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A fork in the road

Bulioni ARROWS FULL

 

Forgive me for reblogging this article I wrote two years ago. It’s just that today I finished writing the sequel to my 1998 book ‘Rope Burns’ and I think that this piece goes some way to explaining why my new book ‘Dangerous’ has turned out the way it has.

The sun is hotter than a George Foreman grill set to 11. But no amount of dazzling June sunlight which creeps incongruously over the pile of discarded fast food packaging that decorates the entrance to the TKO Gym in London’s Canning Town will ever make it look attractive. It’s here – via a comedy detour courtesy of Apple’s seriously fucked up Maps app – that I find myself preparing for one of those fork in the road moments that we all have to deal with at certain times in our lives. This is how I describe my thoughts when I enter that gym and come face to face with a young super-middleweight prize fighter named Frank Buglioni. And we both know exactly what I’m talking about.

“We knew it was the biggest step up in my career to date. We knew he was a very good opponent but knew that he falls apart after about six or seven rounds,” an eloquent, focused Buglioni tells me. “He’s 39 years old so I had the youth on him but I didn’t box to my strengths. I think I could have put the pressure on earlier, settled him down a little bit, made him wary rather than trying to lull him into a false sense of security and catch him with counters.”

A quick recap for the untold billions out there in Twitter land there who quite justifiably couldn’t give a flying tweet about either one of us, me and Frank that is: earlier this year the then unbeaten WBO European Super-Middleweight champion had the dubious privilege of being the subject of the first interview I had conducted with a boxer for more than two largely empty decades. One for the future, intimated my shimmering purple prose to a ringing fanfare of trumpets. Going places, I gushed. A genuine contender.

That Frank promptly suffered his first professional defeat in the ring should not have come as a surprise to someone like me, who considers himself unfeasibly fortunate to have drawn Australia in the World Cup sweepstake. But lose he did. Unequivocally so. Taught a lesson in manners by a wily old coyote named Sergey Khomitsky. An OAP in boxing terms, the have-gloves-will-travel Belarusian could easily qualify for the boxing equivalent of a free bus pass (although perhaps not in these days of Foreman and Hopkins et al). Someone whom Frank should have been able to speedily return to his mobility chair if our would-be contender is to be taken as seriously as he wants to be.

But since when did anything really ever go according to plan? Certainly not for Frank and certainly not for the likes of you and me. Which neatly brings me to that fork in the road I mentioned earlier.

It’s fork in the road time for Frank because he’s GOT to win his next fight, preferably in a manner that can erase those YouTube images of our hero taking far too many punches for his own good before being pulled out of the fight by his wholly sensible and merciful trainer Mark Tibbs. Buglioni MUST win this fight – to lose would set his career in an unpalatable direction, along a pathway that anybody who happens to be 24 and harbouring ambitions to be a world champion will want to avoid at all costs.

And it’s fork in the road time for me because my father is just about to die. Just over a week away from dying, in fact. And I don’t know what to do with myself other than to sit here at four in the morning and write about boxers. Which is kind of ironic really because I have a strong suspicion that on a subconscious level I only write about – have only ever written about – boxers to try to impress my father. And although he’ll never read this one – I can’t actually say for certain that he’s ever read much of what I’ve written – I’ve got to do it.

Fortunately for Frank Buglioni when it comes to getting back on to the yellow brick road the odds are heavily stacked in his favour. Charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating chipped chins and bruised egos is one Sam Couzens. Even Herodotus himself would have trouble bigging up the qualifications of Mr. Couzens. Nobody is pretending that the Hampshire-based fighter is anything more than a ‘W’ to sit atop the ‘L TKO 6’ that currently besmirches Buglioni’s ring record. Nevertheless, when people are throwing punches at each other’s heads for hard cash it’s never a good idea to start counting chickens.

Unfortunately for my father the odds are rather heavily stacked against him being in a position to watch Frank Buglioni climb into the ring on 16 July at London’s York Hall ready to put the hurt on Couzens. Life for him is 24 hours of concentrated misery followed by another 24 hours of the same followed by another. And at the risk of intruding upon what is supposed to be an article about people who punch each other for a living, I’m not there and won’t be there to try to lessen that misery. He doesn’t want to see me and I don’t want to see him. And it’s at times like this, inevitably, that one is forced to wonder how things ever managed to turn out this way.

It is my father who is responsible for this love/hate relationship I have with boxing. It was his enthusiasm for the sport which I am reluctant to call a sport that long ago compelled me to consider that there might be magic lurking behind the blood and sweat and snot. It was his excitement that carried me along through the long, hot, mainly miserable summers of my youth. It was probably the one thing that we ever really had in common other than the battles we waged against one another.

“You just know in their eyes. I hit him with a shot and his back leg gave way a little bit. And I went in and threw a few shots and he held.” In a distinctly unglamorous back-room Frank Buglioni tucks into a home-made pasta salad and reflects on what went wrong that night in April. “When I was hurt I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t hold. I didn’t tie him up. I tried to fight when my coordination and timing wasn’t there. And that’s what happened in the sixth round. He caught me with a good shot and I went with him a little bit. And then he caught me with exactly the same left hook round the side and on the chin again.”

There is no animosity in Buglioni’s words. He doesn’t hate the man who bespoiled his unblemished record. There is a refreshing absence of hostility. But then why shouldn’t there be? We sometimes tend to overlook the fact that boxing is nine-tenths business and nine-tenths artifice. But then who’s counting? And without wishing to dial in the clichés Frank Buglioni seems to view that night as little more than a bad day at the office. He’s simply relieved to live to fight another day.

“It didn’t hurt,” he insists. “Obviously my legs went, my coordination went and the ropes probably kept me up but I didn’t go down. In the corner of my eye I saw the referee and I thought, ‘don’t jump in! Don’t jump in!’. I was still thinking, although obviously I couldn’t defend myself.”

A couple of weeks earlier Frank had contacted me via Facebook asking if I’d like to come back and conduct a follow-up interview with him. The strange thing was that at exactly the same time I’d been contacting him through Facebook to suggest the same. Perhaps deep down both of us knew we had unfinished business. Back in the 1990s when two men shared the same experience – generally physically it has to be said – they might have called it an ‘Ulrika’ moment.

“My trainer stopped the fight because he knew that fella could have finished me and done more damage,” Frank continues. “I’m not naive – I know he could have done that. I was in no position to continue at that time. He said: ‘it’s over. We’ll come again’. And I remember him saying ‘walk back to the corner – you’re walking out.’ And that’s probably why I’m so confident and I’ve come back so strong. Because I walked out of that ring. I wasn’t put on my arse.”

