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Dangerous by Ian Probert

This is the first pre-release review of my forthcoming book Dangerous. So glad and relieved it’s a good one.

mylittlebookblog

Do something today that your future self will thank you for. (2)

Helllo readers, LISTEN UP, because I have a really special book for you. When I started writing reviews BACK IN THE DAY, the author Ian Probert got in touch and to be honest I’ve been reading everything he’s written ever since and that’s because it’s brilliant, and this book is no different. Less rambling from me, onto le review.

A quarter of a century ago journalist and author Ian Probert decided never to write about boxing again. His decision was prompted by the injuries sustained by boxer Michael Watson during his world title fight with Chris Eubank. Now, in common with so many fighters, Probert is making an inevitable comeback. Dangerous sees Probert return to the scene of an obsession that has gripped him from childhood. In the course of numerous meetings with a number of leading figures in the fight game, including Herol Graham, Steve Collins, Michael Watson and…

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Dangerous by Ian Probert

Helllo readers, LISTEN UP, because I have a really special book for you. When I started writing reviews BACK IN THE DAY, the author Ian Probert got in touch and to be honest I’ve been reading…

Source: Dangerous by Ian Probert

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Dangerous – why I wrote the sequel to Rope Burns

The birth of Dangerous

I was never close to my father. In fact, to call our relationship ambivalent would be like suggesting that Tom and Jerry had the occasional spat. Indeed, if one single act sums up our relationship it is probably his refusal to see or speak on the phone to me as he lay in bed at home in the months before he died of Motor Neuron Disease. Others may have been able to offer an opinion as to why he didn’t want to see me at the end of his life; but I believe that he and I both knew the reason. It undoubtedly had something to do with his lack of confidence in my ability to keep quiet about a family secret that I’m sure he would have preferred to take to his grave with him.

He died in 2014 and even though I’d only seen him a handful of times in the preceding decades I did my fair share of crying. I didn’t expect to but I did. Initially it was a song entitled Call Me A Rainbow by a relatively obscure Brighton-based band called The Mummers that would set me off. Every time I played this song, which was a lot, I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. It got to the point where even thinking about it was enough to make the waterworks begin. Eventually I had to just keep away from the song.

I didn’t know why I was crying. I still don’t. Even though it’s no great revelation that the death of a parent is supposed to be an unhappy event I was seriously surprised that it hit me this way. I was even more taken aback when the frequency of my tears began to escalate. Being home alone a lot because of what I do for a living I found that scarcely a day went by when I did not break down. Sometimes I cried on my own, two, three, four times’ a day. Sometimes I would cry in front of family members, sometimes in front of friends.

Being a big hairy bloke, this behavior began to trouble me. Eventually, some six or seven months after his death I went to the doctor. He told me I was probably suffering from depression and immediately put me on something called Citalopram, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant. Unusually for me I actually began ingesting these little white pills without researching their side effects or questioning my GP’s decision. I guess I was desperate.

Amazingly Citalopram made a difference. I no longer felt like crying. In fact, I no longer felt like anything: I couldn’t be happy and I couldn’t be sad. I was just stuck in the middle: a zombie-like hinterland with senses dulled and blunted. Unfortunately, there were also other effects: my arms and legs would periodically tremor to a degree in which I thought I was displaying the early signs of Parkinson’s. I could also no longer have sex. It just wasn’t working for me down there.

So I stopped the pills and paid another visit to the doctor. This time he suggested I see a therapist.

Being a big hairy bloke, the idea of therapy made me uncomfortable; in my mind it seemed like something that other people did. I also saw it as a sign of weakness, which I’m aware makes no logical sense. But I went.

My therapist turned out to be Chinese with, shall we say, not the most fluent grasp of the English language. This meant that speaking to her was a painfully slow exercise. The meaning of every other word had to be explained and she simply refused to laugh at any of my jokes. It was a frustrating experience. However, in the middle of it all something unexpected happened.

One day for no apparent reason I started talking to my Chinese therapist about boxing. More than two decades ago I was a boxing writer for a number of magazines and newspapers. I even edited a boxing trade magazine. I was in my mid-twenties and it was a very exciting time for me. However, I gave it all up, I explained to my therapist, when a friend of mine, the boxer Michael Watson, was almost fatally injured during a world title fight. Before I withdrew from the sport for good, however, I wrote a book entitled ‘Rope Burns’ which sought to explain why I was never going to write about boxing again.

