Monthly Archives: July 2016

Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Vasquez (March 4th, 1995)

Whitaker-Vasquez Program.JPG

 

“You see what you’re doing?” Duva kept asking as they ran the tape twice. “You’re moving straight in and he’s unloading on you.”

“But that’s the way I fight,” said Whitaker, puzzled.

“And that’s why you lost,” said Duva.

A pep talk by Lou Duva, Whitaker’s soon-to-be professional manager, after an amateur loss to Joey Belinc, 1984.

Chapter 3

Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Vasquez (4th March, 1995)

The most important thing in boxing is to not get hit.

Fighters like Ali and Tyson have transcended the sport, for bad and for worse. Features such as their charisma and brutal punching power gave the audience a hook that allowed them to attach themselves to a sport that potentially didn’t excite them in any way. You didn’t need to be a follower of the fistic arts to enjoy Ali’s shuffle and quickfire verbal wit, or the relentless forward aggression of Tyson in his heyday. Their work spoke to the masses; intelligence and savagery lauded in equal measure.

To the uninitiated, the defensive is always a harder sell than the offensive. The immediacy of a jab, verbal or otherwise, allows instant gratification; often, the elusivity of a fighter only bears fruit as the fight progress, each missed swing as mentally debilitating as physical. For the boxing fan, the boxer who can weave, bob and sway with the punches may not satiate a carnal urge for blood and thunder, but is the distillation of the craft into arguably its purest form.

Hit. Don’t get hit.

‘Sweet Pea’ Pernell Whitaker would be some people’s choice for the greatest defensive boxer of all time. Considering his personable nature (thus the less than threatening nickname), and an offense that often centred around a very good defense, he was always going to struggle to rack up the column inches in the tabloid media per se. However, his reactions in the ring made the boxing world stand up and take notice. Hitting Whitaker was akin to grabbing water; every time you think you got him, he would slip through your fingers.

Whitaker’s shot at Olympic Gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics would almost slip through his own grasp following a 4-1 defeat against Joey Belinc during the Olympic team box-offs. A quirk in the organisation gave him a reprieve; having won the Olympic trials the previous month, he would only need to win one fight, unlike the losers who would need to win both to qualify. Even after a tantrum threatened to derail his chances, Whitaker would get back into the ring the following day and defeat Belinc 3-2. Close, but just enough to send him to Los Angeles as the Lightweight contender.

During these trials, a host of other notable names would also aim to make their Olympic box. Both Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor would qualify, but for one Michael Tyson, the opportunity had come too soon. Henry Tillman would be the obstacle in his particular path twice, both at the trials and the box-offs, and he would defeat Tyson both times.

Whitaker would make it clear that he didn’t want to be considered one of the challengers at the Games, wanting to ‘be a guy nobody notices as I work my way up’. His desire to stay as hidden as his ringwork often allowed him to be was wishful thinking. In a Games that would involve a boycott by seventeen countries (fourteen led by the Soviet Union), not only would Whitaker go on to win Olympic Gold, he would win it in style. Adolfo Mendez (Nicaragua), Geoffrey Nyeko (Uganda), Reiner Gies (West Germany) and Chun Chil-Sung would be dispatched following a first round bye, cutting Whitaker a path through to the final. Even more impressively, he wouldn’t lose a fight on any judges’ scorecard, walking into the Gold medal match with a perfect 20-0 record.

Even if people weren’t excited by him already, his performance in the final surely raised the interest of more than a few onlookers. Luis Ortiz from Puerto Rico would be his opponent, a man who himself would become a legend for achieving the highest medal by a Puerto Rican athlete in history. Unfortunately for him, it was only silver, as Whitaker put on an amauteur masterclass. From the moment the bell rang, his speed had Ortiz chasing shadows, whilst combinations were fired at lightning speed, leaving the Puerto Rican little chance to avoid the incoming barrage.

What made Whitaker stand out in this fight was his ability to dodge and avoid punches. He could block a punch when he wanted to, but would often trust his eye for an incoming punch and his speed to avoid a shot rather than take it on his arms. More often than not, he was justified in this faith. Ortiz would land a decent uppercut in the first round, but would otherwise fail to come close to troubling Whitaker. Although at times Whitaker would look sloppier on offense than he did when counter-punching, he would force Ortiz’s corner to throw the towel in after two standing eight counts in the second round. The shots that left Ortiz needing time weren’t even the best in the round; you could hear the commentator crowing as a left to the body had Ortiz gasping for breath and hoping for the end.

Following an amateur record of 201-14, Whitaker would step into the ring for the first time as a professional later that Olympic year, taking only two of the six rounds advertised to defeat Farrain Comeaux. Whilst much has been made of his elusiveness, Whitaker would win nine of his first fifteen fights via knockout or TKO. The biggest victories to that date would be a unanimous decision over Roger Mayweather and a TKO win over Miguel Santana. They would give Whitaker his first titles as a pro; the NABF Lightweight Title, followed by the USBA Lightweight Title. In the grander scheme of things, titles that didn’t amount to much outside of minor recognition and a heavier bag to get through customs. Whitaker was ready to go for a World Title, and would get that opportunity in his sixteenth fight – an impressive feat by any conventional standards.

Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go to plan.

His opponent: Jose Luis Ramirez. A man who, whilst only five years older than Pernell, had fought over ninety more fights than the Olympic champion in his career thus far. Admittedly, many of these were in a spell fighting in Mexico where Ramirez would often fight twice a month from the year of his debut (1973). This wasn’t to suggest that he didn’t have any pedigree. He had been in the ring with fighters such as Edwin Rosario, Alexis Arguello, Ray Mancini and Hector Camacho. His one hundred wins to this date wasn’t anything to mess around with, and it was a marked step up in class for Whitaker.

Oddly enough for a match between an American and a Mexican, the match would take place in France due to the management of the champion residing there.

The first four rounds couldn’t have gone more perfectly for the challenger. Ramirez was known for his punching power and durability, yet Whitaker didn’t let him get anywhere near him in the opening twelve minutes. Whitaker would circle around, feint, bob and weave, always working behind the repetitive percussion of his right jab. It didn’t matter too much that these shots often didn’t faze his opponent; if you are hitting and not getting hit, the rounds are yours.

