It would be crass and insensitive to begin this piece any other way but to express the greatest hope that Trowbridge boxer Nick Blackwell makes a full and swift recovery. Following the stoppage of his bout with Chris Eubank Jr last night, the 24 year old collapsed in the ring and was rushed to hospital. Reports suggest he is currently in a medical coma.
Too often we shrug off the dangers involved in professional boxing. People throw around clichés about ‘the hurt business’ and the darkest of trades but few seem to seriously consider the risks involved. Perhaps it is willful ignorance. We don’t want to acknowledge the more brutal truths or how can we justify it? The fact is every time two men step into a ring to bludgeon each other in the head, ultimately with the aim of knocking the other unconscious, they are putting themselves at risk of serious, potentially permanent damage.
That fact became starkly apparent last night to those watching the fight on live TV. In the moments after the bout was stopped, first came the announcement that Blackwell was in trouble, then the stomach tightening sight of the young fighter being wheeled out on a stretcher, his face covered by an oxygen mask.
The fight itself had been brutal. Blackwell had shown inhuman endurance and courage, ultimately at the expense of his own well-being. Even as his face swelled into a grotesque mask of bruising and blood he continued to hold his guard and return punches.
Both the referee and Blackwell’s corner have been criticised for allowing the fight to continue for as long as it did. Certainly Eubank Jr was well ahead on points and the fight appeared to be over as a contest. At times Blackwell could do little but cover up against the ropes and absorb the terrible flurry of hard punches that came at him over and over. But his own resilience exposed him to more harm. Some have defended the referee by saying right until the end Blackwell was letting off punches of his own and did not appear sufficiently damaged for a stoppage to be called. In such situations, hindsight is often 20/20. For his part, Eubank Jr did only what he is trained to do, what every fighter is conditioned to do; keep fighting until the bell goes or the referee steps in.
As the match drew to its conclusion, the crowd in the arena were filled with near delirious excitement. But for those with a knowledge of boxing’s history, a creeping unease began to set in during those last few rounds. The sight of Eubank Jr ripping into his opponent with devastating punches to both body and head began to become hard to watch without wincing. Ominous memories of other nights, other fighters who had been exposed to such punishment began to echo in the mind.
Chris Eubank Jr’s father, the man he’s named after, may well have been feeling that same dread watching from ringside. He knows only too well what boxing can do to a man. In September 1991 he fought another young British fighter, Michael Watson at White Hart Lane live on terrestrial television. During that fight, Eubank struck Watson with a blow that caused serious damage to the brain. The medical provisions at the fight were inadequate and help was painfully slow getting to Watson. After 40 days in a coma, Watson pulled through, but with permanent damage he continues to deal with today.
The shadow of that fight, which appalled the viewing public hangs heavy over what happened last night. Even at the press conference for last night’s match up, it loomed in the background. Eubank Sr has long been a controversial figure in boxing. In particular his famous comment that boxing is a “mug’s game” is frequently brought up. A journalist at the press conference mentioned it once more. Eubank Sr replied passionately, telling the audience to ask the family of Gerald McClellan if they agreed with his assessment of the sport.
McClellan is another name that invokes the darkness at the heart of prize-fighting. The Michigan fighter fought Ilford’s Nigel Benn in February 1995. The bout is primarily remembered for its shocking viciousness and level of violence. Benn was celebrated as one of the hardest punchers in the world at the time and his opponent felt the full extent of that power with horrifying consequences. In the tenth round, McClellan dropped to one knee and was counted out. The commentators speculated that he had given up, that he was not badly hurt but merely didn’t have the heart to go on. In fact, McClellan had suffered a massive blood clot to his brain. His sight and hearing began to fade and he fell into a coma. McClellan survived, but was left blind, nearly deaf and wheelchair bound.
McClellan and Watson haunt British boxing. They are often pushed into the shadows until another event occurs that jolts the memories back into the foreground. Thankfully, incidents such as these are relatively rare and safety measures have been improved in their aftermath. But the sight of Blackwell being taken out on a stretcher and the anxious wait for news demonstrates the painfully obvious reality that a sport in which the aim is to inflict physical damage on your opponent can never truly be made risk free.
We can only hope Blackwell’s injuries are not on the same level and there have been some hopeful signs on social media that he is in a stable condition. Comments have been made that the bleeding is on the skull rather than the brain itself, but the situation remains unclear.
For those who saw the fight there will be the inevitable soul-searching. Is any sport really worth such a cost? Of course, for the fighters they will argue that no one knows the risks better than them. They will also say that for all the dangers, boxing provides a source of salvation for young men and women with few opportunities available to them. But what about us? the audience? Who sit in comfort as others put themselves in harm’s way for our entertainment. Who cheer a man being beaten unconscious and then get back to enjoying our Saturday nights while the fighters and their families deal with the fallout.
The fight has stunned some with its brutality but that is precisely what a large share of those watching at home and in the arena will have been hoping for. Of course, there are plenty of boxing fans who appreciate technique and do not regard blood and brawling as required components of a good fight. But for many, especially among the more casual viewers, they tune in for wars. Defensive boxers are dismissed as “boring.” Fighters who try to avoid the same level of punishment that Blackwell took by moving and clinching elicit disdain. Referees are criticised for stopping fights too early, for denying the crowd the knock out they so desperately want.
Now, faced with the reality of what such attitudes encourage, those same people’s enthusiasm seems to have evaporated. In a world already plagued by violence, do we really need to turn it into a leisure activity? The buzz words of the abolitionists will be flying again. Brutal. Dehumanising. Indefensible.
For those of us who have defended boxing in easier times, the arguments become harder to stand by in the light of injuries such as these. But there is no doubt that Blackwell loves the sport and found a purpose in it. Neither that however, nor the bravery he showed in the ring, make the current uncertainty over his fate any easier to bear.
Boxing fans once more find themselves forced to face up to the unpalatable aspects of a pastime that can veer so quickly from entertainment to tragedy. But the inner turmoil of a fan is of little significance when compared to the health and well being of a young man currently lying in hospital as a result of his dedication to the cruelest of sports. All we can do is wait.