Most people will be aware that I am a fan of most types of sport. I have no interest in TV Soaps or reality TV, but give me the option of watching football, rugby, athletics, darts, snooker, tennis, cricket etc and I am content. Sadly, the same cannot be said of my family who fail to understand just how important it is to see all of the goals scored on any given weekend.
A sport missing from the list above is boxing and this is because I haven’t watched a boxing match in years. It has not always the case; years ago I would enjoy watching the sport. There is something about it that draws people in, the simplicity, brutality and total courage and dignity of the participants, to say nothing of the talented sportswriters who describe the bouts so well. When Merthyr boxer Johnny Owen died after a fight in 1980, the brilliant Hugh McIlvenny, wrote some of the best lines I have ever read;
“Boxing gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
I fell out of love with boxing after watching a fight in 1995. The match was featured in a programme shown on Monday night on ITV called “The fight of their lives”. It was a Super Middle Weight World Title defence between the champion, Nigel Benn of the UK and the challenger from the USA Gerald McClellan. At the time I considered it to be the best fight I had ever seen. Prior to the match, Benn was thought by most observers to have very little chance. McClellan was a devastating puncher having won 29 of his 33 fights by a knockout and was utterly ruthless. The fears of Benn’s many fans seemed to be realised in the first round when Benn was knocked out of the ring, though crucially for those who understand the finer points (which I didn’t before watching the programme), not off the apron. It looked to be over but somehow Benn fought his way back into the contest. He was on the floor again in the eighth but as the fight wore on it became clear that McClellan was struggling and incredibly, Benn had a slim chance. In the tenth, Benn, who was still behind on points, unleashed a brutal series of blows that forced McClellan to his knees, unable to get back to his feet and was counted out. It was all over.
I remember shouting at the TV ‘go on Benn’ and ‘put him away’. I was aware that I had just witnessed something extraordinary, I was elated, what a fight!
My elation faded pretty fast when it became obvious McClellan was in trouble. He suffered a blood clot on the brain, was rushed to hospital where he was in a coma for eleven days. He has never fully recovered. Today, he is blind, almost completely deaf, unable to walk unaided and in need of constant care provided by his sisters.
In the years that have followed there has been a great deal written and said of the fight. Who is to blame? Could the tragedy have been avoided? In the programme, most of the characters were asked about their own actions but on one wanted to take responsibility. The referee, the trainer, the previous trainer who had left McClellan in a dispute over money before the fight, the promoters, the commentators, the British Boxing Board of Control, the medical staff and of course Benn himself were all asked and clearly mistakes were made but always by someone else. It reminds me of a Bob Dylan song “Who killed Davey Moore?” written about another of boxing’s victims. In the verses, the manager, a gambler, the crowd, the ref and the opponent all proclaim their innocence, each finishes with;
“It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”
Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?”
For Benn, there is forgiveness, he has given his life to Christ. He speaks of his own sin and need of Jesus. He is not the same angry selfish man that he was, he has changed. He is involved in full time Christian Ministry. In the programme he said;
“You know what? This is what you wanted to see. You got what you wanted to see.”
I hear him and I feel tainted. I watched, giving my approval as two men battered each other. And in my mind I see another young man, bloodied, beaten and whipped. He too stands before an angry mob. When I hear there is a chance that he might be set free, I shout with the others ‘away with him! Crucify! Crucify!’ I see his battered face, the expression is not one of fear or hate, he looks at me with a look of such love that I realise all over again just how great is my need of him and how vast his ocean of grace that takes a sinful heart like mine and makes it clean.