Saturday night was boxing’s equivalent of a neckbeard giving a naked reading of Carcosa on Sesame Street. It was the chavtastic moment when the final nail was hammered into the coffin containing heavyweight boxing’s credibility. The first hint of the sport’s rapid decline was evident when Tyson returned from prison to “knock out” a series of patsies; it looked beyond salvation when that same man turned cannibal; but briefly under the rein of the Klitschkos we could all pretend that it had regained some life. But on Saturday night, surely, the sporting public gave up on the farce that is the “sport” of heavyweight boxing, as two classic representatives of everything that is wrong with modern Britain re-enacted a classic Friday night in Guildford, while the only civilized representatives of the sport looked on in horror and barely-disguised scorn.
Of course, the brawl was just the sad end of a sorry series of events, any one of which would have seen the end of a man’s career if perpetrated in a less forgiving, more reality-based sport. The scene was the face-off between the 40 year old Vitali Klitschko (46 fights, 44 wins, 40 KOs), “Dr. Ironfist,” from the Ukraine fighting out of Germany; and 28 year old Dereck Chisora (18 fights, 15 wins, 10 KOs), whose win record is lower than Klitschko’s knockout rate. Klitschko is one of a pair – between him and his younger brother Wladimir they own all the titles in heavyweight boxing – and the talent is so thin on the ground that they have to stoop to beating up men like David Haye, the third leg in Saturday night’s sad showdown. Chisora, perhaps hoping to psyche out the un-psychable Ukrainian machine, Chisora engaged in a series of pre-fight antics that would embarrass anyone with any taste: first he slapped Vitali Klitschko at the weigh-in; then, he spat water in Wladimir Klitschko’s face during the pre-fight introductions. In between this, he refused to allow Wladimir to witness his hand-wrapping, which required some sensitive negotiations and led to a delay in the fight. The Klitschko’s response to this behavior was typically level and measured: after the slap, Vitali was heard to say “You’re fucked now Dereck, you really are fucked,” but otherwise didn’t do much (and revealed in the post-fight press conference that he wasn’t able to knock Chisora out because his right hand was injured). The video of the water-spitting incident shows Wladimir (59 fights, 56 wins, 49 KOs) licking his lips and giving a tight little smile, but no other response – this man is his brother’s prize, and there’s a lot of money at stake, so he restrains himself from taking revenge on a man who is so clearly beneath his regard.
Really, these are not men you want to anger. And it’s a sad indictment of the management of the sport that Chisora even tried: had he engaged in either of those antics before a rugby match, he would certainly not have been allowed to play, and would most likely have been banned for life. The press is talking about 6 months for Chisora, and only because of what happened at the post-fight press conference.
It was at the post-fight conference that we really saw how much British boxing has lost of the dignity it built up under Bruno, Hollyfield and Lewis. Klitschko’s promoter was asked if he would bother with any more British contenders, given the behavior of Chisora and Wladimir’s previous opponent, David Haye, who famously promised to “hospitalise” Wladimir and taunted him continuously in the weeks leading up to the fight, but then put in a terrible performance on the night, that he blamed on a broken toe. The promoter said he would look elsewhere, but was interrupted by the infamous (now retired) Haye himself, from the back of the conference, demanding a fight with Vitali. The promoter’s response, in perfect English: “You don’t get to fight anyone. Chisora showed his face, you just showed your toe.” Chisora’s promoter then suggested a face-off between Chisora and Haye, with the winner to face “a Klitschko” (like a penitent at the altar of boxing …) Haye’s response: Chisora had already lost 3 fights in a row, so why should Haye bother? Chisora took offence to this and walked up to Haye, demanding that Haye “say it to his face.” And so the schoolboy brawl commenced, and ended with Haye swinging a camera tripod around and nearly braining his own trainer. In the video you can see, while all this is happening, Klitschko standing on the podium like some gentle giant, sneering down at his defeated British opponents as they brawl with each other over their own failings, like spoilt children.
This is British boxing in the new millenium: being sneered at by civilized, educated boxers from Europe. There is no talent left in Britain that the Klitschkos will deign to face, and even if there were, on reputation alone the British are best left well outside the ring, brawling in car parks where they belong. Britain has always been one of the top two countries for heavyweights, and British heavyweights have carried the sport with a certain dignity and poise, but in just 10 years the division has been dragged into the gutter by its reprehensible promoters and fighters.
The problem for those of us who enjoy a fighting art mirrors, in many ways, the problems role-playing faced in the 80s through accusations of satanism and addiction. Those of us who enjoy boxing and understand it know that it is a thing of beauty when done properly, but for those looking in from the outside it clearly resembles nothing more than a sanctioned brawl, in which barely-civilized men pound the crap out of each other for excessive amounts of money. We ask them to trust us that this sport is more than mere barbarism, and we point to its elements of discipline, courage and respect – which we like to hope are more than just a silly myth – as evidence that it is worthy of a little more respect than mere brawling. We also want people to think it’s not a particularly dangerous sport – which compared to Rugby it probably isn’t – and we point to the strict adherence to rules of combat as evidence of this. But it’s kind of hard for the general public to believe us when they see the sports peak performers bashing each other with camera tripods and threatening “I’ll fucking shoot him.” It’s the Carcosa problem, in essence, only being played out in front of the cameras on national TV. And it has a spillover effect: as UFC is gaining popularity and professionalism, its more popular cousin, boxing, is making fighting arts look like uncivilized brawling. How is UFC going to make headway then? And how will we be able to, for example, over turn bans on women fighting (often justified on the basis that it’s “uncivilized”) when the men at the top of the art are doing their best to encourage a ban on anyone fighting?
Some promoters have clung onto another great stereotype of the sport that I think has been used to gain it respect it probably never deserves: the “rescuing urban yoof” myth, that boxing offers working class and poor kids “a way out” and offers youth involved in gangs and crime a way to reform and learn to respect themselves and others. Watching the behavior of Haye and Chisora, and comparing it with PhD-endowed Vitali Klitschko, the conclusion is obvious: education makes men better, boxing makes criminals more dangerous. Society might consider itself well-served in asking: perhaps instead of sanctioning these poor kids’ efforts to beat each other up in the ring, we should ban men like Chisora’s trainer from being allowed to teach poor kids from deprived neighbourhoods any skills that might in any way resemble what we see on display in that video? Because it doesn’t appear to have improved their respect for themselves or others, or their wit: it’s just made them bigger and nastier. Perhaps they might be better off staying away from the boxing gym and doing their homework …?
With this sad display, boxing joins the long list of activities that Britain invented or codified, but lost out on to the rest of the world through indiscipline, inequality and poor education. Other notable activities that went this way are:
- Naval warfare (to the Japanese and then the Americans)
- Cricket (to Australia)
- Rugby (to the Antipodes, but increasingly, just about anywhere)
- Soccer (to everywhere else)
- Statistics (to India, and then the rest of the Commonwealth, and the USA)
- The English language (to the Commonwealth)
- Heavy Industry (to Germany, Japan and the USA, and now China)
I guess so long as they have the Falklands, the British can still lay claim to being the masters of colonialism. It’s important to be good at something, after all! But it’s a long and sad decline that Britain has gone through since the end of the war, and boxing, though hardly likely to be the thing British society will most miss, has now sadly been outsourced to Mexico and the Ukraine. What have the British got left to lose?