Ramirez, as would be expected of a man with over one hundred fights under his belt, continued to march forward, and would even catch Whitaker with the odd straight left. The problem for the champion was that every shot was hitting a man moving backwards, nullifying the power of the blow. Still, it could be argued that the fifth round was the first which he may have wrestled away from the challenger.

Unfortunately, it would be Whitaker’s movement that would cost him in the long run. He would continue to tag Ramirez with jab after jab after jab, but as early as round six, the commentary team were beginning to question how the judges might view this continuous backwards movement. Added to this, it was often Whitaker who would clinch first, a move that didn’t endear him to the fans in attendance whatsoever. However, by the time the bell rang for the end of the twelfth round, everyone felt that Whitaker had done more than enough to win his first World title.

Everyone that is, except for two of the judges.

In a decision that would end up on multiple ‘Worst Boxing Decision’ lists in years to come, Ramirez would retain his title on a split decision. The Ring would even dub it the ‘Worst Decision of the Decade’ in a Lightweight fight in their March 1990 issue. A 117-114 scorecard in Whitaker’s favour sounded too close; a 115-116 and a 113-118 card a complete aberration of judgement. Rumours swirled around that a Ramirez versus Julio Cesar Chavez contest had already been committed to, one that would lose its lustre if Ramirez lost his title. Whatever the conspiracy theorists believed, Whitaker had lost his first contest as a professional boxer.

As Ramirez went on to lose the following contest against Chavez by technical decision (a cut opened by a clash of heads sending the match to the scorecards in the eleventh round), the Olympian had to rebuild his career. A defeat of a 3-8-1 Antonio Carter was to be expected. His next fight would see him win his first world title, the IBF World Lightweight championship, beating Greg Haugen by unanimous decision. Haugen had only been defeated once before in his career, and Whitaker would follow up with his first defense ending in a technical knockout of Louie Lomeli, undefeated up until this point.

Considering the contentious nature of the first fight, a rematch against Ramirez was always a possibility in the near future, and they would meet once more in 1989. This time the fight would be in the US, and Whitaker would not be stopped. Outside of one judge, Whitaker would whitewash Ramirez, winning every round and picking up the vacant WBC Lightweight Title in the process. When asked what would have happened had history repeated itself, Whitaker replied, “They never would have got out of the building.”

Winning the World Title wasn’t enough for Whitaker. He would go on a tear over the next four years, winning thirteen bouts, many by unanimous decision after outboxing his competitors. This wasn’t the only weapon he had in his arsenal though, as he proved when taking out Juan Nazario (a match that won him the WBA Lightweight Title), Jerry Smith and Ben Baez in the first round. Whitaker knew how to punch just as much as he knew how to defend. The undefeated streak would coincide with Whitaker being named The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year and the Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year for his exploits in 1989, as well as him being the first Unified Lightweight champion since Roberto Duran.

During these four years, Whitaker would begin to make his move up the weight ranks. In 1992, he would win the IBF Light-Welterweight Title by defeating Rafael Pineda, before defeating James McGirt to win the WBC Welterweight Title. This would make him a five time world champion, going some way to fulfilling the promise evident since his time at the 1984 Olympics. Whitaker was not content; there were bigger paydays and challenges out there which he sought.

Sitting with a record of 33-1, Whitaker would go up against his toughest opponent to date in 1993. Following his defeat of Ramirez, Julio Cesar Chavez had added twenty-five victories to his undefeated record, leaving him on an envious 87-0. Unlike Whitaker, many of Chavez’s victories would come by way of knockout or technical knockout.

An offense that relied on relentless pressure coupled with hooks to the body had chopped many an opponent down to size. Whether Whitaker would be able to stay out of range of the hard hitting Mexican was the big question heading into the contest. Chavez was also a master of defense himself, often making shots miss or taking the bulk on his gloves and forearms, whilst ducking under many punches to allow him to attack from different angles. It was never going to be an easy night for the American in a contest considered to crown the best pound for pound boxer on the planet, as well as for Whitaker’s WBC Welterweight Title. The New York Times dubbed it ‘Fight versus Flight’.

Looking back, there is a sense of irony that a lot of the build up was overshadowed by squabbles between the camps about who would be the judges for the contest. Chavez wanted no-one American; Whitaker’s camp wanted none of the chosen judges changed. In the end, there would be one American on the list – Jack Woodruff from Texas.

Chavez was the overwhelming fan favourite that night in San Antonio, and he took the first couple of rounds with relative ease. Round Three was when Whitaker began to pick up the pace, throwing combos with delicious speed and accuracy, whilst also finding the opportunity to slip and dodge the majority of Chavez’s attack. Even when he was caught, Whitaker showed more chin than he had perhaps been given credit for, often firing back with several punches as a swift retort to any stiff blows.

By round eight, the crowd was silent.

At range, Whitaker was jabbing Chavez to a standstill, snapping his head back with every ramrod right. In Chavez’s world, close and in the trenches, Whitaker was dishing out more punishment then he was taking. By every conceivable measure, Whitaker was winning the fight.In some people’s eyes, the only real negative for Whitaker was several low blows, though the same could be levelled at Chavez.As the rounds slipped by, Whitaker looked calm and collected; Chavez looked a broken man.

The delivery of majority draw decision was greeted with some boos even by fans loyal to Chavez. Sports Illustrated would chose to emblazon the word ‘Robbed’ on their September cover. They had scored the fight 117-111 in favour of Whitaker, and would not be the only press agency who felt that the American had been cheated out of a just victory. Attention turned to Duva, and the power to choose the judges that was conceded to Don King. Whatever the shadier business behind the scenes, Whitaker had the moral victory, if not the one in the record books.

In March 1995, it would be about continued development of the Whitaker legacy. The next two fights after Chavez were victories (Santos Cardana and James McGirt), and though concepts such as an undefeated record and the recognition as the pound for pound best boxer in the world had been stolen from him, he stood on the verge of making history. Only Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran had ever won legitimate world titles at four different weights. Whitaker had the chance to join greatness when he took on another Julio Cesar, though this time it was Vasquez rather than Chavez, for the WBA Light-Middleweight Title.

