In association with GUINNESS
As the campaignto ban boxing gathers momentum, JOHN HEALY's pugilistic tale is a timely reminder of the horrors of an unlicensed fight.
I met up with him again in Camden High Street. It was hard to recognise him for the man he had been. Liver-sick blind in one eye, dressed in tattered clothes, his days are now spent in the Pratt Street boneyard. By night he lives in a flea-ridden doss-house
Once, three decades ago, things had been different. Then he had been No. 1 contender for the Scottish lightweight title, Money, women, fast cars and flash clothes had come easily to him. Until he started to lose in the ring. Before long, he'd lost everything.
Now Scotch Billy sits on a bench swigging from a bottle. As the wine start to hit him, it re-ignites an old spark. Suddenly, tiger-like, he throws a few phantom punches and for a moment you can see the class he'd once been.
If only he could have a few days' training, he says, and the fare, he'd try his hand at an unlicensed bout, in the West Country, maybe, or Essex. He turns to me: "You look trained to the second though, you could take on a few." "Maybe as a spectator," I say.
Two weeks later, it's a cold wet night with the mist coming in from the marshes, when I turn up at the pub Scotch Billy had described. Eddie, who sells used cars and scrap metal, is waiting for me. He has a fat face and a scar just under his right eye. He wants to check my credentials. I buy him a drink and it doesn't take long for him to give me the OK. "Just wanted to make sure you weren't the law," he says.
I smiled and we took off through the wastelands of Essex, driving down desolate little roads past old warehouses with rotted awnings and rusting machinery. We are among the last to arrive. The cars are packed at the back of a derelict meat-packing warehouse.
There are about 500 people here. Old packing-cases line the walls. In the centre of the massive building a ring has been erected. The boxers, advertised as Stackpool and Smith, stride in, six-foot heavyweights with brute craniums and square jaws. It seems like any other professional event, but it isn't. They have trainers and managers - flashy blokes in pinstripes - but these days they could never fight professionally.
Once, like Scotch Billy, they could've been champions, but today they're barred, either for being crooked - taking one dive too many - or on medical advice.
" The referee succeeds in prising them apart and that is the last resemblance to a professional boxing match"
One more punch, they've been warned, and they could be out of the picture altogether. But they can't let it go. Tonight there's more at risk than the purse of a grand.
The referee goes through the motions by checking their gloves and offers the traditional words to keep it clean. "We who are about to die salute thee," growls Eddie at my side.
The bell's hardly sounded when the fighters hurl themselves across the ring at each other. Landing in a clinch, they bang their heads into each other's faces with sickening force. The fight'll be hard, it's in the air. Every one of the spectators adds their 'own unit of barely contained aggression, fuelled by cans of Special Brew. A few fishwives are here and the gangsters' molls, faded, jaded blondes living, like the boxers, on past glories.
In the ring, it's become painful to watch. With a sullied kind of honour, Stackpool backs off. Smith lunges forward, bringing his head up into Stackpool's chin. The crowd roars. Stackpool lurches backwards with a whiplash' of blood, his nose all over his face.
Another clinch. The referee succeeds in prising them apart and that is the last resemblance to a professional boxing match
From now on the referee is superfluous. Stackpool brings his knee up into Smith's groin, but Smith, instead of taking a dive, retaliates by grabbing Slackpool round the neck and sinking his teeth in his cheek; Stackpool, blood splashing from his torn face, retreats. He stops. Flatfooted, he throws a wild lucky punch. Smith staggers, more from surprise than the force of the blow, and Stackpool is on him. A vicious uppercut fires Smith onto the entangling ropes. The crowd bays. As Smith tries to wriggle free, Stackpool butchers him at leisure, He plunges his thumb into Smith's left eye, gouging at it, then throws one last vicious hook. Smith stiffens, slides free from the ropes and falls unconscious to the canvas. As Stackpool raises his right-hand, two of Smith's teeth can be seen embedded in his glove. He needs medical attention but, since it's an unlicensed fight, no doctor's present..."Standard fare," Eddie informs me, as we ease our way through the crowd.
For me, this travesty of the art demonstrates why boxing must never be outlawed, despite the clamour whenever a tragic accident occurs in the ring. The sport must be kept under scrutiny; the participants must be made to observe a strict code, ensuring that boxing retains some measure of skill; and first-class medical attention must be available. By banning boxing, we would be driving it entirely from the spotlight and rigour of public control. That night at least Stackpool was a champion again. To the victor, the spoils. But it may be only a question of time before his next opponents are the likes of Scotch Billy, and the stakes are no higher than a bottle of cheap wine.
John Healy is a former junior ABA champion, army champion and did himself participate in many an unlicensed bouts on the streets.