Boxing has been a life long fascination for me. I grew up in Belfast, a city fascinated with its prize fighters and idolised the men who fought professionally between the ropes. My friends and family found it largely barbaric, but I always argued that it is a sweet science. The brutal knockouts weren’t the sport’s only satisfying objective, a fighter’s nous and artistry were valued just as much by the fans.
In the early hours of an Australian morning, I watched a brave English fighter called Nick Blackwell fall to the ground at the end of a brutal British title defence against Chris Eubank Jnr. Blackwell’s formerly handsome face resembled a swollen mess with an eye fully closed shut. A doctor examined the stricken fighter carefully before the referee decided to call an end to the fight in the tenth round. The crowd booed loudly during the examination. They were delirious at what they had paid to see, two fighters standing toe to toe and not taking a backwards step. They didn’t want the fervour of the fight spoiled by a staid medical practitioner.
Blackwell had been waiting for this fight patiently for a year, it would represent the pinnacle of a career that already had four losses on it. Fighting Chris Eubank jnr would give the young man from Wiltshire a rare chance to fight in the spotlight, with millions watching on free to air television. He started the fight gamely as expected, even winning some early rounds. Yet, as the fight progressed, Eubank jnr was using his head as speed ball, unattached to a sturdy bracket. The head snapped back sporadically after Eubank jnr’s vicious upper cuts found a way through Blackwell’s high gloved guard.
Late in the fight, Chris Eubank snr, climbed into the ring and looked his son directly in the eye. He wanted Junior to target the body, not the head. Was this a rare act of compassion on a sport that rewards knock out victories? Was this a horrible reminder to Eubank snr of the horrific injuries he witnessed as a fighter against Michael Watson who remains disabled to this day? Or perhaps, it was a genuine tactical move, to knock the wind out of a man who was refusing to be knocked out with blows to the face, no matter how many shots rained on his face.
The fight was stopped and Eubank jnr’s hand was raised. Shortly after both fighters had hugged and shared a few quiet words. Blackwell then fell to the ring’s floor unexpectedly. He was rushed to hospital, where it is reported that he has a small bleed on his brain. His family and friends face nervous hours waiting to see what will happen to a man they love, who was ultimately too brave for his own good.
Can a corner be blamed? Stop the fight too early, and you are potentially depriving a man of his livelihood and his dreams. Refuse to stop it, and the consequences can be fatal in seconds. Can the referee be admonished? He is making a judgement, trying not to bow to the pressure of a crowd, a corner and ultimately the bloodied fighter who will want to continue no matter of the consequences in the heat of the battle.
Or, are people like me to blame. People who have climbed into a ring and fought at a humble level, and feel foolishly that they know what it is to feel blows, proper scathing shots that hurt, having never stepped into a professional ring. People like me who will lose themselves in a close and brutal fight, and urge their man to stop it. Watching Carl Frampton, I have rarely if ever stopped to think about the other man, his family or his friends. I have argued that it is a sweet science, and it is. At its best, this fight game has given a lot to so many people, the fighters I have known are always the most cordial men in sport.
I sit tonight wondering about the sport I love. No man should have taken the beating that Nick Blackwell took in a professional ring, regardless of the fame and fortune on offer. A fighter has only his two fists and a determination to win regardless of the outcome, the responsibility of bringing him home safely to his loved ones, lies squarely outside of the ropes.