I watch Buglioni work on the pads. There is a marked difference between the man I see now and the man who was training for the Khomitsky defence. On that earlier occasion it was notable – even to my uncultured eye – that Buglioni seemed to lack aggression. Nothing too discernible – one certainly could not have accused him of going through the motions – but there was a sense that the boxer might just have temporarily forgotten about the life and death nature of the world that he inhabits. There is none of that now. There is a meanness to Buglioni’s punches that occasionally makes me wince from the sidelines as he throws them.

“My mindset has changed,” he explains. “When I train now, I train to hurt people. I wasn’t doing that previously. I was boxing nice, I was landing good shots but if I hurt anyone I would take a step back.

“Things have changed now. If I hurt someone I jump on them. If they’re in the ring with me they’re getting it. I’m in there to hurt people. And if I get beat so be it but they’ll know they’ve been in a fight. There’s no way there’re coming out unscathed against me. They’ll have to kill me to beat me.”

Such time honoured boxing rhetoric inevitably draws me back to my father and I struggle to concentrate as images flash by of the two of us perched in front of the TV yelling at Alan Minter as Marvin Hagler brutally exposes the British middleweight champion before being showered with bottles and cans. The perennial abuse that my father was wont to hurl at that great underachiever Joe Bugner as he pranced his way to yet another points loss against yet another American. There are so many moments that we shared together at the shrine of that fuzzy analogue screen: Stracey’s win over Napoles. Stracey’s loss to Dave ‘Boy’ Green. Green’s shocking one-punch KO at the fists of Ray Leonard; Kenny Norton’s frankly outrageous loss to Ali in their third fight. Some of those men have gone now but the memories are indelible.

Boxing was one of the very few things on which my father and I grudgingly walked a common ground. He was a soldier and then a copper and then a white collar worker at a local factory. Latterly he was a Labour councillor. My brother was a soldier and is still a copper. I was the black sheep. I liked to see myself as an artist but never the twain and all that. He didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him. It was as if we both spoke a different language, with boxing being an occasional but all too fleeting translator.

The rest of the time we were at it like two heavyweight rivals. Him hurling the blows, both verbal and otherwise. Me ducking under their slipstream. Me erecting an impregnable defence that left him pondering and no doubt regretting the mistakes that we all make when we are young men.

“I still live with my parents. Me and my brother are still at home and my sister lives around the corner. We’re a close family.” Frank Buglioni’s relationship with his own father is thankfully somewhat less destructive. “We didn’t sleep that night. Me and my dad sat and watched the fight back. We came to the conclusion that I need to rectify this loss and come back a better fighter and that this could be the making of me. I said if I could fight that fella right now I would.”

I’m full of big ideas, me. I tell Frank that he needs to have an iconic image. That an iconic image is what will get people talking about him. As if I know anything at all.

And for reasons that will become all too obvious I have it in my mind to get him to recreate that famous Esquire cover shot of Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. And Frank is just so nice, so accommodating, that he agrees to my scheme without hesitation. I warn him that he might look a prat in front of his fellow fighters but he doesn’t care. And this is just one of the very many reasons that I am reminded how lucky, how fortunate I am to spend even a little time with one of these extraordinary people; this curious species who risk their lives and their future health looking for some sort of gold at the end of the rainbow. About how, almost to a man, you will seldom come across a nicer breed of person.

This is the incredible dichotomy inherent in boxing: that these individuals, who choose to express themselves through bouts of controlled violence that is so often frightening to behold, that is frequently way beyond the boundaries of what our society deems to be acceptable behaviour, are generally more at peace with themselves than many of us will ever be. A small part of me wishes that my father was standing beside me to witness at first hand the tangible aura of tranquility that glows from Frank Buglioni. And yet another part of me is probably aware that I’m taking no small advantage of somebody who is slowly, I think, becoming a friend. Because actually it’s me who should be standing there looking a prat in front of the other boxers. It’s my flabby body that those arrows should really be aimed at.
There I go again. All too often in the past people have accused me of using boxing as a device to allow me to harp on about myself. But it’s Frank Buglioni who clearly deserves the last word before heading towards his own fork in the road to destiny:

“I take a lot of positives from the defeat: My chin is decent. He caught me with two absolute peaches and I was on the ropes and he was throwing right hands at will. And I was still on my feet. And I see that as a good sign,” he looks me in the eye earnestly as he tells me this. “Since turning pro I’ve never been the underdog. And I’m a dangerous underdog. I like to be at the back of the pack chasing. This has brought out another side of me and I’m spiteful. Everything I hit I’m hitting to hurt. I’m not going through the motions with anything. I’m in there to end careers.”

***

Postscript
I began writing this less than a week before my father died. A part of me is, of course, already deeply regretting that I wasn’t there to to support him as his body withered away and succumbed to the truly awful and incurable condition known as Motor Neurone Disease. I hadn’t seen him for maybe two years after what in retrospect was always bound to be a frankly silly falling out that isn’t worth going into here. Over the years there had been many such trivial arguments and long periods in which we studiously avoided seeing each other. I think both of us realised that our superficial bickering masked a deeper chasm that often threatened to rend our father/son relationship into shreds. I believe it’s not that uncommon.

One of the many things I’ve taken from him is boxing, another is music, which I guess aren’t such bad gifts to receive from anybody. And it is to boxing – and you – that I must apologise. On too many occasions I’ve found myself hijacking the sport as a means of exorcising inner demons. And I’m doing it again right now. I hope you’ll understand.

 

4

Muhammad Ali: Hero and villain

In a tribute to muhammad_li

In a tribute to the late Muhammad Ali I am reblogging this excerpt from my book Rope Burns, which is to be republished in September 2016.

By now you should not be remotely surprised to learn that one fine evening back in 1980 I somehow conspired to find myself perched on a stool in front of a small television set in my local pub watching a delayed ITV transmission of Muhammad Ali’s foolhardy attempt to win a fourth world title. Of course, it did not matter to me at the time that I had already learned the result of the fight in the newspapers and, were it not for the fact that I, like too many others, was what can only be described as bewitched by Ali’s enormous charisma, it should have been no particular revelation to discover that The Greatest turned out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. Apparently, he was human after all: as capable of bleeding, of bruising, and of succumbing to the debilitating effects of Father Time as the man who had served me the beer that I was having great difficulty swallowing.

Naturally, the benefit of hindsight allows me to contemplate the dismemberment of the Ali legend with a sense of reluctant and undeserved smugness. One does not have to be a boxing expert in order to be able to look back at the circumstances surrounding this invidious spectacle and conclude that Ali had no possible chance of winning the fight. He was thirty-eight-years-of-age by then and for the past couple of years newspaper picture editors had been taking an almost puerile delight in regularly demonstrating to their readers that the body beautiful was not what it used to be. Like those pictures of Elvis taken in the months leading up to his death, in which the bloated singer, with vacant George A Romero stare, slouches onto stage wrapped in sequins and rolls of blubber, photographs of the new – enhanced – Ali were appearing in the tabloids on an almost weekly basis. There was New Ali sitting at the ring apron of some title fight or other, accompanied by a dwindling entourage and a stomach that could have belonged to a pregnant woman. There was New Ali at the dinner table, filling his cheeks with food in the way that Satchmo would once fill his own with air. It was clear that the Ali we were all familiar with was no more; the person who was once described as the most beautiful man in the world had mutated into something else. Ali had become Fat Ali.