For almost 25 years I had almost nothing to do with boxing. All of the many contacts I had made in the sport, some of them good friends, were forgotten about. I gave up reading about the sport and I gave up watching it. My experience with boxing was, I thought, very much consigned to my past.

However, not long after my father died I had read about the death of Boxing Monthly editor Glyn Leach at only 54. Glyn was only a couple of years older than me and we had worked together on the magazine that he ended up editing for over two decades. Out of respect I had attended his funeral and bumped into dozens of faces from my past, some ex-boxers, some boxing writers whom I had known years earlier. It was a bittersweet experience for someone who was still raw and disturbed by the death of his father. In the pub afterwards, however, people were coming up to me that I had never met and shaking my hand. They seemed to know me even though I didn’t know them. Some of them told me that they were writers and had read and admired ‘Rope Burns’ in their younger days. Needless to say this was good for the ego. Whatever the case I felt a lot of love directed towards me that night.

Perhaps in retrospect that was why I had brought up the subject of boxing with my therapist. And perhaps that’s why in the weeks that followed my conversation with her I began to take her suggestion that I consider writing about boxing again a little more seriously.

And so I began making contact with people whom I used to know in the boxing world a quarter of a century earlier. I had no idea why I was doing this and I hadn’t a clue where it would take me. All I knew is that I felt an urge inside me to talk. To talk to someone. And it ended up being boxers whom I offloaded on to.

My interviews, if you can call them that, we unconventional to say the least. Most of the time I ended up talking about myself, which must have struck my subjects as being a little peculiar. However, their kindness and patience shone through. Before long I began to understand what it was that had attracted me to the world of boxing in the first place. Almost to a man, these so-called hard men of the ring proved themselves to be sensitive, generous human beings. Somehow they seemed to understand and sympathize with what I was going through.

Then in February after meeting up with a handful of names such as transgender boxing manager Kellie Maloney, former world champions Steve Collins and Colin McMillan, my progress hit a rather substantial bump in the road when my daughter fell gravely ill. I ended up abandoning my little writing project and spending the majority of my time at her bedside as she fought to overcome a hole in her lung and pneumonia. She was in hospital for almost three weeks but just as she was discharged fate played a rather unexpected card.

Literally the day after she left hospital I discovered that the ex-boxer Herol Graham was in the ward next to her, also gravely ill. And for a reason that it took me a long time to work out I ended up spending a lot of time at his bedside. There seemed to me to be an element of fate at play: back in 1991 I had not been there for Michael Watson as he lay gravely ill in hospital. Now, here was I attending to the needs of a boxer from my past who had mysteriously dropped in to my lap.

The period I spent with Herol I would almost describe as life transforming. As he got better so did I. And as I got better it seemed to me as if a dam had burst. For eight months I ended up meeting people from my past and sharing incredibly emotional experiences with them. Tears were shed and laughter was enjoyed with these so-called hard men of the ring. Due to these experiences I also ended up confronting my mother about that secret I shared with my father that I mentioned earlier.

The result of this is ‘Dangerous’, my unlikely sequel to ‘Rope Burns’, due out on 15 September 2016.

I could say a lot about the book but truth be told I’m not sure of its value. I’m hoping that I’ve managed to come up with something emotionally moving, important even. However, a part of me suspects that what I might actually have created is something that takes self-indulgence to a whole new level.

I’d rather leave it to Andrew Fairley, another writer and the only person except myself to have read the book in its entirety. This is what he emailed to me the day after he started it:

Christ, Ian.

You don’t hold back do you? I’ve rarely come across a text that comes straight from the heart as this. You may disagree but I think it’s truly brilliant mate, and I’m not just saying that.

Some of the prose is beautiful – ‘a world where black men fought and white men thought’ – and what you’ve written grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It has that rare quality of staying in your mind even though you’ve stopped reading.

I’m on page 80 (thanks for that, I’ve barely done a stroke at work!!) and will finish it tonight or tomorrow morning and let you know what I think once I’ve finished.

It’s remarkable. I think you’ve written another classic and if this doesn’t win awards, I don’t know what will.

Blimey mate. Many thanks for the privilege of reading this — you can rely on me for publicity. Average writers like me come along every day of the week , but you really do have a very special talent indeed.

Andrew  

Of course, it’s always nice to get a good review. But I’m sure that others will not be quite so positive. I’m already stealing myself for this statistical certainty.

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Lazarus

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This is another little taster from my forthcoming book Dangerous.  The book will be launched on 15 September and is the sequel to my 1998 book Rope Burns.

