DANGEROUS: AN INTIMATE JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF BOXING
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.
Clinical depression caused by death of his abusive father prompts Probert to retrace his steps in boxing. During an emotional eight-month journey Probert reconnects with boxing figures from his past and in doing so draws unexpected solace from a series of remarkable encounters. In the course of numerous meetings with a number of leading figures in the fight game, including Herol Graham, Steve Collins, Michael Watson, Ambrose Mendy, Frank Buglioni and Glenn McCrory among others, Probert takes a look at how lives have changed, developed and even unravelled during the time he has been away from the sport.
From an illuminating and honest encounter with transgender fight manager Kellie Maloney to an emotional reunion with Watson himself, Probert discovers just how much the sport has changed during his absence. The end result is one of the most fascinating and unusual books ever to have been written about boxing.
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It was 23 years ago when I last saw him. His eyes were closed and an oxygen mask was strapped to his mouth. His magnificent muscular torso was a tangle of tubes and sensors. He lay on the bed like a sleeping baby. The slightest of frowns pinched his forehead as if he were dreaming the longest dream: a dream that would last for a biblical 40 days and 40 nights before he would awaken to discover that his life had been ripped apart. That he could never again be the person that he used to be.
In a windswept hotel on the outskirts of Essex I sit at the rear of a vast banqueting hall and wait to see his face once more. I’m wearing the suit that I wore at my wedding and for the last three funerals that I attended. You could say that I’m not a suit person. It hangs loose on my body on account of the large amount of weight I’ve lost in the past couple of years.
‘You’ve put some pounds on,’ says a cor blimey voice, ‘You used to be a skinny fella.’
The voice takes a seat across from me at the table and I recognise its source. It’s also been more than two decades since I last saw him and his hair has waved goodbye – although I’m not one to talk – and he’s something like twice the size that he used to be.
‘You look like you’ve lost weight,’ I lie.
The other man caresses his beer gut and stares at the floor. ‘Yeah… I’ve been working out,’ he says without a trace of irony.
The stranger from my past withdraws to the bar leaving me alone at the dinner table to scrutinise other faces. In the far distance an ex-boxer named Nigel Benn is charging £20 a shot to be photographed with time-ravaged fans. The former world champion looks trim and wears a stylish striped jacket that would probably look ridiculous on anybody else. He grins earnestly and waves a weary fist at the camera. The middle- aged car salesman standing next to him follows his lead for posterity.
On the table closest to me I spot Alan Minter in a dickie bow. A lifetime ago I’d been a 17-year-old waiter serving wine at an event not unlike this one to a bashed-up Minter, who had just lost his undisputed world middleweight title. Back then he was one of the most famous people I’d ever met and I’d been in awe of him. Total awe. But now it’s only sorrow. His position at the outskirts of the hall – almost as remote and desolate as my own location – serves as a barometer for just how many people have forgotten his achievements. He’s at the back of the queue now and others have moved forward to take his place.
The speeches begin. On a long table at the front of the hall a smiling Nigel Benn is surrounded by other refugees from days gone by. A retired boxer named Rod Douglas sits close to another ex-fighter named Herol Graham, the man whose punches put an end to Douglas’ career. The two seem unaware of one another’s presence and I wonder if this is no accident. To Graham’s right is former world featherweight champion Colin McMillan and an assortment of other former prizefighters’ whose blurred features remain hidden in the shadows.
But I’m not here to see these people. Although they all in one way or another belong to my past I’m here to see only one person. I know he’s coming because the organiser of this tribute to Nigel Benn tipped me off before generously inviting me along. Everybody else seems to know he’s coming, too. It has to be the worst kept secret since someone let it slip that smoking is bad for you.
A whisper from the table, ‘Michael’s here.’ And suddenly I can stand it no longer. I climb to my feet and quietly exit the hall. Standing listlessly at the foot of a smartly decorated staircase are two disinterested looking bouncers. I ask them if they’ve seen Michael and they gesture towards a small corridor to the left of the staircase.
I find myself standing outside a disabled toilet. I try the handle. It’s locked. But just as I’m leaving, the door swings open and a large middle-aged black man with glasses and greying temples appears. We look at each other for a long time and disjointed words tumble from my lips, ‘Michael… It’s so nice to see you.’ It’s all I can think of saying. My voice is trembling and already I’m weak with emotion.