By John Horgan
SKILL or savagery? Opinion about boxing has seldom been as sharply divided as during the days immediately following the death of Davey Moore, almost one year to the day after Benny Paret's fatal fight. it culminated this week in a statement (from the influential Rome News Service) that an "explicit condemnation" of professional boxing might be made by the Church.
To many people, such a condemnation would appear superfluous. During the last fortnight, the Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, and Pope John himself, have all spoken directly or indirectly about the harm suffered by boxers and the moral issues involved.
In London this week, the debate was taken up by theologians, peers, boxers and managers. sports writers, commentators and doctors. It was easier to find people who could frame their objections to boxing than those who could express their support for it in reasonable terms. But gradually a picture of boxing in general and the Ring in Britain in particular began to take shape.
The Abbot of Ealing. Dom Rupert Hall, 0.S.B., who has taught boxing to schoolboys, firmly supports it as a form of charactertraining for young boys. He says that it is particularly valuable for inculcating self-control and confidence, and that this has been proved again and again." Many youngsters take to it very happily, and never damage themselves. In addition. it keeps them fit.
"I havese boys starting boxing after aen season of playing Rugby, and who have still not been quite fit enough," Abbot Hall commented.
At the same time. he would never make boxing compulsory. as other games occasionally are, although he would foster it as much as he could. Several Catholic schools, he pointed out, ran inter-school boxing competitions every year.
When k came to professional boxing. though, Dom Rupert was considerably less enthusiastic. As men get older, he said, they were able to inflict considerable damage on each other with "terrible punches" and prize-fighting was definitely harmful. He was also surprised that this "gory spectacle" should be so "extraordinarily popular" with a great many women.
The crowd aspect of boxing was taken up again and again by people on both sides. Mr. Terry Leigh Lye, a BBC commentator and newspaper boxing correspondent. was eloquent About the poetry of the ring, quoted Masefield and other poets. and argued that boxing was watched and enjoyed by people of all social strata, who watched it for the skill. and not because they wanted to see blood.
This attitude was described as "a load of rubbish" by another boxing writer, Mr. Tony van den Bergh, who has had similar experience in the BBC and in writing on boxing topics. He said that one of the most disedifying experiences possible was to take a ringside seat at a professional bout, turn one's back on the ring, and spend the fight watching the crowd instead.
Why do men become professional boxers ? In Mr. van den Bergh's opinion, a major reason was that there was no other way in which a young man of 17 could hope to earn up to £60.000 by the time he was 21 or 22. The trouble was that, once they were in, they found it impossible to get out. Their managers made sure that they became accustomed to a higher standard of liviog than they had previously known, and made it clear that the only way they could hope to continue living at this level was to keep fighting.
And here I came up against one of the most vital factors in the fight game. Boxing is big business. When Dick Richardson retired this week after nine years in the ring and 45 fights, he had grossed £l50.000. He is 28. It is safe to assume that his manager was not exactly left out in the cold. And the figure of the manager looms behind every professional boxer today.
Here again there is a split. Some of them are guardian angels, others are Svengalis. Mr. van den Bergh described the type of manager who "took on" a young boxer and "built him up" with assiduous publicity and a string of easy wins. Then, when he judged that the time was right, he purposely matched him with somebody who was certain to beat him. under-trained and over-fed him before the fight. and callously bet on his opponent.
Another type of manager was attacked by Lady Summerskill when I spoke to her. He is the man who sees his charge slowly distintegrating after about his 60th professional fight, changing in personality and unable to throw punches in a co-ordinated way. The manager then, she said, squeezes the last out of his protege and drops him like a dirty towel.
There was almost unanimous agreement about the harmful effects of television. Lady Summerskill criticised it for bringing "violence into the homes of the .
people." •Mr. Leigh-Lye and Mr. van den Bergh also emphasised that television demanded action rather than skill, so that boxers were expected to play to the cameras and brutality was more or less encouraged. Both the BBC and ITA came in for criticism on these counts.
British and Empire heavyweight champion Henry Cooper. who is a Catholic. and Jack Solomons, the promoter, both stressed that boxing in Britain was something to be proud of. Mr. Solomons went so far as to say that British boxers were looked after "better than little children," and added that, as far as he was concerned, the Vatican strictures on professional boxing did not apply here, and had not caused much comment in boxing circles. He couldn't answer for conditions in other countries. Mr. Cooper said that the Vatican statement had not made him have second thoughts about his career.
Lady Summerskill. again, was outspoken about conditions in America, where, she said, it had been shown that many professional boxers were "owned" by people with criminal records. She did not seem to draw much consolation from the fact that both Liston and Patterson number Catholic priests among their supporters, and, if we arc to believe last Sunday's News of the World, many of Patterson's disappointed fight fans wore Roman collars and badges proclaiming "I like Floyd."
Medically speaking, the divisions go deep. Many doctors will support boxing, and it is suggested that some of them have such financial interests in the fight game that they will never agree to condemn it even in the face of mounting evidence. Lady Summerskill, a doctor herself, is particularly anxious about the cumulative brain damage that, shc says, affects so many boxers towards the close of their careers.
"Their personalities change," she told me. "They laugh and weep more readily than before. There are thousands of these forgotten men."
And Mr. van den Bergh added: "You cannot improve a head by punching it. The brain is a very delicate instrument and, particu lady in old age, the effects of post-traumatic encephalitis become more marked with the hardening of the arteries."
The British Medical Journal has published a detailed anaylsis of the careers of five boxers who lost their lives, and a major medical conference on boxing is to be held in London in October. in addition, the Royal College of Physicians is setting up a special group, headed by Lord Braine, to examine the problem.
There is, nowever. widespread approval for the medical services supplied by the British Boxing Board of Control. and for the rules which force beaten and knockedout boxers to rest before fighting again.
Lady Summerskill was particularly perturbed by the thought that the boxing promoters might find fresh grist for their mills in Africa. "This is virgin land for them." she told me. Mr. Solomons, when I spoke to him, had iust returned from a trip to Nigeria. Theological condemnation of boxing has been infrequent. lady Summerskill feels that it should be put on the Vatican Council agenda. Fr. William Lawson S.J., who has written considerably about boxing, thinks that there is a very strong current of theological opinion running against the sport. He points to statements by the German theologian Bernard Haring, and to books by G. C. Bernard and Dr. Perico, the Italian theologian. in support of his own opinion that boxing is immoral.
The Osseryatore Romano's recent series of articles have been stronger in tone than any previous official or semi-official statements. Fr. Lawson thinks that explicit condemnation by the Church of boxing will be formulated slowly. as was condemnation of duelling. This was finally expressed in a Bull of Benedict XIV in 1752.
In that case. duelling was forbidden as being against natural and canon law, and Fr. Lawson sees a great deal of similarity between it and modern professional boxing. He is even prepared to extend his condemnation to amateur boxing. but there has not yet been as much support for this view.
Some years ago, he told me. he wrote an article in the Catholic Times attacking boxing. and afterwards received a great many letters from clerics and laymen criticising his attitude. (Lady Summerskill, on the other hand. told me that she had received many letters from prominent Catholics praising her own anti-boxing stand). One of his letters. Fr. Lawson said, came from a priest who had been a professional boxer, and who told him that he did not know what he was talking about.
During the week, I spoke on the telephone to the same priest. who sharply refused to make any cornment, saying that it was a matter for his Bishop.