Vasquez embodied the old credo ‘have gumshield, will travel’ as he traversed his way around the world defending his title. Not content to just box in Argentina, he had taken in France, Spain, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom in a ten fight win streak with the belt on the line. A crass fighter in some ways, he did little that was flashy in any conceivable way, with his head often caught due his lack of movement. What he did offer was power and the ability to endure punishment; this had been enough to get him to a World title.

That is not to suggest he wasn’t going to be a challenge for Whitaker. Though boxing titles can sometimes feel like the detritus of a decaying sport, there is usually some semblance of quality in a boxer who has ascended the ranks to the top. Vasquez would show what he was capable of in the ring in 1994, when he would defeat a young Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright by unanimous decision. Though Wright was the better technician, Vasquez walked through his offense, knocking him down in the second, seventh, ninth and twice in the twelfth. It was a victory for doggedness above all else, and showed that Vasquez had the force in his punches, both singularly and cumulatively, to put Whitaker in danger.

Vasquez would eschew his most common hunting ground of France to travel to take on the American in New Jersey. This would be his fourteenth fight since he won the title a little over two years previously, an insane fighting schedule but one that had reaped dividends with thirteen wins. In fact, he had only lost one fight in his career up until this point, and that was by DQ against Verno Phillips. There was no doubt that a Vasquez win would have been considered an upset, but there was also no doubt that he was in the ring with a fighter that would keep him honest throughout.

If the number of people who entered the ring with you before the introductions was indicative of the likelihood of you picking up the victory, Vasquez would have won handily. As Michael Buffer allowed his trademark voice to sell the importance of this contest, the champion was surrounded by men holding flags and belts, almost symbolic of the battles and stories he had collected along the way during his tenure as champion.

The commentary narrative that was still being spun was whether Whitaker would be able to take a punch from Vasquez, if the Argentinian was able to find him. Unlike the Whitaker of several years ago, the older fighter now tended to trust his instincts and stand ‘in the pocket’ rather than circle around the ring. Feints and bobs became his defensive weapon of choice, rather than the occasionally negatively perceived backwards movement. With the move up in weight and the punching prowess of the Argentinean, this could have proved to be a dangerous tactic.

In the early rounds, Whitaker showed why he was still considered one of the best pound for pound boxers walking the face of the Earth. Early ducking allowed him to avoid several big Vasquez punches, whilst the first left of an significance seemed to stun the champion, as if he hadn’t expected Sweet Pea to punch that aggressively. Like the Chavez fight, Whitaker was not afraid to trade with his opponent, considering his unshaken belief in his ability to avoid his opponents’ offense. As if to highlight his easygoing attitude towards the contest, we even get a little bit of showboating in Round 1, whilst Vasquez himself gets a pat on the backside for good measure in Round 2.

With the first two round under Whitaker’s belt, the tone is set for the rest of the fight. For the majority of the contest, Whitaker and Vasquez would land a similar amount of punches; Whitaker relying on his jab, Vazquez looking for knockouts with power punches. Yet, the percentages of actual punches thrown would work vastly in the American’s favour – he just didn’t have to swing as often as Vasquez did to connect.

Vasquez would seemingly win his first round of the fight in Round Three, though it only took a couple of showy combinations to take what was a fairly slow three minutes work from both men. However, in Round Four we began to see the capabilities of the champion, and the potential for a really tough night for the Whitaker camp. A ducking and feinting Whitaker would get dropped by a punch combined with almost a shoulder tackle, leaving the referee little option but to start to the count. A rueful laugh would escape Whitaker’s lips as he got to his feet, but in a close fight like this was shaping up to be, 8-10 rounds were not what the challenger wanted.

As both fighters came out for Round Five, the pundits on the commentary team had Vasquez in the lead, either by way of the additional point loss for the knockdown, or by winning three of the first four rounds. Several combinations by Vasquez had seemed to rock Whitaker near the end of the previous round, and if ever there was an opportunity for the upset to be caused, it felt like it was now. The corner suggested to their man that they thought Whitaker was out on his feet and there for the taking, yet the Argentinean would spend the majority of the fifth round flicking his jab at his opponent, rather than really pushing the tempo. Whether Whitaker was there to be taken out in this round or not, a brief flurry near the end probably did enough to steal the round for the challenger without really having to do much.

At the halfway point of the fight, the sweat had almost turned Vasquez’s shorts translucent, threatening the crowd in Atlantic City with an X-rated title defense. Without using lateral movement as much as in previous fights, Whitaker was often able to slip by the powerful punches of the champion, using the jab to keep the fighting mostly on the outside. As the bell would sound for the end of the round, the connection percentage would be 67% for Whitaker, even though not one of those punches had been truly memorable.

In a close fight, the outcome often hinges on the decisions made, whether by the contestants themselves or the people who have the ability to impact upon the action in the ring. Although he had had success throughout the early going by attacking Whitaker’s body, Vasquez seemed to make an unconcious decision to target the head for long stretches of the fight. As was noted on commentary: heads move, bodies don’t. Rather than make the choice to focus on a tactic that had worked up until this point of the fight, Vasquez seemed to play into the hands of his more elusive opponent.

Then, some separation for the challenger. Following several altercations throughout the fight, Vasquez would be deducted a point in Round Nine for what originally seemed to be holding behind the head, but would later be discussed as rabbit punches. At the end of Round Eight, the pundits had the fight even; a 10-8 round at this time could be the difference between immortality and a mere footnote in boxing history.

It felt like the tiredness of Vasquez was evident in the final few rounds. Perhaps that globetrotting, take on all comers nature had finally got to his legs, as he seemed unable to maintain the pressure, landing only the occasional punch rather than the combinations that rained freely earlier in the bout. He would end up on the canvas himself, though it would be adjudged a slip, and would see charges avoided with relative ease, like a bull unsuccessfully attacking the matador.

With the fight slowing down and sliding towards a judge’s decision, the commentary team mused about the stories and rumours that had circulated in the previous weeks. At the age of 31, the word was out that Whitaker perhaps didn’t train as vigorously or in as focused a manner as he used to; a story used to explain Whitaker’s lack of movement throughout the fight. The judges themselves were discussed, with the Vasquez team apparently unhappy about the make-up of the judges (one from Canada, Thailand and New Jersey respectively). It almost felt like it wouldn’t quite be a Pernell Whitaker contest without undue focus on the judges at ringside.

