In this feature, SB Sweeney explains his fascination with boxing and the fighting culture that drives some of his characters.
Below the feature is a boxing extract from the novel, taken from the section entitled Before Going to Cork Airport, in which Tom remembers witnessing his friend Pete in the ring with a booth fighter from Chorley in the Preston Flag Market.
Doing Boxing Justice
For me, squatting in the 80s meant stepping into a dimly lit world of rubble, extension cables, one-pot stews and anarcho-industry. It was a difficult place from which to follow the dramas being played out in the boxing world. And to do so meant facing fierce criticism from virtually every counter cultural opinion. Boxing was a murky habit that I indulged singularly – mostly in Irish or Jamaican lock-ins.
My dad boxed and told me he took it up so he could feel safe whenever he walked into a pub. To someone like me, having lived in London all my adult life, it seemed a puzzling thing to say. Bordering on paranoid. When I left London to live in Yorkshire, and then Lancashire, I understood what he meant. In some places you were more likely to notice someone different at the bar – whether they were strangers or local. So in turn boxing was, and still is, a realistic route out of the stifling disadvantage or prejudice of poor, close-knit communities.
I first became interested in the sport when my dad began buying the Ring magazine and Boxing Illustrated in the 70s. Fitzsimmons' solar plexus punch, Ketchel's teeth in Johnson's glove, the fight of the long count – reading about the history of the sport added to the majesty of those contemporary champions: Ali, Foster, Monzón, Durán. It was drama on a mythical scale, beamed live into our homes with narration by Harry Carpenter.
Boxing reached its peak in the 80s. When I tried to justify it to mates I used to say things like – boxing is just tennis without the rackets, ball or net. Pure competition, pure survival. I also used to say – while we have injustice, we'll have boxing. In the post-Ali landscape it was easy to see boxing as a political platform, like rock music. It was an arena for individuals to transcend their circumstances - and to stand for something.
Barry McGuigan provided the perfect evolution of the Ali era. This was a boxer fighting under a flag of peace – right here in the British/Irish Isles. In the space of a year, from 1984 to 85, McGuigan defeated five opponents and won the world title. In the same period of time we went from the Brighton bomb to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
I only got to see Mike Tyson beat Michael Spinks because John Cooper Clarke was staying over after a gig in Finsbury Park. There would have been no chance otherwise, but the Salford bard was up for it and he was a guest of honour. We sat on the edge of Sarah's mattress and watched on her portable TV as Tyson demolished a plausible opponent in 90 seconds.
My dad called him a throwback, and it looked like that to begin with. A small (for a heavyweight), powerful, no-nonsense knock-out specialist. But it seemed more like Tyson had been a marketing exercise after Cus D'Amato and then Jim Jacobs died, and eventually the style unravelled and the spell broke. In many ways he symbolised the ultimately victorious politics of the 80s. He was the individual against the world.
The 80s were filled with epic contests involving Sugar Ray, Thomas Hearns, Durán and Hagler. There were unexpected British triumphs like Honeyghan's win over Don Curry. There was Holmes, before Tyson. And with the onset of the 90s came the great middleweight battles in the UK.
Ring personalities have dulled over the past twenty years, as our world has flattened out into a bland consumer environment. Squats have turned into property investments and boxing has become part of the spectacle, like many professional sports - a tool for stupification. Pay per view.
Meanwhile the streets descend into chaos. And, despite flurries of action from protest and awareness raising groups, most of us sink to our lowest aspirations and vote for the lowest common denominator. It would take a giant of a boxer to transcend a sports world of TV schedules and fat contracts in order to shed light on today's injustices.
The booth fighter was a fellow from Chorley and was as hard as a bag of nails. He toyed with Pete for a round or two, jabbing him just enough to set his nose bleeding while avoiding the wild hay-makers coming his way. Whenever Pete got close with a punch, the Chorley man would grab him in a clinch and around the ring they staggered like drunks, to cries of derision from the onlookers.
After about five minutes of this, Pete seemed to physically tire and he leaned heavily on his opponent’s shoulder.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked him, gasping for breath.
‘Eh?’ said the booth fighter, and Pete repeated the question, loudly. Tom could hear him from ringside.
‘Chorley.’ The reply was almost cordial.
And Pete stepped back as if to offer him a handshake, causing the booth fighter to hesitate, just for a moment but long enough for a tremendous left hook to connect with full force on his jaw – and he collapsed like a pack of cards.
‘Well, you can tell ’em back in Chorley that you were knocked out by a Preston masher!’ said Pete with great relish and he turned to receive the cheers from the onlookers. It seemed like a glorious moment but, sadly, it was all too brief.
Tom had already begun searching his trouser pockets to see if he could scrape together the five pounds on the bet, when the Chorley man rose menacingly to his feet, strode across the ring to Pete, who still held his arms aloft, and threw an almighty uppercut which lifted him clear off the canvas.
The bet was settled.