Time Out: Boxing continues to turn a blind eye while there is money to be made
IT was fitting that Derek Chisora’s arrival at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday night received a decidedly muted response.
Moving slowly across the concourse before making that most familiar of walks ahead of his showdown with heavyweight king Tyson Fury, the rhythmic beat of Bob Marley’s Zimbabwe could be heard loud and clear above the low hum of tipsy chit chat and general ambivalence.
There was a time when Chisora’s approach to the ring brought a sense of anticipation, an element of danger. Union Jack bandana pulled up over his nose, stare full of bad intentions, he was no Mike Tyson but a menace went with the madness often portrayed in the media.
It was all part of the show, and part of the reason he has regularly found himself fronting up to the biggest names in the game during the last decade.
Never quite elite level - but often awkwardly perched a rung above the rest - that crouched, come forward style, those wild winging right hands, made him the perfect opponent for promoters selling a show. Good old Del Boy, always comes to fight.
But at what point should that no longer be enough?
Saturday’s event was a stomach-churning spectacle from beginning to end, going right back to it’s low-key announcement following weeks of verbal jousting between Fury and, well, himself mostly before a showdown with Anthony Joshua - to the amazement of absolutely nobody - fell through the cracks.
Only boxing could pluck an opponent Fury had already beaten – twice - and sell it like some shiny new thing. Resignation eventually replaces rancour, and the show rumbles on until the next one is bundled and bowed and presented as something relevant.
While the first meeting, in 2011, was a boreathon that Fury won by unanimous decision, the rematch that no-one wanted to see three years later ended with Chisora’s corner pulling him out at the end of the 10th round.
Then, both men were contenders on their way up the ladder, desperate to land a shot at the big boys. Fast forward eight years and Fury sits atop the mountain, still undefeated after 34 bouts, and desperately in need of a worthy dance partner. Chisora, meanwhile, is 38, has now lost 13 of his 33 fights, and four of his last five.
If nobody cared about watching a re-run in 2014, the trilogy shouldn’t even have caused a ripple. Yet, in the mouth of Christmas, not to mention a cost-of-living crisis, 60,000 punters opened their wallets and came out on a cold December evening for the privilege of watching one man beat another to a pulp.
They knew it was coming, the pundits knew it was coming, Derek Chisora most likely knew it was coming - the fire of bygone days far from the eyes dolefully gazing down on a sea of illuminated screens, pound notes numbing the pain about to come his way.
Clubbing rights would land at will, rocking the Londoner’s head back, while vicious uppercuts scrambled his senses time and again. It was deeply unpleasant viewing until referee Victor Loughlin decided he had seen enough towards the end of the 10th, the whole sorry affair confirming only what we already knew – that the greatest danger Derek Chisora poses nowadays is to himself.
He is, sadly, just one of a long line allowed - even encouraged - to carry on, seemingly prepared to live with the consequences, whatever they may be. When you have grown up watching boxing, loving boxing, those are hard truths to stomach.
Away from the bright lights and the Saturday night pay-per-view parade, reminders are all around of the sport’s lethal legacy. Former boxers speak in hushed tones about so and so being ‘punchy’, unaware the same conversations could be taking place about them.
Earlier this year, west Belfast middleweight Paddy Gallagher, with typical honesty, shone a light on his struggles as a consequence of a 20 year career, amateur and pro.
“I definitely think I’ve taken some kind of damage,” said the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist after hanging up his gloves for good.
“I was never afraid to take a shot, I had an all-action style, I did a lot of sparring as well, so there’s different things… depression, my head doesn’t work the way it should do sometimes. Memory loss.
“That’s why I knew it was the right thing to do, not to go back to boxing. You don’t want to be drinking your dinner out of a straw when you’re older, your kids having to look after you.
“I don’t know if now that I’m out of it, that’s it, or if more damage could still come down the line, or get progressively worse. That’s the scary bit…”
In a similar vein, Tris Dixon’s book ‘Damage: The untold story of brain trauma in boxing’ is at once enlightening and terrifying. Some ex-boxers don’t want to look near it, afraid of what they might find, while others – like former two-weight world champion Carl Frampton – have signposted its importance in educating future generations about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE.
For those old enough to remember the majesty of Sheffield’s Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham at his peak, as well as his brutal knockout defeat at the hands of hammer-fisted Julian Jackson, some sections contained within ‘Damage’ are particularly difficult to digest.
A slick southpaw with a jerky, unorthodox style, Graham was one of those guys a handful of rice wouldn’t hit. His trainer, Dubliner Brendan Ingle, used to bring him into local prisons and let inmates do their worst from the waist up, confident they wouldn’t land a mitt on his man. And he was right.
Yet Dixon, a former Boxing News editor, meets Graham - now 63 - in the psychiatric ward of a north London hospital, the conversation conducted between tears and trauma. Bouts of depression led him to multiple suicide attempts - the primary reason for his location, from which only escorted leave was permitted.
He talks in detail about the punch from Jackson that floored him, and tells other stories from a career that saw him acknowledged as one of the best British boxers to have never won a world title (a tag he hates to be reminded of).
He does not slur his words, does not shuffle his feet. He still looks fit and healthy. However, when Dixon asks what Graham got up to yesterday, he draws a blank.
“That’s how bad it is…”
He believes the bulk of damage was sustained in his early days, but that the Jackson knockout was the tipping point.
“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be in here if I’d beaten Julian Jackson. If only… if only.
“But it’s always if only.”
Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham is just one of so many cautionary tales, all occupying different slots on a widening scale. Meanwhile, a few miles down the road from the hospital that became his safe place, boxing carries on about its business - unwilling to listen while there is still money to be made.