Any potential for controversy seemed to ease when, in the eleventh round, Vasquez was deducted another point due to his propensity for rabbit punching Whitaker. By the time the bell sounded for the end of Round Twelve, it seemed like Whitaker had done enough to win. In the final round, Whitaker would be booed by a small minority of the crowd for his exaggerated bobbing and weaving, a trait that the audience in attendance didn’t seem to admire and perceived as offensive towards a champion who had shown he deserved more respect. The unofficial scorecard was given as 114-111, with those two deductions turning a potentially close decision into one that looked a little more comfortable on paper.

For once, a Whitaker match would end with weird looking scorecards, but in his favour. Throughout the contest, it had seemed like Vasquez more than held up his end of the bargain, and won his fair share of rounds in the process. How exactly two of the judges managed to score the fight 118-110 and a quite staggering 118-107 was beyond the commentary team; a solitary score of 116-110 at least feeling somewhat representative of the action in the ring. Irrelevant of the scorecards that seemed more than a little on the generous side, the more important thing was that Whitaker was the new WBA Light Middleweight Champion. He would enter the pantheon of greats, alongside Duran, Hearns and Leonard, and leave the sport safe in the knowledge that he was one of its greatest ever.

If we wanted a signal that this was as much about legacy as anything else, Whitaker would vacate the title without making even one title defense. The step up in weight seemed to negate some of Whitaker’s most important defensive traits, whilst the inability to move as freely as he had in the past potentially left him prey to more powerful punchers at this level. It would be the WBC World Welterweight Title that would consume Whitaker’s interests for the next couple of years.

From a career standpoint, 1995 and this fourth World title at a fourth different weight would have been a poetic ending for a fighter who turned defense into an art form. Even with a loss and a draw on his record, the disputed nature of both of them left him little to feel ashamed about. However, Whitaker was only 31, and was still a name guy. There was no way that he was over the hill, and there was big money potentially still out there against some of the best up and coming boxers who would prove themselves by picking up the scalp of someone of Whitaker’s calibre. In some ways, Whitaker had become like Chavez before him; a guy to be targeted for the incomprehensible glory of victory.

Five more defenses of the WBC World Welterweight Title would see him end up in the ring opposite Oscar De La Hoya. Another controversial decision would go against Whitaker, and he would end his career with three losses and one No Contest following a failed drug test. The most notable of the matches that saw out his career was one against Felix Trinidad, one of the best Puerto Rican boxers of all time. Trinidad would win via a lopsided decision, effectively ending Whitaker’s run at the top. A broken clavicle would force him to retire from his last fight against Carlos Bojorquez. As is often the case, even the best of boxers go out on the end of several damp squib defeats – to go out on top would be too much like a happy ending.

To suggest that his defeat of Vasquez was somehow the pinnacle of Whitaker’s career would be crass and self serving – as if to fit a narrative that I have tried to force upon every fight I come across. However, in some ways it symbolised the rubber stamping of Whitaker’s legendary status. To be up with luminaries such as Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard speaks volumes of what Whitaker was capable of. With some of the higher profile losses, fair or otherwise, he suffered, there might not be that one big victory that he truly deserved, but no-one can take that title record away from him.

Also, sometimes it is just nice to think that occasionally it is more about your ability not to get hit as it is about your ability to hit someone else. Small pleasures.

Booker Prize Winners: ‘The Old Devils’

 

Another project of mine is my desire to try and read/review all the Booker Prize winning novels. With my birth year being 1986, it felt that the winner from that year made the most sense to begin with, so without further ado, here is the first review.

Booker Prize Winner 1986

Kingsley Amis ‘The Old Devils’

It has often been posited that there is nothing for definite in life outside of death and taxes. With the former on the horizon, what do we choose to place value in? Is it the days that end before lunchtime, that ebb and flow of retirement allowing you the freedom to do what you want, when you want it? Is it a few stiff halves, chased down with a few fingers of whiskey, each and every day? Is it the friends you’ve known for years, with their foibles, challenges and secrets?

In ‘The Old Devils’ by Kingsley Amis, Amis blends all three of these together into a novel that is laden with the sense of missed opportunities and the wiling away of the hours until time catches up with us. ‘Professional Welshman’ Alun is returning home after years in England making a career out of his work on Brydan, a poet said to be representative of Dylan Thomas. With his return, and more importantly, that of his wife Rhiannon, feathers are ruffled, beers are drunk and Wales is explored in a darkly comic story that celebrates women and Wales, whilst also wistfully looking back on the decisions of unknowing youth.

Many aspects of ‘The Old Devils’ can be viewed as stages of Amis’ life himself. The philandering Alun, who doesn’t take long to jump into bed with Sophie and Gwen, Rhiannon’s friends, most closely resembles Amis’ dalliances with the opposite gender. Charlie’s fear of the dark, or more accurately, being alone, seems to mirror that of an aging Amis, who would end up living with his first wife,and her husband in his later years. During a time following his second divorce, it cannot be considered by chance that his own returns to Swansea didn’t impact upon the overarching narrative of the story.

With the clear parallels between Amis and especially Alun, it would be worrying if the narrative turned into a way to validate or excuse the behaviours of the author through his presentation of a character. Thankfully, this never feels like it is the case. The third person narration allows us to see Alun through the eyes of others, and rarely does he seem to be anything other than a bit of a blustering old fool, even if several women in the novel can’t help themselves but jump into bed with him the first chance they get.

His capaciousness towards and interest in alcohol soaks the book, though it is explored as a coping mechanism for a life that is passing us by, rather than celebrated in any way. Outside of drinking, it often feels that the characters have little in common outside of their interconnected love lives and the fact that they used to be, so are now. Yet there are hints of genuine feeling, especially in the treatment of Dorothy by the other women in the group, who is tolerated even though she is often half cut and incredibly boring to boot.

The Alun and Rhiannon relationship forms the spine of the story, though Malcolm’s latent desires for her initially frame the narrative as we expect his narrative to play out. However, it is Peter, a man who had let himself go over the years following a dalliance with Rhiannon (leading to an abortion), who draws the sympathy of the reader, especially as the lack of marital tenderness in his relationship with Muriel becomes apparent. Amis’ portrayal of them as a couple initially presents a marriage that has lost its spark, but understand how their coupling is beneficial to both of them. This contrasts with Muriel’s derisory treatment of Peter whenever they are together after this, which is rare as if to symbolise the growing distance between the two.

