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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