No longer forced to endure the endless torture of early morning runs, gym callisthenics and constant sparring sessions, in two years out of the ring Ali had developed rather too much of a liking for the burgers that he had taken to endorsing on television. In horticultural terms, he had gone to seed. However, unlike his former victim George Foreman, whose unexpectedly successful ring comeback in the late-eighties was, if we are to believe the boxer, fuelled by a mountain of Big Macs, it was apparent that Ali’s extra weight would provide no additional advantages when the lure of the ring – as it inevitably would – became too much for his ego to bear.

This is not to say that Ali did not do a good job in extending his own rather extravagant interpretation of reality. Indeed, even the most qualified of observers – Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee amongst them – found themselves rubbing their eyes in wonderment when he began training for his doomed attempt to wrench the heavyweight title from his accomplished successor Larry Holmes. As the extra poundage was sweated away and the Fat Ali persona was exposed as an apparent impostor, fans and critics alike found themselves drawn inexorably into the dream. The rebirth of Ali may have been achieved, as we were to learn later, with the help of prescribed diet pills that left him dangerously dehydrated, not to mention the odd flask or two of black hair dye, but it seemed at the time as if the Master Conjuror had somehow managed to transform himself back into the beautiful, dazzling young athlete whose streamlined features had made his the most recognisable face on planet earth. By the time that he was ready to climb back into the ring and receive the hiding of a lifetime, Ali’s weight was exactly as it had been when he had first fought Sonny Liston back in 1964. More than the Rope-a-Dope in Zaire, more than the Ali Shuffle or the ‘Butterfly’ punch that put down Liston in their second fight, this astonishing re-attainment of youth was the fighter’s greatest feat of illusion.

Personally, I had no doubts at the time as to who would win the fight: even though I was not naïve enough to consider broadcasting my ill-conceived loyalties to the illusion, deep down I was sure that Ali would prevail. There was no logical reasoning behind this conclusion; it was not as though one could run an eye down the statistics for the fight and pinpoint any particular flaw in Holmes’ not inconsiderable armoury. Although he was by no means The Greatest, Holmes was set to become one of history’s more distinguished heavyweight champions. At thirty-years-of-age he was in his prime and, were it not for the fact that it was his misfortune to have been appointed the impossible task of filling the tasselled boots of the man who had once employed him as a sparring partner, Holmes would certainly have become one of the premier stars of the eighties. Yet somehow it seemed to me that Ali would find a way to beat his protégé; it might take a miracle, but then Ali always seemed to have first refusal whenever anybody up there was doling out miracles.

Almost two decades on from that dreadful evening there are several memories that stubbornly refuse to fade. For any trivia fans out there I can inform you that the beer I was endeavouring to drink as the massacre ensued cost the princely sum of thirty-seven new pence a pint. Similarly, I can divulge that a packet of twenty cigarettes was available at the bar for under 50p. Even more trainspotterrishly, I can reveal that the pub’s solitary arcade machine was one of those table-top versions of Galaxians, featuring the usual collection of badly rendered sprites descending through a beer-clouded space and accompanied by an assortment of pings, whistles, fizzes and pops, at a cost to your pocket of ten new pence a game. If you are wondering why I appear determined to waddle in this paddling pool of consumerist nostalgia I need merely point out that Muhammad Ali, in payment for what was, admittedly, to be the worst night of his life, was collecting a fee of $8 million. In modern day terms Ali’s purse for the fight was in excess of $30 million, a truly staggering amount of money for a portly middle-aged ex-champ whose talents had been in steady decline since the early seventies. Another reminder, for those of you out there who weren’t around when Ali was busy putting us all under his spell, of just how enormous a name his was. Ali was the superstars’ superstar: bigger, bolder, brasher, louder, prettier and better paid than any athlete or entertainer in history.

The evening was also memorable in that it was the first occasion I can recall someone using the word ‘fuck’ during a televised prime time sporting event. At the beginning of round ten, as Muhammad Ali slumps into his stool and prepares to drag his heaving body back into the centre of the ring to be used as target practise by a saddened and visibly embarrassed Larry Holmes, the diminutive figure of Angelo Dundee could clearly be heard telling Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown ‘Fuck you! No! I’m stopping it!’ as the other man implores Ali to resume participation in the beating that is placing the boxer’s life in considerable jeopardy. It was also the first (and only) time that I can recall a television boxing commentator actually pleading for a fighter to hit the canvas: “Come on Ali… Either throw a punch or go down! He really can’t linger like this… It’s quite pathetic!” cried the weary voice of Reg Gutteridge who, like the rest of us, was clearly not enjoying the spectacle of Ali’s public execution.

Boxing completists will already be aware that the only stoppage defeat of Ali’s long career was not, in fact, his last fight. The dubious honour of being the last man to defeat the Greatest belongs to Canada’s Trevor Berbick, Commonwealth Champion at the time but himself a future holder of the WBC heavyweight title (Indeed, as well as Larry Holmes, it is Berbick who provides a precarious link between the Ali era and the Mike Tyson era, being in the opposite corner on that night in 1987 in which Tyson became boxing’s youngest ever heavyweight champion). In real terms, however, the Holmes fight was the last hurrah. It was the final full stop at the end of the last sentence of the closing Chapter of a story that had managed to both illuminate and transcend boxing.

At the risk of appearing overly sentimental, those images of Ali’s public pain and humiliation were enough to send me scurrying into the toilets with tears welling up in my eyes. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old by then and to this day I cannot find any rational justification for my reaction. Although it was true that Ali had been around in both the background and foreground of much of my life, it has to be said that he was well down on the list of what I considered important at the time. He wasn’t female, he didn’t come in a glass and there were certainly no portraits of Queen Elizabeth II printed about his torso. However, in common with countless people in every corner of the globe, whatever special quality or combination of special qualities it was that Ali possessed was somehow able to touch some deeper part of me; a part of me which the usual mixture of instinct and social conditioning ensured was usually happily hidden away.

Some twenty years after the horrors of Ali’s final curtain call, the fighter still has a kind of hold over me that I cannot really explain. I am not alone in this, of course: even the most cynical and world-weary of those who follow, write about or indulge in the sport of boxing tend to come over all misty-eyed whenever Ali’s name happens to crop up in conversation. Yet whilst it is certain that Ali as a twentieth century icon seems to exemplify the more positive and heroic aspects of boxing, there have been many fighters – some of whom I have known personally – who have completely failed to move me in circumstances which should have had even the most stony-faced of us reaching for the Kleenex.