Though Muriel could be viewed as a particularly unflattering presentation of a woman, with her callous and unfeeling nature, ‘The Old Devils’ does seem to try and celebrate women, even when multiple females fall to the sleazy charms of Alun. Rhiannon in particular is beautifully represented – Amis apparently based this character of his first wife – with an acceptance of the extra-curricular activities of Alun arguably her biggest flaw. Yet she draws attention from Alun, Peter and Malcolm, love smattered with lingering feelings from an unrequited youth. That she could embolden such emotions speaks to her generosity of spirit and her casual elegance.

Alun’s desire to produce a piece of writing of a similar enduring quality as that of Brydan accentuates this feeling of time being fleeting; it is clear that he desires to be remembered for his own masterpiece rather than his odes to another poet. The tension caused between Alun’s own personal view of his work and the damning feedback from his friend Charlie is one of the funnier moments of the story, especially when Alun debates internally whether to get rid of the offending manuscript or not. Unsurprisingly, the pages that have flowed from his fingertips are not destroyed so easily.

Indeed, it is this inability to communicate effectively that drives the narrative forwards. People holding onto emotions that blossomed many years earlier; relationships falling apart yet hanging on for dear life; affairs sensed, yet not admitted to. The decision of some characters to finally play their hands and open up about their internal musings allows for some closure, though secrets still lie just below the surface, as is the case with most friendship groups. Relationships that have been built and developed over fifty years are not easily altered or dissipated.

Drinks, women, friendship, loyalty; all are important themes within the story, yet it is at its heart a celebration of Wales first and foremost. Outside of the descriptions of cities, villages and the landscapes of South Wales, the fear of a homogenisation of culture that has already begun to sand the rougher edges of Welsh culture permeates throughout the novel. Provincial charm is already giving way to the grasp of big business and globalisation. Whilst looking at these concerns thirty years later, they seem overblown for the time when compared to the realities of modern existence, but the seed has been planted for change; a change Amis and his characters don’t seem to relish.

‘The Old Devils’ would be a high point for Amis on a descent into ill health and eventual death. He would pass away from cancer just under ten years after the book was published. If the book is to be seen as a somewhat allegorical novel that explores Amis’ regrets over choices he made at specific times in his life, it would be hoped that the writing of this story went some way to allaying some of those concerns. If not, at least he did better than Alun, and delivered a classic that will provoke a chuckle in years to come – when human nature is explored so adroitly, it will never age.

A personal response:

‘The Old Devils’ would beat competition from numerous books, including Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I would not have envied the jury who had to decided which book was better, especially due to the thematics of the books being so different. Still, Atwood’s ‘…Tale’ deserves recognition as not only one of the best books in 1986, but a stunning read even today. Poetic, yet brutal throughout.

Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan (25th February, 1995)

 

Chapter 2

Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan

25th February 1995, London Arena, London

‘Fucking hell, Nigel, you’ve really got him in trouble, mate!’

Corner man Dennie Mancini after a first round that saw Gerald McClellan knock Nigel Benn into the first row.

By the practical and physical nature of sport, injuries are bound to occur. In athletic pursuits, where the muscles and sinews are primed in the pursuit of glory, sometimes the smallest deviation can cause a problem. Strains, sprains and tears become par for the course.

Some sports do come at a higher price in terms of the potential risks inherent in participation. Jockeys falling off of horses over jumps at high speeds potentially throw themselves under a cacophony of thundering hooves, every one a potential life threatening occurrence. Whilst many steps have been taken to improve the safety of motor racing in all its forms, it doesn’t detract from the fact that streamlined chunks of metal travelling at vast rates of acceleration and speed can be a recipe for serious injury.

Even football has had its fair share of recent brushes with near-death and fatalities within its less obviously threatening surroundings. One need only to look at Fabrice Muamba, the Zaire born Bolton player whose heart stopped for seventy eight minutes on the White Hart Lane pitch, to see that the spectre of death lingers over every sport.

Then we have boxing.

From the earliest recordings of the fistic arts, there have been examples of fighters dying. As far back as 1725, there are reports of men stepping into a boxing ring and meeting their ultimate demise. In 1833, Simon Byrne would die from injuries caused during a 99th round defeat against James Burke. The official reason given for his passing was ‘congestion of blood in the brain’, though in the four days between fight and death, he told his chambermaid that it wasn’t likely to be the beating that killed him, but the mortification of losing the fight.

There have been over one thousand reported deaths in boxing, and the clamour for boxing to be banned in some circles only increases each time a young fighter ends up in the papers for all the wrong reasons. To those who haven’t been able to see past the bombasticity and bludgeoning violence of the sport, it seems like a no brainer. Why would someone want to stand in a ring and punch or be punched by someone else, and what type of person would willingly choose to watch?

Unfortunately, the fight that saw me pass through the barrier between casual observer and pugilistic enthusiast was a contest with almost such an outcome. Gerald McClellan would require emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, leaving him permanently disabled; not something that is easy to digest or fully understand during the immortality of childhood. My perception of the fight was one of sheer awe, as both men took and gave punishment like nothing I’d ever seen. Regardless of the outcome which naturally overshadows the reminiscence, this was boxing at its most volatile, aggressive and passionate.

Boxing out of my home town of Ilford, Greater London, Nigel Benn was a dangerous fighter in the early years of his career. The nickname ‘The Dark Destroyer’ wasn’t a misnomer; Benn would defeat, by knockout or technical knockout, every one of his first twenty two opponents. Though the boxing equivalent of wet paper bags are often used to feather a fighter’s record in the early years of his career, this statistic still stands out as impressive, especially when Benn would knock out fighters such as Winston Burnett, someone whose 20-98-3 belies the fact that only fourteen of those losses came by facing a ten count or ref stoppage. Two of those belonged to Benn; in contrast, Chris Eubank would beat Burnett six months this second defeat on points.