 

Lazarus

When I arrive at the hospital next day Herol Graham is howling in pain. Howling. Really howling. It’s a frightening sound that echoes around the ward and startles the other inhabitants. A sound I doubt that Herol ever made when he was inside the ropes, no matter how hard anybody struck him. If it’s at all possible there are even more tubes attached to his body. He has them coming from his arms, from his nose and even from the tip of his penis. No medieval inquisitor ever devised such an elaborate torture apparatus. The tube in his penis is currently inducing an agonising burning sensation and Herol can’t control himself. He howls. And he howls. And then he howls some more.

It’s difficult to know what to do when another person in your close vicinity is in such obvious discomfort. It’s easier, of course, if it’s a child. Your child. What you do then is simply pick them up in your arms and hug them for all you are worth. Such an act can sometimes make you feel better about yourself and there is a chance that the child might also gain some solace. In Herol’s case I can’t really do that. I should be able to but I somehow can’t bring myself to hug another man. Instead I walk over to him and mumble words in his direction in the softest voice I can muster. And I take hold of his hand and clutch it in my own. I gently stroke the fist that was once an instrument of violence and I stare deep into his dark brown eyes.

Herol Graham returns my gaze and for several long moments we say nothing at all. We remain holding hands, oblivious to the rest of the world. When I think about it later I am hard pressed to recall a time when I shared such an intimate moment with a member of the same sex. Herol, of course, may think differently; after all, is not the pre-fight ‘stare-down’ part and parcel of the boxing ritual? We stare at each other for a very long time, until I begin to feel uncomfortable. Eventually to break the spell I declare in mock outrage: ‘I’m going to have to stop holding your hand. It’s getting a bit gay!’

There is the faintest trace of a smile on Herol’s face and he weakly offers a Kenneth Williams’ ‘Ooh matron…’-type retort. At his side, as ever, are Karen and Sedat. I kiss Karen on the cheek and embrace Sedat.

The doctor who previously spoke the other day to myself and Herol’s daughter Natasha had obviously been a little over-optimistic. Those scars that he mentioned then did not go away of their own accord as he had suggested they might. In fact, even more scars have formed, creating the very real risk that the ex-fighter’s bowel will have to be removed. Prior to arriving at the hospital I’d done the obligatory bit of Googling and discovered that the unwelcome scars have a name: they are called abdominal adhesions. I tell Karen everything I have learned about them and she confirms that this is what the doctors have been calling Herol’s condition. In fact, there are eight of the deadly little buggers in total and they are effectively strangling his bowel. The next few hours, she has been told, are crucial. It is imperative that Herol undergoes a bowel movement. If he does not do so the bowel will effectively die and have to be removed. To spend the rest of your life without a bowel is a grim prospect.

The surgeon arrives with two or three doctors and tells us all that he suspects that Herol might be suffering from Chrohn’s disease. Before he has a chance to explain the condition I find myself vociferously disagreeing with him. In his eyes it is plain to see that I am the worst kind of visitor – someone with a little knowledge aided and abetted by Google. I tell him I know all about auto-immune diseases and that Herol is definitely not suffering from Chrohn’s. The surgeon keeps his patience, although it’s fairly obvious that he does not appreciate my unwelcome interjection.

When the group finally leave Herol turns to me and says: ‘I could hear what they were saying about you when they were walking away. One of the said: “That guy is crazy!”‘.

We are advised it is imperative that Herol takes a walk at least once every couple of hours and with this in mind the three of us slowly attempt to haul him out of his bed. It’s slow work: Herol is a dead weight now and the tangle of wires coming from him could easily be dislodged with the slightest mistake. I put my hands under one armpit and Sedat takes the other. Herol climbs shakily to his feet, his head a limp object hanging towards the floor, lacking the strength to straighten his neck.

The former boxer walks on the spot for about a minute but it’s clear that even a limited activity such as this is far too much for him. I suggest that perhaps we should help Herol back into a chair but we struggle to do so. As Sedat and I gently lower him we become entangled in the wires that encircle his body. There is a very real danger that we might pull them out. When we finally have him back in his seat, Herol is sweating like he’s just returned from a ten-kilometre run.

We try to encourage the ex-boxer to drink but he’s not interested. Eventually, however, I manage to get him to take a few sips of a fruit drink that I’ve brought with me and it has an instant effect upon him. Herol tells us that he needs the toilet. I have to admit that this is the first time in my life that a grown man has indicated any desire to defecate in my presence. Ordinarily, such a request would naturally be greeted with less than enthusiasm but now the three of us, Karen, Sedat and I, look into each other’s eyes with a mixture of joy and hope.