Yet Ali was not without his flaws. The occasional unforgivable cruelty that he bestowed upon his ring opponents is often buried away in the hyperbole surrounding his battles with the US government and his human rights campaigning. Moreover, not only did Ali sometimes appear to take pleasure in humiliating and, one might even argue, actually physically torturing opponents who were patently inferior athletes (his contests against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are particularly brutal examples of this spiteful and malicious aspect of Ali’s personality) but the personal insults that he meted out to rival Joe Frazier were apparently sufficient to reduce the great heavyweight champion’s children to tears.

Ali’s ambiguous treatment of women also left much to be desired: during his infamous 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Parkinson show, for example, the newly-recrowned heavyweight champion arranged for a group of Muslim women to sit out in the audience as an example of how the female form should be, in his words, ‘properly dressed’. Clad in simple cotton gowns designed to hide the contours of the figure, and wearing head scarves that left only the hands and face exposed, these women were the focus for a startlingly incoherent lecture on Muslim ideology by a frenzied Muhammad Ali.

Not, one might say, entirely unexpected behaviour from a man who had attached himself so securely to the Moslem movement that he had been prepared to make the ultimate statement of reinvention and actually change his name. However, his actions take on an entirely different complexion when we realise that Ali, by then married to Belinda Boyd (having divorced his first wife, Sonji Roi, when she refused to discard her Western clothing in favour of her husband’s preferred attire) was involved at the time in an extra-marital affair with the decidedly un-Muslimesque Veronica Porche (Amazingly, whilst in the Philippines in 1975 for his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali would actually introduce Veronica to President Ferdinand Marcos as his wife). Although Miss Porch would go on to become Ali’s third wife, such extra-curricular canoodlings were in direct contravention of the guidelines set down by the Nation of Islam.

The breaking of rules, however, was a distinctive and important feature of the Muhammad Ali mystique. After all, are we not talking about the man who literally rewrote the boxing rulebook? Was Ali not the fighter who eschewed boxing’s conventions and chose to dance around the ring with arms dangling and chin exposed rather than adopt the forward guard demanded by tradition? Similarly, was he not the self-styled poet whose charm and intelligence reduced us all to tears of laughter whilst simultaneously being classified ‘not up to current standards’ by the US draft board, after an aptitude test in 1966 which revealed Ali’s IQ to be only 78.

It is for reasons such as these that we, perhaps, should not be surprised if Ali’s interpretation of the doctrine of Elijah Muhammad was occasionally subject to a little surreptitious adjustment. Indeed, it would appear that Ali was actively encouraged to do so. The media coverage that was ensured by his involvement in the Muslim movement was apparently sufficient to enable its leaders to turn a blind eye to even the most fundamental of Ali’s behavioural transgressions. The Muslim decree which expressly forbids one man to commit violence on another could, it appears, be conveniently overlooked when you had Ali as a frontman.

Yet despite everything I – we – cannot stop loving him. I – we cannot help but shield our eyes in the radiant glow of the man’s achievements. Ali may have been the man who proclaimed that the white man was the ‘Devil’ whilst surrounding himself with a coterie of pale-faced acolytes; he may also have been the pacifist who was prepared to sacrifice both career and personal liberty for a principle whilst continuing to earn a living in the most brutal and deadly of occupations; he may have been the womaniser who refused to view his women as equals; and he may have been the spokesman of a generation whose words were all too often not his own, but somehow none of these things seem to matter.

Except, of course, that they do.

The luxury of time has permitted me to conclude that in order to enjoy the vicarious friendship of Muhammad Ali you have to be prepared to compromise; you have to be able to turn away from his more baser indiscretions. In the end, you must to come to realise that even one such as he, so perfect in so many respects, was not, in fact, perfect.

It’s a similar predicament that one faces when one finds oneself in a situation in which a friend or work colleague suddenly comes out with a racist or sexist statement that appears totally at odds with the person you had imagined them to be. On such occasions you have to very quickly decide how you are going to react. There are, I believe, two basic alternatives: you can either do the right thing and tell the other person that you find their comments offensive and would they mind very much not repeating them again. Or you can do the more cowardly thing and pretend that you haven’t heard them call a black man a nigger or smile uncomfortably and attempt to change the subject. In my case – if I am honest – I can tell you that on those instances in which I have found myself in such a circumstance I have been known to offer both reactions – I have been both righteous and a coward. Yet not forgetting more obvious considerations such as how much bigger and how much stronger the offending person is than you, the deciding factor in such an dilemma is usually not solely determined by whatever value you place on your moral being, it is more to do with how much you are prepared to put up with in order to remain in the company of the offending person.

In the case of Muhammad Ali I am willing and able to put up with everything that he is prepared to throw at me. If I was, for example, to pick up a newspaper tomorrow morning and discover that Ali is a mass murderer with a propensity for fucking Teddy bears I doubt that the news would in any way dim my blind, dumb admiration for the man. He’s inside me, I’m afraid. When I talk about him and I talk about his deeds, I’m talking about that little part of me I mentioned earlier. The one that is a subconscious contributor to Ali’s many achievements. The little piece that is lodged under my flesh like shrapnel. And however much it itches and threatens to come to the surface, I know that it will never leave me.

This was is excerpt from my 1999 book Rope Burns, published by Headline

6

Tyson Fury – Making a sow’s arse

image

(This is a little taster for a book I’m currently writing, which I’m not going to reveal the title of at the moment. Should anyone be at all interested it’ll be published towards the end of the year.)

I’m at my third press conference in a week and feel no less an outsider. The boxing promoter Frank Warren mills around cheerfully massaging shoulders but even though we met long ago when I had hair and he didn’t have scars on his chest from bullets that almost killed him he doesn’t have a clue who I am. He looks through me and I’m pleased that he does.

My third press conference in a quarter of a century and already there are faces that I am beginning to recognise as regulars. The silver-haired Colin Hart, he of The Sun newspaper is here, eternally shaking hands, boxing’s own Methuselah, but unlike last time around I choose to avoid him. Also present once more is a tall dark-skinned man with a digital camera permanently strapped to his wrist, whom I’m told is called Kugan Cassius, something of a name in the boxing world but most probably anonymous to normal people. He apparently conducts regular interviews for a YouTube channel he started a few years ago that has quickly grown to attract over one million hits. Boxers and managers and promoters seem anxious to court his attention. In the old days newspaper men ruled the roost and could potentially make or break a fighter but nowadays the balance of power has shifted towards young black men toting iPhones or Galaxies who film every second of any event that happens to make the slightest mention of boxing and then upload it on to different branches of social media while they still have battery power remaining.