In the first Burnett match, we were already beginning to see the prototypical Benn fighting style, as he stalked his prey around the ring with limited, if any, remorse. Hands held low like the street fighter he was, he invited opportunities for his opponents to hit him, knowing that he trusted his hands to do the talking when necessary. Targeting the body as often as the head, punches were thrown with intent to hurt; there was never a sense of Benn trying to find his range or feel out his opponent. The ref would Burnett out of his misery in Round 4 following several shots that snapped back the Jamaican’s head and forced his whole body to recoil. Unsurprisingly, the second fight went no better: Burnett was stopped in Round 3 after a combination of shots that had him hanging limply against the ropes and almost out of the ring. Benn wasn’t looking to mess around.

It would be the twenty third fight of his career which would see him lose for the first time, an all English clash seeing him face Michael Watson for Benn’s Commonwealth Middleweight Title. Not only was Benn defeated by Watson, he was comprehensively outboxed. The favourite of both the fans and the bookies, Benn attempted to walk through Watson’s offense time after time, only for many of his hooks to meet the high guard of the challenger, or miss completely. Using the space afforded to him in the ring to maintain distance where possible, Watson would snap Benn’s head back with jabs and combos, slipping back into the guard before any retaliatory shot could be fired.

The champion was rocked in Round Four, though was able to fight back and land some significant power punches before the bell. The same could not be said for Round Six; as both men traded punches on the ropes, Benn was caught with a left hook that seemed to take him, and his body, by surprise. As if in slow motion, his body tilted and crashed to the canvas, a look of shock registered on his face. Though he would be in the process of getting up at the time, he was not able to beat the ten count. Watson, a 5/1 bet for the victory, had pulled off the unthinkable, and had beaten ‘The Dark Destroyer’.

What would have worried Benn, his fans and his promotional team was the inability to switch gameplan. What had worked so well in the previous fights, Benn’s power punches to head and stomach often forcing his opponent’s guards to drop, hadn’t worked at all against Watson. Whilst Watson was a class above a lot of the men who had stepped into the ring to fight Benn, it was the inability to recognise the danger he was in, or to offer something resembling a plan B. Every time Benn would get hit with a Watson punch, he would leave himself open for two or three more, almost confused as to how best to fend off the rapier jabs of the more experienced opponent.

Following the fight, Benn and his team realised that for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding his boxing career up to date, things weren’t working out. It was one thing to beat a string of relative no-hopers, but when facing up against his first opponent of any real quality, Benn had been found wanting. A renewed focus on training and sparring was necessary, as well as a selection of opponents that would get him the rounds under his belt that were so clearly needed. Even more importantly for Benn was that the next five fights would be Stateside, allowing him to get away from the circus that had been created around his brand and quietly rebuild his reputation post-Watson.

Benn’s US debut would see him go the full ten rounds with Jorge Amparo, a man who had never been stopped and had fought four former world champions. Finally, Benn was beginning to get substantial in-ring time against opposition of a better quality. That isn’t to say that his ability to punch his way past opponents was lost; his second fight in the US didn’t see its way out of the first round, Jose Quinones almost getting punched through the ropes on a first knockdown before dropping to the floor shortly afterwards to leave the ref little choice but to stop the fight. Whilst he could still hit his opponents with power that belied his stature, this one round knockout also showcased a wiser Benn, as he picked his shots until he sensed weakness, clinically finishing Quinones off with several heavy shots.

Following a split decision victory over Sanderline Williams (comprehensively won on two cards), there were still murmurings that Benn couldn’t consider himself amongst the top echelon of middleweight fighters. The next two fights would arguably change that. In the first, he would pick up his first world title by defeating Doug De Witt for the WBO World Middleweight Title. A brutal beating saw De Witt drop three times in the first minute of the eighth round following seven previous rounds that saw cuts above both eyes and a serious ear injury. An even more impressive first round TKO of Iran Barkley followed, though this resembled a bar fight as much as a boxing contest. Barkley would hit the mat three times, though Benn would be chastised post-fight for a punch thrown when Barkley was on the mat for the second time.

It was time to come home. With an offer of a substantial payday to fight Chris Eubank, Benn would put aside his own desires to take on Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard and contest another all-English affair. The two men were the antithesis of each other in terms of style, with Eubank arguably more stylish and definitely more elusive. After nine close rounds, a tiring Benn would be stopped by a flurry of Eubank shots, forcing the referee to stop the contest with four seconds left of the round. For the second time, Benn would lose a title to a fellow British boxer.

This time, the rehabilitation would take place primarily in the UK, outside of a stop in Italy to pick up his second world title, the WBC Super-Middleweight Championship, in a four round TKO victory over Mauro Galvano. Rather than the conclusive victory Benn might have wanted, the fight ended in controversy when Galvano was unable to continue due to a cut above his eye. With the Italians angling for a technical draw due to it being at the end of Round Three, confusion reigned until it was announced that Benn had been awarded the fight by TKO. To put any lingering doubt to rest, Benn would subsequently defeat Galvano by unanimous decision in Glasgow.

Between winning the title and fighting McClellan in 1995, Benn would accumulate a record of twelve wins and one draw, the draw being the controversial rematch with Chris Eubank. The fight would be a record breaker for UK boxing as Benn would become the first man to get paid £1 million for a UK fight. Benn would technically win on two of the judges’ scorecards, only for a docked point for a low blow in the sixth round would leave the score tied: one judge for Benn, one for Eubank, one tied. The fans in attendance weren’t happy – they clearly thought Benn had done enough to unify the titles (Eubank being the current WBO Super Middleweight Champion).

In the lead up to his match with McClellan, Benn would have two unanimous decision victories, the first over Henry Wharton, the second over Juan Carlos Giminez Ferreyra. Whilst both fights were comprehensive victories for the champion, they lacked the fireworks and ferocity expected of Benn between the ropes. With his 31st birthday behind him, and forty two fights of escalating length and competitiveness, people began to wonder how long Benn had left at the top of the pile.

For a fighter who had had questions about his chin ever since the fight against Michael Watson back in 1989, Benn couldn’t have chosen a more potentially difficult opponent. Gerald McClellan, fighting out of Illinois, was as dangerous a puncher as had ever set foot in a boxing ring. Around the time of the Benn/Watson contest, McClellan would lose his eleventh and twelfth fights on points. He wouldn’t lose another fight for the next five years. More worryingly, after a points victory over Charles Hollis in 1990, he would win his next fourteen contests by knockout or TKO. Ten of these fights would not see the bell for the end of the first round.

