fighters, we’re warriors, whatever you wanna call us, we’re freaks, we’re sideshow acts, but we have to fight till we’ve no fight left.”
Now Bellew and Khan know a fair bit more about boxing than I do, and what they say is emotive and persuasive – moving, even – but ultimately, still complete horseshit. There is no morally defensible argument that Brook’s duty was to struggle on in case, unable to see out of one eye, he had somehow landed on a knockout shot on a younger, faster, fitter opponent. And there is no morally defensible argument that he should have endured a potentially life-changing beating for the crowd’s entertainment, nor is his dignity and reputation dependent on his willingness so to do. The only people to whom Brook owes anything are himself and those close to him; he is not Monty Python’s Black Knight, he is a real person with a life outside of the ring, entitled to make the decisions which best serve his health and wealth. The worst case scenario of his stopping was losing his belt; the worst case scenario of his continuing was losing his life.
So actually, Brook quitting – and quit is exactly what he did – showed an ability to think clearly even in the maelstrom of a fist-fight. For those so entitled as to deem this their business and him responsible to them, their quid pro quo is getting to see him fight again; to those who understand what is actually important, he proved himself a sensible, sage individual able to rise above macho nonsense and do the right thing. Now that is the true meaning of heart.