I’ve come here today to kill several birds with one stone. Having contacted Frank Warren’s press office I am grateful to be invited along to observe three prominent boxing figures strut their stuff. Two of them, Naseem Hamed and Ricky Hatton, are former world champion boxers at feather and light-welterweight respectively. The other is currently the heavyweight champion of the world, a controversial figure known as Tyson Fury. Fury is probably the real reason I am here. For even in the modern era of boxing, possibly the most cynical, financially polluted epoch in boxing history, a chance to see the real, bona fide heavyweight champion of the world in the flesh is an opportunity that few even casual observers of the sport would be willing to turn down.

The press conference is being held in a large room called The Empire Suite in London’s drippingly opulent Landmark Hotel. By coincidence I’d been here only a few months earlier after a former employer died and left a sum of money that was to be spent on a lavish bash in her memory. Unlike that night I stand innocently sipping mineral water and quietly watch events unfold. Ricky Hatton, noticeably heavier than in his fighting days, is being interviewed on film by a heavy-browed young man whom I recognise from the last press conference I attended. More film crews congregate around other fighters, discernible to me only by the stoop of the shoulders and their calcified fists. My eyes stalk Frank Warren, impressed to witness him in action: silky smooth, effortlessly charming, a veteran of more of these type of events than his relatively youthful appearance would seem to suggest.

I think back to meeting Ambrose Mendy at the end of last year. And remember him telling me misty-eyed how he and Warren discovered boxing together in the early 1980s and were entranced by the brutal spectacle. I also recollect him intimating on more than one occasion how the pair of them were close enough for the promoter to be nominated best man at his wedding. As always, however, there is more than one side to any tale in boxing. With even a little background reading such blissful memoirs of friendship lost and found prove not to be taken at face value. In Ben Dirs’ 2013 book The Hate Game Warren claims not to have even invited Mendy to his own wedding three week’s earlier and to have regretted agreeing to being Mendy’s best man. The truth? Irrelevant. As always there is no truth in boxing. And there are no lies.

But I digress… The room is now filling up and people are starting to take their positions in the row of seats that have been placed before a large table at the back of the room, on which rest name plates corresponding to the main protagonists of this occasion. One each for Frank Warren, Ricky Hatton, Naseem Hamed, promoter Mick Hennessey, Tyson Fury and his father ‘Big’ John Fury.

I take a seat and find myself sitting close to Steve Lillis. Back in the day Steve was the racing correspondent of The Sunday Sport and I was that venerable organ’s boxing writer. Among the nipples and haunted fish fingers we tried our best to keep a straight face. If my memory serves me right, we’ve seen each other on two occasions since then and he greets me warmly, which I’m grateful for. He’s older, as are we all, but slimmer and fitter than he used to be. When I left the Sport he comfortably slipped into my moccassins and has been working in boxing ever since. Unlike many of the people he writes about Steve is completely without pretension and has done well for himself in the sport. He is now employed by Box Nation, the television channel that Frank Warren set up in 2012, and spends his time interviewing figures from the boxing world in an honest and unthreatening manner that has won him many friends.

I find myself genuinely happy to be back in Steve’s company, if only for a few brief moments. It’s also quite nice to be recognised by someone, to not be a complete stranger in a room full of people who know each other. As you would expect we swap anecdotes about the past and promise to meet up for a drink, which will very probably never happen.

There is a sudden commotion in the room and a looming figure descends on to the table. Tyson Fury is a staggering 6 ‘ 9″ in height but somehow seems shorter. He also looks a lot slimmer than I imagined him to be, a fact that is in direct contrast to stories of him being six stones overweight that are currently doing the rounds on social media. He issues a terse ‘good afternoon gentlemen’ before taking his seat, where he is joined by the rest of the boxing ensemble with the perhaps inevitable exception of Naseem Hamed. Frank Warren makes a joke about ‘Naz’ never changing, still late after all these years.

The press conference kicks off in pedestrian fashion. Also at the table is Hughie Fury, cousin of Tyson and another heavyweight boxer; the first part of the afternoon concerns his upcoming fight. But the watching press fidget as they wait for the real meat to be served. A few questions are gently aimed at Hughie, more through politeness than any real intent, and then it’s on the main event.

Tyson Fury has an adrenaline infused smile on his face as he speaks. A glint of madness in his eyes and the confrontational comportment of the habitually pursued. He murmurs something about being a gypsy and as such being used to ruining people’s gardens. It’s a comic remark that is greeted with a smattering of embarrassed laughter from the watching press. But there is also an unmistakable element of menace about the tone.

Like many people I have seen the headlines about Tyson Fury since he unexpectedly relieved longstanding heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko of his belts in Germany last year. Although he refutes the accusations of racism, homophobia and sexism that have blighted his reputation since that night, Fury’s words and demeanour do nothing to further his cause. An ill-fitting armour of belligerent indignation is worn by  Fury and his brethren. They are angry: angry that Tyson is apparently gaining no respect from the press; angry that in their opinion travellers are universally viewed with contempt by the general public; angry with the questions that the press are not asking; angry that they have had to endure a four-hour drive from Manchester to get to this location when they should have been sitting in a chauffeur driven Limousine. They are angry with the whole world when in fact Tyson Fury should be having the time of his life. Furious Fury is the heavyweight champion of the world, one of a very select breed of athlete who can trace his championship lineage back through the decades, through Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey all the way back to John L Sullivan in the late nineteenth century. Fury is the man who beat the man who beat the man. He deserves to be a little pleased with himself. For surely this considerable achievement is more than Fury could ever have dreamed of?

Today Tyson Fury’s specific anger is related to the fact that one of the belts that he won, the IBF belt, has recently been snatched away from him after refusing to fight a nominated opponent. He is furious that his property is now strapped to the svelte waist of housewives’ favourite Anthony Joshua, who gaimed the title in a comedically one-sided performance the weekend before. Fury calls Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn a ‘bitch’ and a ‘pussy’. He tells the press that Hearn is a ‘daddy’s boy’ and promises to ‘give him a slap’ when they next meet. Veterans of the press conference genre will understand that such talk is usually to be taken with a pinch of smelling salts before being placed into the context it is intended for: that of a vehicle by which to put bums on arena seats. Yet there is more than a touch of reality about Fury’s performance. It appears to me that there is little pretence contained within this outburst. Fury really seems to mean what he says. His fixed smile is more a grimace of self-righteous indignation. And when Fury grunts ‘next question!’ after yet another abusive tirade it is not an invitation but an admonishment.

Because of this there are few in the press section willing to speak. Or perhaps there are other reasons: the fact that a Daily Mail journalist named Oliver Holt was threatened with physical violence for publishing a taped interview with Tyson Fury. Or the fact that Tyson’s father has been to prison for gouging out a man’s eye. Or the fact that Tyson’s uncle, Peter Fury, manager and trainer of the heavyweight champion, is a convicted drugs baron who, according to The Daily Mirror, allegedly ran a lucrative amphetamine distribution business from behind bars. Whatever the case there seems to be plenty of reasons for the attendant press to keep the heads firmly beneath the parapet. Their silence is more than a little awkward. And when questions do occasionally appear they are uncontroversial, vapid affairs that draw further scorn from the Fury ranks.