On McClellan’s first trip to the UK, he would win the WBO Middleweight Title that had been vacated when Chris Eubank moved up to Super-Middleweight, a belt that Eubank had taken off of Benn with his ninth round victory. John Mugabi would be his opponent for the vacant championship; Mugabi would hit the canvas three times in the first round. A fighter notorious for having no fight go the distance in his career up to this point, Mugabi would be hit multiple times with shots that stiffened his entire body, punches akin to walking into a brick wall staggering the veteran. That the referee allowed the fight to continue after the second knockdown was questionable, allowing Mugabi to take several more heavy shots to the face before collapsing face first to the mat. Jumping and punching the air as the ref waved off the fight, McClellan had proved to the British crowd his immense power. He would clearly be a danger for any opponent, no matter how lauded they might be.

Unlike Benn, who seemed to be slowing down, McClellan continued to improve as he knocked out challengers with relative ease. His impressive record would see him earn a shot at the WBC Middleweight Title in 1993, a match against the Virgin Islander Julian Jackson, a man who had only lost one fight of a forty seven fight career up to this point. Even successive low blows in the fifth round would not be enough to stop the American, as he got up after a short delay to land a left hook that almost had Jackson sliding under the bottom rope. The game champion was able to get back to his feet, only to take more punishment as McClellan smelt blood. The second knockdown saw Jackson once against get back up, but Miles Lane waved off the fight with him in no state to continue. A rematch would take place in 1994, the final fight before McClellan would meet Benn; this time Jackson barely made it out of the first minute, dropped by a body shot for a ten count. The speed, power and accuracy of McClellan was frightening as he swarmed all over Jackson after the first punch of note. Future glory seemed within his grasp.

The opening to the show was pure 90s; lurid colours flashing across the screen supported by synth music of the most basic. ‘The Big Fight’ emblazoned across the screen in gold, symbolic of the glory ahead for the victor. Vox pop style promotional snippets of interviews sat next to a montage of each mans’ impressive in-ring action, numbers dancing across the screen to remind the viewer watching at home that they were in for some destructive and explosive action. In the lead up to the fight both men were confident that they would come out the champion. McClellan criticised Benn’s ability to box; Benn reminded us all that he had more knockout victories than McClellan had matches.

The contest came at a good time for ITV Sport. Having only the week before showcased a one-sided ‘mugging’ (the words of Jim Rosenthal) between Frank Bruno and Rodolfo Martin, the broadcaster would have been looking for action that was a little more inspiring. The coverage pre-fight seemed to highlight the belief that they would get exactly that, everyone effusively selling the contest as a potential ‘fight of the decade’. Worryingly for the British fans, popular consensus was that the fight would be short, with McClellan likely to be the one with his hand raised at the end. The Times and The Mirror had the American winning in the sixth and fifth round respectively; The Guardian and Today didn’t even have Benn making it out of the first round.

Those who had lumped on the bookies’ tip would have liked what they saw as the introductions boomed out over the PA system in the London Arena. Lead to the ring by a flag waving Don King, McClellan looked unfazed by the hostility of the pro-Benn crowd, like a man ready to take what was rightfully his. In contrast, Benn appeared more wide-eyed and on edge as he followed his crew to ringside, a man who might have been beginning to regret the choices he had made.

After the ring introductions, the first round proved to be beyond the expectations of all the pundits who had expected a ferocious start. With a reminded of the thirty three first round wins each men shared, it shouldn’t have been surprising that one boxer was on his back within the first three minutes. Benn, after looking surprised by a couple of decent shots and the power within them, would get caught against the ropes with relative ease. Using his left hand to seemingly identify the places to aim for, McClellan would knock Benn out of the ring and onto the apron. A couple of shots that had managed to connect on Benn’s chin, a target ducking underneath the belt line in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable, stiffened the legs, before the next shot had Benn almost amongst the glitterati in the front row.

What followed has been debated about ever since the fight, as Benn would get what was perceived longer count to get back into the ring. Whether he had fallen far enough into the crowd to get a twenty count, or the ref offered a very calm and considered ten count, Benn was somehow able to get back into the ring. Inside my house, the fear of an early stoppage (and an early night) grew exponentially. How could Benn manage to see out this onslaught to finish the first round, let alone the fight?

And an onslaught it was.

McClellan was like a pitbull, snarling and chomping to get at Benn as quickly as possible, a fighter who knew he wasn’t paid by the hour and sensed it wouldn’t take much more to put Benn out for good. Stumbling around like a drunkard after closing time, Benn was lucky not to get stopped by the referee at several points – some officials would have stepped in for less. A token left hand before the bell rang would be the only offense of any note from the Brit, though it was at least a signal that he had managed to weather the storm and was still not only standing, but swinging as well.

In the Benn corner, a sense of worry was pervasive amongst not only the boxer, but his team also. Choosing not to dwell on the massacre that was the first round, Dennie Mancini would champion Benn’s cause, extolling the virtue of his work in that first round and reinflate a sense of belief in the almost beaten man. The second round would not be a repeat of the first, not if Benn could help it.

The street fighting instincts seemed to kick in, though many punches were high, wide or handsome, yet every connection would send a capacity crowd into rapture. As if exhausted by the early flurry and confused by the fight even entering a second round, McClellan would show little in the second round, resorting to holding onto Benn after receiving several stinging left hooks to the face. It was as if Benn drew energy from every punch that connected, his legs working hard to allow McClellan no space to escape.

The danger with a powerful fighter like McClellan was always going to be his ability to turn a contest on one jaw-shattering punch. Even though Round Three and Round Four saw Benn make multiple use of his left hook from out of a crouch position to good effect, the American still looked the more dangerous. Benn still needed to be wary of his opponent, a point highlighted when he was stopped in his tracks by a McLellan left hook, a desperate clinch enough to allow him to stay upright. These punches were becoming less frequent as the fight went on, however.

With the rarity of McClellan being dragged past Round Three, a longer fight felt like it was going to favour Benn. The commentary mentioned McClellan’s seeming inability to defend, and whenever the camera focused on the man, he looked dazed and tired by the constant barrage of blows from Benn. The wars across the UK and the US to get Benn to this night were paying dividends – he knew what it took to dig deep.