Once again we help Herol climb gingerly to his feet, me with one arm, Sedat with the other. It takes five or ten minutes to complete this difficult procedure. Curtains are drawn around his bed and a commode is wheeled into view. A young looking doctor pokes her head around the curtain and sees this happening before quickly beating a hasty retreat. Herol Graham’s surgical gown is loosened and he is lowered on to the commode. Even though he is desperately unwell, the ex-boxer is embarrassed by his predicament. He mumbles an apology, and then another. I tell him he has nothing whatsoever to apologise for.

The stench, of course, is appalling; although I’m having a slightly better time of it than the others on account of my diminished sense of smell, yet another symptom of hypothyroidism. I don’t have time to reflect but later I will ponder upon the course that my decision to return to the world of boxing has taken me on. Would I have been quite so eager to revisit long forgotten memories had I known that the climax to such an undertaking would result in me sitting inches away from a one-time championship boxer while he had a poo? Probably not. It takes a certain type of person to harbour such an ambition.

Curiously though, this particular poo is greeted with celebration from all present. We hold our noses and make stupid jokes and laugh and, I think, instantly develop a closeness, a kinship, that can really only be understood by those who have shared such an experience. And this toilet session is no minor affair: It goes on for a very long time; Herol continues to mumble his embarrassed apologies and we continue to giggle. We can hear other people quietly complaining in the ward. Visitors are suddenly finding excuses to leave the building and inmates attempt to miraculously rise from their sickbeds. I very much doubt that Jesus ever considered using such a technique when he was busy resurrecting Lazarus. In the bed immediately next to Herol is a terminally ill patient who has been given five days to live (this news was whispered to me earlier on in the evening). If he has a god he must be wondering what on earth he’s done to deserve this final indignity

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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.

 

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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

 

(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.)

Fury

I’m at my third press conference in a fortnight 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 circular scars on his chest from the 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, erstwhile of The Sun newspaper is again prowling the boards, 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 in civvy street. 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 are understandably 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, Nokias and 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 have been 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 undisputed 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 even then most dilettante of boxing observers would be unwilling 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 as 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 exterior would tend 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 cursory background reading such blissful memoirs of friendship lost and found suggest themselves 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 effortlessly slipped into my moccasins 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 something of a relief to be recognised by someone, to not be a complete stranger in a room full of people who all seem to 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 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 lowering himself into a 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; that he’s still late after all these years.

The press conference kicks off in pedestrian fashion. Also present at the table is Hughie Fury, cousin of Tyson and also a heavyweight boxer; the first part of the proceedings 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 to 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 throwaway remark that is greeted with a smattering of embarrassed laughter from the watching press. But there is also an unmistakable element of menace about his 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 underpin his claims of innocence. 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 five-hour drive from Manchester to get to this location when rightfully 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 Tyson 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 the boxer could ever have dreamed of?

Today Tyson Fury’s anger is specifically related to the fact that one of the belts he won, the IBF belt, has recently been unceremoniously and patently unfairly snatched away from him after refusing to fight a nominated opponent. He is enraged that his former property is now strapped to the svelte waist of housewives’ favourite Anthony Joshua, who won 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 best placed into the context for which it is intended: that of a vehicle by which to put buttocks on arena seats. Yet there is more than a touch of reality about Fury’s performance. It appears to me that there is little apparent pretence contained within his outburst. Fury really does seem 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 might 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 Mancunian 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 obvious similarities between boxing’s greatest exponent and his most recent descendent. 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 from the press that he claims to covet?

‘The only man who could beat Klitschko was me,’ proclaims Fury, embarking upon a long and entertaining rap. ‘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 discover that Naseem Hamed has finally entered the building. 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, worldwide fame, 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 spoke on the telephone to the still recuperating Herol Graham and we mentioned his long-time friend. ‘Next time I see Naz,’ he had innocently announced. ‘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. His Twitter feed contains the undeniably factual boast: ‘My bollocks produce heavyweight champions’. The facial resemblance he shares with his son is 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 tirades.

‘He’s just toyed will all of ya,’ says Fury senior, in the sandpaper tones 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 businessmen 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 lacking in any 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 here 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!’

Therein follows a five-minute diatribe designed to illustrate the injustice and indignities that are gratuitously heaped upon his son. Even if it were possible to compete with the volume of the microphone, there is no point at all in trying to reason with this man. He only hears what he wants to hear; and that predominantly appears 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 speaking further with his brother because I think John’s wrong and needs to be told so. Peter Fury is friendly and laughs a lot. He tells me that John’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?