Although it is fully a quarter of a century since I last spoke at a press conference I decide to throw my hat into the ring.

I ask Fury about his assertion that a rematch of the fight in Germany will result in the loss of his belts. Although we are all fully aware that boxers who fight in an opponent’s home territory traditionally run the very real risk of falling victim to outrageous mathematical errors in judges’ scoring, Tyson’s performance in Düsseldorf last July clearly did not elicit any such arithmetical aberrations. I am interested to hear in Tyson’s own words why things should be different this time round.

‘Listen,’ he says, ‘don’t try and tempt fate twice. One’s good enough and I’m happy with that. Let him come here.’

‘But you’ve not heard anything to suggest that that would happen?’ I ask.

‘I’ve not heard anything. But let him come here, the German prick…’ he replies in his thick Northern accent, immediately getting testy.

At this point Frank Warren interjects.

‘It’s very, very rare to get a win out there,’ say the promoter diplomatically. ‘Very few British fighters have done it. Why tempt fate?’

Although in terms of ring deportment, any comparisons with Muhammad Ali end before they begin, when it comes to talking there are without doubt similarities between boxing’s greatest exponent and his most recent successor. Despite the acrid mood that permeates all corners of the room I find myself chuckling at Tyson Fury’s circus act. He’s clearly intelligent. He’s certainly articulate. And he does have charisma. Surely with only a few cosmetic tweaks he would stand a very real chance of gaining the respect he feels he is not getting from the press?

‘The only man who could beat Klitschko was me,’ proclaims Fury, embarking upon a long and entertaining rant. ‘I done it through unorthodox positions. That’s how you beat them men. How you beat robots is do unorthodox things. Touch the floor – punch them in the face. Spin around in a circle, kick your leg up and hit him a one-two. What I’ve got can’t be learned. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Him back there will tell you that!”

Heads in the room swivel to see that Naseem Hamed has finally entered the room. It’s the first time I have seen him in the flesh since he turned pro back in 1992 and the difference in his physical appearance is astonishing. Back then he was a talented skinny kid from Sheffield with a cocky attitude. Several world titles, a spell in prison and countless millions later he is unrecognisable as that person. I’ve seen pictures in the papers, of course, but nothing prepares me for the transformation.

Hamed is wearing a loose fitting white shirt and is simply ENORMOUS. The peevish part of me is reminded of that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer purposefully gains weight as a means of avoiding work and ends up wearing a blouse in the style of Demis Roussos. It is as if the new Naseem Hamed has swallowed the old. And it is no exaggeration to say that Hamed could easily campaign at heavyweight these days if he were to consider a comeback. But then who am I to talk? Who is anybody?

(I can’t help but think back to a day earlier, when I had lunch with the recuperating Herol Graham and we spoke about his long-time friend. ‘Next time I see Naz,’ he had said. ‘I’m going to have a word with him about his weight…’)

‘Come on Naz,’ calls Fury. ‘Don’t be quiet at the back.’

‘It’s all right,’ grins Hamed. ‘You’re doing really well.’

‘Forget Anthony Joshua,’ laughs Fury, casting an eye over Hamed’s bulk. ‘I’ll give you a first defence.’

‘I’d come unstuck,’ says Hamed.

‘This ain’t the Prince show, this is the King show,’ replies Fury. ‘My son’s called Prince. I named him after you because you’re my favourite fighter, from England anyway…’

‘Big respect…’

‘I used to watch you. Try and do the things you do but about ten stone heavier. It might look a bit more awkward but it’s effective still.’

The interchange provides welcome relief for everyone in the room. The toxic atmosphere begins to dissipate and shoulders noticeably relax. But then Tyson Fury’s father begins to speak.

‘Big’ John Fury is an ex-fighter himself. The facial resemblance he shares with his son his striking. Moreover, the vocal similarities are uncanny. You only have to listen to him speak for a few moments to understand the origins of Tyson Fury’s scattergun rants.

‘He’s just toyed will all of ya,’ says Fury senior, in the sandpaper voice of an erstwhile Bernard Manning. ‘He’s got about as much respect for you lot as you have for him…

‘Looking at all off youse laughing at bullshit, I’m astounded. You’re supposed to be business men but you’re playing games like school kids. Get real.

‘I’ll tell you what, people, show a bit more respect. I’ve done time back in my life and I know real people. Not paper, plastic people. You’ll have to pull your socks up, all of you. All these interviews here are pointless because the paying public don’t want bullshit like what’s going on here. I was shocked when I come here today four hours in a car to watch this ping pong game. Ask some serious questions, show some serious respect and you’ll get some back.’

The elder Fury’s unfocused diatribe is endless and without punctuation. I once again find myself wondering why nobody from the press ranks is offering up any objections. Fury addresses the room in the manner of a headmaster reprimanding his assembly for spraying graffiti in the wrong colour paint.

‘I don’t think he is undervalued at all,’ I pipe up, trying to reason with him. ‘I think everyone does respect him.’

‘No they don’t, mate,’ says Fury senior dismissively. ‘You’re having a laugh.’

‘I think you’re talking about the mainstream press…’

‘You’re having a laugh! You know, there was not one genuine question asked today.’

‘Well I certainly respect him,’ I add. ‘I think he’s a great fighter.’

‘Show it then!’ demands Fury. ‘Show the rest of the world. Cause I’m telling you now it’s a joke from where I’m sitting!’

What follows is a five-minute rant designed to illustrate the injustice and indignities that are gratuitously heaped upon his son. There is no point at all in trying to reason with the man. He only hears what he wants to hear; and in the main that seems to be the sound of his own voice.

‘I’m not fucking happy with that!’ grumbles the white-haired journo seated next to me in a voice not so loud as to carry.

***

I spend a fitful night mulling things over and decide to try to continue my discussion with ‘Big’ John Fury. I Tweet to him but get no response. Finally, I contact the press agent of his promoter Hennessey Sports, who gives me the number of Tyson Fury’s manager, Peter, he of that alleged indoor candy floss business.

I call Peter Fury and tell him that if John’s willing I’d like to come up to Manchester and sit down with him for a cup of tea. I tell him that I’d be interested in continuing our discussion because I think John’s wrong and needs to be told so. Peter Fury is friendly and laughs a lot. He tells me that his brother’s opinions are not shared by the rest of the family. That John can sometimes get ‘a bit carried away’, and that the family’s relationship with the boxing press is generally a good one.

We talk about Tyson’s fight with Klitschko: I tell him that what impressed me most about his nephew’s performance was not how he threw his punches, but more the way he threw the feint. We talk about what it’s like living in the north and he laughs some more. And I tell him what a pity it is that Tyson Fury’s confrontational attitude yesterday ended up alienating people who are actually fans of boxing. My fear is that he runs the very real risk of making a sow’s arse out of a silk purse.