As hindsight is always perfect vision, it is easy to look now and see the warning signs that things weren’t quite right as the contest progressed. What could easily dismissed as the struggles of a boxer who had never been challenged in this manner, or been forced to box this many rounds more than a handful of times, looks damning when viewed in retrospect. The mouthguard seemed to have a mind of its own, popping in and out of McClellan’s mouth with every breath he forced into his exhausted body.  Between rounds and as he circled away from the onrushing Benn, his eyes flickered rapidly, a feature of his countenance noted on commentary. Every shot that Benn landed that somehow McClellan managed to absorb was testament to his capabilities at the time, as well as a steady march to the inevitable tragic ending.

That is not to say that Benn had it all his own way up until the eleventh round. The pundits went back and forth on whether Benn had done enough to recover on the scorecards following the first round knockdown, whilst arguably McClellan would win Round Seven after a barren spell since sending his opponent through the ropes. The frustration of the crowd was tangible, and spilled over for Benn at the end of Round Six, a couple of heavy shots landing after the bell, shrugged off on commentary as the instinct of a fighter who has his man hurt.

Just as it seemed like the home favourite was doing enough to peg back the points, disaster struck. A right hand by McClellan would send a flailing Benn into the ropes, before follow up shots would leave him propped up against the corner. Though suggestions would be made that the resulting knockdown was a slip, connection by McClellan’s glove seemed to be the catalyst for Benn’s trip to the canvas. Irrelevant as to whether it should have been considered a knockdown or not, all of the hard work that Benn had put in to closing the points gap was undone, much to his visible frustration.

McClellan would have his heart questioned in Round Nine, as an overreaching Benn would hit the American with his glove and then a glancing headbutt as he tumbled down to the canvas. As if to try and force the referee’s hand to give him the time that he so desperately needed, McClellan would kneel on the floor, much to the chagrin of the crowd in attendance. Boos reigned down as the ref told him to get back up to his feet, to resume the war of attrition that only occasionally threatened to break out into a boxing contest.

Even in a fight where every shot feels liable to leave a man laying on the canvas, the end came suddenly. At the time, I felt it was an anti-climax, buying into the commentary team’s suggestions that McClellan’s will and desire had been broken by Benn over the course of the intense battle. A big right hand from Benn in Round Ten would send McClellan down to his knees, the crowd’s fervour for their champion to win reaching a fever pitch as the first real sign of weakness from the American played out in the middle of the ring. He would get up to his feet, but there was no doubt that he was in no real condition to continue, each following punch taken with limited attempts to defend the swarm of blows from Benn’s right and left gloves. In testament to his will and desire to win, McClellan would manage to avoid ending up flat on his back, instead heading back to one knee for the second count of the round.

With the referee clearly signalling the count to the kneeling warrior, McClellan looked stunned. The crowd, every man and woman standing on their feet, has a sense that neither man would give in if they had an ounce of fight left in them. Yet, as the count continued to move towards ten, McClellan didn’t move. As the referee waved off the contest following the splaying of both of his hands to signal the ten had been reached, the realisation that Benn had managed to defeat the American against all odds hit. Rapture mixed with relief, for Benn and for the crowd in attendance. At the time of the knockout, McClellan was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards.

It wasn’t long before the feeling in the ring changed from celebration to concern as McLellan would end up flat on his back, the corner and the medics rushing to try and administer first aid. With the TV viewers to consider, the post match interview with Benn was tinged with a sense of ill timing, as he lauded it over his fallen opponent at a time when oxygen masks were being administered and people were trying to clear the ring. Noticing the situation, the interview would be cut short, with McClellan’s condition unclear and the coverage finishing with questions left hanging in the air as to how serious things were. Was he just exhausted after a war that would end up putting Benn in hospital as well? The crowd crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

In a bittersweet turn of events, it would be the disabling of Michael Watson at the hands of Chris Eubank in 1991 that may have saved McClellan from a more serious condition, or even death. When Watson had required immediate medical attention, no paramedic or ambulance had been in attendance, leaving his brain to be starved of oxygen and a long wait for the required treatment was received. This time, five doctors, four paramedics and two ambulances were on the scene; an army of medical personnel that probably saved McClellan’s life.

In the ensuing hours that followed McClellan’s collapse, the adrenaline and aggression that surged through the body of Benn led to him declaring ‘rather him than me’ when challenged by a journalist on the condition of his opponent. Crass, but unfortunately all too understandable from a man who felt the world was against him in the lead up to the fight. When they ended up in the same hospital, Benn would show a more tender side to his personality, kissing the hands of the stricken warrior.

Understandably, calls from the British Medical Association to ban boxing were instant, especially considering all conceivable measures had been put in place to try and stop this type of tragedy occurring. In a comment that seemed almost too obvious and simplistic, a spokesperson for the medical body would say “The problem is that boxers are punching each other’s heads.”  However, just like McClellan would survive his brush with death, boxing would also survive, yet with the lingering spectre of tragedy never too far away.

Benn would fight two more times in 1995, defeating Vincenzo Nardiello and Danny Perez by TKO. This would be the last hurrah for a boxer that many felt had been on a downward slide before triumph over McClellan. His WBC Super Middleweight Title would be lost in a match against a forty year old Thulani ‘Sugarboy’ Malinga in 1996, one that Benn himself admitted he had been complacent in and put in a lacklustre performance. Later that year, two consecutive losses to the Irishman Steve Collins would signal the end of his career.

As for McClellan? He would spend eleven days in a coma, losing his eyesight, ability to walk and powers of comprehension in the process. Over time, the ability to get around with a cane would allow him an element of freedom, but he required full time care that would be administered by his three sisters.

The tragedy of the fight rightly overshadows the quality of the contest, but it would be remiss of the boxing public to choose to bury their heads in the sand and forget about it. The battle between the two champions encapsulated the best and worst of the fighting game; the lengths that a man would go to to take a punch and keep on moving forward; the potential for debilitating injury and death ever present.

This was the fight that made me fall in love with boxing as a sport. Perhaps too young to realise the overarching narrative that played out in the days that followed, it became emblematic of persistence in the face of adversity. Even after over twenty years, it grabs and engages me in a way that no other fight has and possibly will since. The epilogue may be tragic; the talents of the men who were willing to die for victory, unquestionable.