Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 17th May 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

Amir Khan, the talented young British boxer of Pakistani descent who won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics, has fought his last amateur fight. After he gained revenge over Mario Kindelan (the man who beat him in Athens) in a fight last weekend in Bolton it was announced that Khan would turn professional immediately. Few would blame this young man for seeking to cash in on his skills and few will be surprised that the money hungry world of professional boxing has welcomed his arrival with glee. For every dollar earned by Khan another dollar (or more) will go to the string of managers, promoters and hangers on who will exploit his talent.

The world of professional boxing is poles apart from its amateur equivalent. Fights are far longer and much more gruelling in the professional game. But the most significant difference is that in professional boxing the contestants do not wear head guards which means that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics. And it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Can you imagine what it is like to have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless? Amateur boxing is a tough sport and undeniably physical, but a contest is won not by trying to make your opponent unconscious but by more skilfully scoring hits on his body or on his well protected head (rather like fencing). A good amateur boxer will seek to intimidate and tire his opponent - but that is part of many sports (ask a Rugby front row forward!).

The earliest sporting events involved gladiatorial contests and fights to the death. And very thrilling it must have been for the spectator as well (as anyone who saw the movie "Gladiator" can confirm). But societies in the modern world are supposed to be rather more civilised and whilst sporting contests can be tough, physical and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. The vocabulary of boxing surrounds this objective. We talk about a "Knock out" or a "KO" and about finishing "inside the distance" and the crowds at the events all contribute to this by literally baying for blood if they see one fighter getting on top. And blood they will most likely see as the gloves of the boxers open up wounds around the eyes of their opponents. In the corner at the end of a round the boxer's seconds will work on the damaged eyes trying to stem the flow of blood so that he can return to the ring for more punishment. Even if he is badly injured and behind on points there is always the chance that one of his punches will land a telling blow and the contest will be resolved in his favour. So "back you go and try and put him down - you can still win this one Champ".

The world that Amir Khan is now entering is a sport with more corruption and criminality in it than any other. The amounts of money that a good fighter can generate for himself and others are so high that it is inevitable that the sport has large dark shadowy areas in it away from the glitz and the glamour. The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates. Whilst there is undoubtedly a nobility about a great athlete like Mohamed Ali for every Ali there is a Mike Tyson ( a vicious thug in and out of the ring whose bad boy image was hyped up even further by promoters keen to sell tickets).

Beat somebody continuously around the head for years and you will do him permanent damage. Is there any sight sadder than the old scarfaced boxer stumbling unsteadily to his feet to acknowledge the cheers of a crowd who knew him in his prime. Well yes, actually, there is. That is the sight of the coffin of a young man whose brain was damaged beyond repair in a fight and who paid the ultimate price for others greed. It has happened all too often, and it will happen again, until this barbaric "sport" finally goes the way of the gladiators.