We talk for about a quarter of an hour and as always I’m struck by how friendly and welcoming the boxing fraternity can often be, even to strangers. Peter Fury’s attitude towards me compared to what I experienced yesterday are as chalk is to cheese. As bacon is to eggs. How could the man I have just spoken to be in any way related to the angry apparition that confronted the press yesterday?

The thought of food sets my stomach gurgling and I realise I run the risk of being late for an appointment that could not mean any more to me. In an anonymous restaurant in Stoke Newington, ex-boxer Michael Watson awaits. The man who started it all.

2

The Hardest Fight

I was very honoured this week to be the guest columnist for Boxing News. I last wrote for them back in 1988 would you believe?

Here’s the piece:

 

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1

We’re all going to die screaming in agony

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God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.

I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.

‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.

But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.

They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.

If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.

4

My sterile prison cell


When I was younger I got drunk one night end ended up in a police cell. As I lay on the solitary piss-stained bunk I looked up at the ceiling of the cell and felt a tremendous feeling of placidity wash over me. This isn’t so bad, I reasoned, if this is what prison is like I can handle it.

The reality was, however, that unless I killed one of the guards with a sharpened lolly pop stick I was most likely going home in the morning and the little bit of notoriety that this experience would afford me would be healthily repaid in beers and possibly women. I knew plenty of girls back then who liked a bad boy. Perhaps I would be a bad boy once I’d done my tiny dribble of porridge.

That happened 35-years-ago and truth be told I never quite made it to bad boy status. The last guy I actually fought with is now dead of cancer, and the reason that we fought was because he accused me of plagiarism. It was a distinctly middle-class difference of opinion and an equally flocculent variety of skirmish: he aimed a punch at me and I sort of wrestled him to the floor, where we rolled about in the Zerox dust like a couple of wrinkled teenagers. Isn’t that what Christmas parties are supposed to be all about?

I never quite earned bad boy status but I’m getting to know what it’s like to do my time. Because life for me at the moment is all about living in a prison cell. Lights out is around nine-thirtyish and my prison wardens are all young and beautiful. (And even if it wasn’t 2016 and I get a detailed daily breakdown of visitors to my web site I’d still be saying that, ladies.) From there on in it’s the sounds of silence that fill my head. The noises made by anguished, frightened children crying for their mothers (never their fathers) which, without fail and usually in exactly the same order, elicit from me feelings of abject sorrow followed by selfless pity followed by aching sadness followed by mild irritation followed by red hot anger followed by if you don’t shut that whining fucking brat up so I can get some sleep I’m going to chuck the fucking whinging parent out of the fucking window and really become a fucking bad boy. Sleep deprivation is a very efficient torture method and has been known to start wars.
As I wrote that last sentence an electronic alarm sounded from a gadget by my daughter’s bedside that looks a little like the one used by Bones to check out unconscious Klingons. It keeps doing that. It’s letting the whole ward know that the drug being pumped into my daughter’s arm via a thin plastic cable is not reaching its destination. It’s a bit like what happens when the hose pipe bends while you’re watering the garden (Oh, to stand in the sunshine watering the garden…). And amid the farts and burps and snores and slurps of the rest of the ward I am aware of a murmur of irritation. Some other sleep-starved parent wants to throw me out of the window and earn themselves a slice of bad boy status.

But none of us can do this. Because we’re in a hospital for sick kids and whatever feelings you have about your lot in the world you have no choice but to make like an erstwhile Page Three model: grin and bear it. And this is actually no bad analogy because when you’re the parent of a sick child in hospital you are naked. Every routine, every ritual, every secret practise that makes you who you are is cast aside and laid open to the universe.
7:34 a.m. and lights have just come on. I’ve already been up for two hours. At least we don’t have to slop out. In the beds around me anxious parents are already talking in not quite so hushed tones about their own concerns, their own damaged children. Soon a damp mop will be dragged around the ward and my daughter will be offered a breakfast menu which she’ll refuse to choose from. Interesting the speed in which new rituals worm their way into your life. In two hours’ time Sofia and I can go home for the day. Compared to many here we’re the lucky ones. But it’s not really home because it’s a home that is invaded twice a day by still more elegant prison wardens as they refill my daughter with drugs. There goes that alarm again.

Each time that alarm goes off you’re aware of an onrush of footsteps. This is followed by the bustling image of an impossibly pristine young woman in a sparkling pressed nurse’s uniform, a mere child of flawless skin and glossy hair. We’re all destined to get to know nurses in one way or another and I can tell you that they have very little in common with the old Benny Hill version of a nurse. While they can occasionally be seen to move at Benny Hill double-quick speed it is there that any similarity ends. Without going all political on you, you only have to spend a couple of minutes in the company of these young women to start wanting to see Jeremy Hunt’s flaccid dick stuffed into a sausage roll and force fed to David Cameron via any orifice that isn’t his mouth. How dare these Oxbridge Bullingdon buffoons play God with loaded blue dice? How dare they attempt to stand in the way and block the paths of these people who give so much and get so little back?

It is the nurses – my stoic, uncomplaining, smiling prison wardens – that I find most interesting of all. Each one is my daughter and each my mother. Because even though my own mother was actually a nurse I never actually had any understanding of what she really was. I don’t remember her having the driven look in her eyes of the girls who surround me here. And she never struck me as someone who was prepared to sacrifice herself for others. But she must have been. How could I not have noticed?

This is the long haul for me. Life has temporarily ground to a halt. My days are spent waiting for the nights and my nights are spent longing for the days. And already I’m finding out more about myself than I’d really like to know. More than any person would really like to know.

14

When your child falls ill (Life is what happens…)

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Who was it who said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans? Well for the moment, at least, he was right.

Just under three weeks ago I had everything kind of planned out for the bulk of this year. I was writing the sequel to my book ‘Rope Burns’ and in order to do so I was rekindling lost contacts from the world of boxing whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years. Weirdly, it was all about coping with the death of my father by going down an extremely unusual route. And wonder of wonders it was actually sort of working. Meeting up with these people was having a considerably more palliative effect than the idiot therapist whom I saw last year. When I’d finished writing what I’m calling ‘Dangerous’ I was going to get to work on the sequel to my kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’.

And then my daughter got ill.

The first symptoms were flu-like. She had fevers, chills and was exhausted most of the time. I kept her off school, believing that after a day or two’s rest she’d be right as rain. However, she didn’t get better. Day after day went by and all she could do was lie on the sofa and sleep. The fevers intensified and she refused to eat a thing. After five days of this I called the doctor who suggested I bring her into the clinic. ‘She’s too ill to travel even short distances,’ I said. He mumbled something about Calpol and feeding her and that was that. That was my first mistake, well second actually: I should have insisted that something was done straight away.

By day 8 my wife and I were getting really worried. Apart from a little bit of fruit she’d still not eaten at all and was shedding weight faster than a supermodel preparing for a Vogue shoot. I called the doctor again and this time insisted that she see her. When we got into the doctor’s surgery Sofia looked so ill that no-one could deny that she needed urgent attention. The doctor very efficiently filled in a few forms and sent us immediately to A&E. There she was seen within minutes and given a variety of tests. Later, a doctor spoke to me privately and told me that she they didn’t know what was causing the illness but that she needed a drip and at least an overnight stay.

Here comes mistake number two, or three, depending on how you look at it: That afternoon, having not eaten all day myself, I dragged myself to the nearest eaterie, which happened to be a MacDonald’s, leaving Sofia with my wife. While I was swilling down a coffee I got a call from Laura, who told me that Sofia had been discharged and would not, after all, be staying overnight with a drip. For the second time I should have insisted that something be done immediately.

This left us looking after Sofia for a second long and anxious weekend. On Monday I called the doctor again, who was able to log on to the hospital computer and get the results of the tests they had run at A&E. The flu test had come up negative and the results on her lungs were ‘inconclusive’. He advised me to give it one more day and if there was no improvement to take her back to A&E.

At 5:00 am the following morning I was awoken by Sofia coughing. The cough was alarmingly constant and aching painful. No-one wants to hear their child coughing like that. I tried to give her cough medicine and hot lemon, the usual things, but these were hopelessly inadequate, a bit like throwing rice at a machine gun. Later that morning I told my wife to get ready to take Sofia to hospital but as luck would have it the fever suddenly disappeared, as did the cough. I didn’t think it would do us much good to take Sofia to A&E saying: ‘She was really ill this morning but she’s improved since. Can you take a look at her?’. With this in mind I packed my wife off to work and waited to see if Sofia’s cough and temperature would return.

By mid-day both symptoms had returned with a vengeance and so I dragged Sofia to A&E. This time they didn’t mess about. Within ten minutes she’d had her heart rate measured and declared dangerously high. Next came a speedy X-Ray and a very difficult conversation. Sofia, they explained, had a very rare condition. She had what appeared to be a 4 x 5 cm cyst or abscess on her lung. She was dehydrated and had lost a lot of weight (she’d eaten only a little bit of fruit in 10 days). Oh… and she also had pneumonia.

From there on the wheels were set swiftly into motion. Sofia was immediately put on a drip, feeding her nutrients and very powerful antibiotics five times a day. My wife and I took turns sleeping on a camp bed by her bedside.
For the first couple of days I stupidly attempted to try to write ‘Dangerous’ by her side while she slept. But I wasn’t able to concentrate – who would be able to concentrate? As a parent, of course, you end up blaming yourself. And the more I thought about it the more I realised that there had been definite warning signs in recent months. In December, for instance, I had taken her to the doctor’s after she had continually complained of shortness of breath. He had examined her heart, taken her blood pressure and asked whether she was stressed at school before declaring her fit and healthy. After she left that doctor’s room Sofia had burst into tears. I had then returned to speak to the doctor only to be very curtly told that that he could find nothing wrong with her and that he had other patients to see.

That was very definitely mistake number 0.5. I should have been more assertive. I should have insisted that Sofia have an X-Ray. However, the benefit of hindsight and all that… Whatever the case, on the afternoon of Sofia’s diagnosis I fired off an angry email to that doctor and promptly received three very nervous, guilty, apologetic phone calls from the health centre in question.

From then on it was a waiting game. Thankfully Sofia’s recovery, although not rapid, was definitely in the right direction. And as I sat by her bedside over an 10-day period I had a lot of spare time on my hands. Most of it was spent aimlessly tinkering with my iPad while simultaneously fretting about Sofia and the looming deadline for ‘Dangerous’ that I was sure to miss.

Inevitably I began to form relationships with other patients and their worried parents, as well as the doctors and nurses who were in attendance day and – sometimes annoyingly – night. There was the little girl who had been there for two months after an innocuous fall at school had left her with a badly infected foot. She is a picture of cuteness and grim intelligence; if I could take her home with me now I would.

Yesterday was the best and worst day: by the far the biggest cross that Sofia has had to bear has been the cannula (a word I didn’t know until last week) that has been put into her arm in order to administer her drugs. It seems she has inherited my sensitive skin which means that the needle has been regularly rejected. Eight times in seven days actually. Listening to her whimper at night as they tried to find a new vein in which to torture her some more has been impossible to take. As a parent it is sometimes your responsibility to provide reassurance just at the time when you are most in need of reassurance yourself.

As a solution to this awful situation Sofia was put to sleep yesterday and something more permanent called a PICC line was inserted into her arm. As I held her hand outside the operating theatre and watched the morphine send her instantly to sleep I finally let the tears go. The next hour-and-a-half was too painful. While I sat sipping coffee by her empty bed my mind began to play tricks on me. I wondered how I would break it to her mother if things went wrong. I wondered how our relationship could possibly survive the death of our only child. I selfishly toyed with the idea of killing myself if I had to do this. And then I thought about the effect it would have on Laura to lose both members of her family.

But now, less than 24 hours later, things have changed considerably. I’m sitting here at the dining room table typing away as Sofia and three friends sit playing together on the Wii. Screams and shouts of delight fill the room. Sitting beside Sofia is a community nurse, who is administering the second of two lots of antibiotics that Sofia must have at home every day for very possibly the next six weeks. In the evening Sofia and I must return to stay the night at the hospital because community nurses do not work at night and Sofia needs six doses of drugs per day. It’s going to be a tough month and a bit but already it’s not quite as tough as it was yesterday.

This morning, after being given the good news about Sofia being allowed to go home during the day, I was shown a recent X-Ray of the lung abscess. In little more than a week the drugs have exceeded all expectations.The object, whatever it is, has considerably reduced in size. The outlook suddenly looks a lot less bleak. Lots of Ts need to be crossed before Sofia gets a clean bill of health, and the holiday we planned is off due to the fact that Sofia is not allowed to fly for six months, but she’s alive, I’m alive, Laura’s alive. And I’m suddenly left with whole new appreciation of normality. Boring dumb normality. What bliss.

So ‘Dangerous’ resumes tomorrow. And boxing, as it always has done for me, is rallying around me. Tomorrow I’m due to meet heavyweight contender Anthony Joshua, and on Sunday super-middleweight world title challenger Frank Buglioni is coming to the house so that we can watch his last fight together. He’s asked me to write something on it for his new website and I’ve suggested he do a sort of ‘Director’s Commentary’ like they do for DVD extras.

So far writing ‘Dangerous’ has proven to be more than a little life changing. I’ve already laughed, cried, been hit by a bike after dining with Colin McMillan, almost lost my daughter and I am due to travel to Birmingham with Kellie Maloney early next month to have a little adventure. That sounds a lot worse than I mean it to.