The Hardest Game – The Moment of Triumph
Chapter One – The Moment of Triumph
White light beats down on a ring besieged by people. The ring won’t hold any more, but more are fighting to get in and the policemen struggle to hold them out. One man more hysterical than the rest tries to hurl himself into the ring off the Press bench. His foot squashes hard down on the keys of a typewriter. A reporter’s hand happens to be there at the time. The world is full of noisy, trampling, sweating, cheering, swearing,happy,angry people. The Big Fight is over. The MC fishes for his microphone in a sea of feet: ‘My Lords, ladies and gentlemen….’
The scene freezes like a TV action replay and the mob collects itself for one orgy of final noise. ‘ The Winner…! ‘ The frame unfreezes and the mob picks up where it left off, shoving, shouting, scrambling, tearing its way to be near…. ‘ The Winner!’ The world has a new champion and somewhere in that heaving mass he is being hugged, pummeled, slapped, kissed, pushed, pulled, being handled, in fact, with every response but dignity. For the time being, dignity is out.
Boxers react in numerous ways to their Moment of Triumph. Most jump two feet off the floor, brandishing their fists. Some fall into their managers’ arms in a loving embrace. Some kiss their trainers, others look for wifes or girlfriends. Some, but never me sink to their knees, others cross themselves. None that i remember ever shrugged his shoulders, muttered ‘ That’s it, then,’ and climbed out of the ring. Why should he? Only a handful of special men from the entire population of the world experience boxing’s Moment of Triumph. ‘ The Winner!…. World Champion!’ The Moment when it comes, is a whirling kaleidoscope, a frenzy of jubilation in a ridiculous confined space. It is utterly unlike any other comparable Moment in sport.
The new champion is reluctant to leave the ring. His moment must be savoured, stretched, preserved. If only he could hold on to it for ever, on this tiny stage, 20ft by 20ft, where for the last hour he has concentrated everything he’s ever learned about boxing. 10 years of toil, into one great effort to beat other man. Now victory has changed his life for good.
At one time the Moment of Triumph was rarely enjoyed by Britain’s boxers. Before World War 2 our men seldom took part in world-title fights and hardly never won them. In 1930s, we produced only four world champions. Three of these were flyweights, the 112-lb division where we had traditional strength. They were Jackie Brown, Benny Lynch and Peter Kane. Our only other world champion in those 10 years was Jack Kid Berg at junior-welter (140lb), a division almost totally confined to the United State, although Berg won his title in London. Professional boxing in the 1930s was dominated by the USA who had most of the world champions and controlled the sport. It continued to be so far some time after the war until air travel (you could not fly to the States before the war) opened up the game. With easyier international exchange, America’s grip was broken and today she herself struggles to make an impression on world boxing, except at the heavier weights, where she still rules.
The face of world professional boxing has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. At one time there were only eight traditional weights and, generally speaking, just one recognized champion at each weight. We all knew who he was. Not so today. As i write, there are 15 weight divisions, starting from light-flyweight (108LB) and, because the sport has opposing governing bodies. the World Boxing Council, two champions at each weight…well, almost. At the beginning of 1981 there were 28 ‘world’ champions!
The only reason there were not 30 was that the WBA had not got around to declaring a super-fly (115lb) champion, while at middleweight Marvin Hagler of the USA was recognized by both camps. Small wonder that even the expert today finds it impossible to name all the champions. From being badly under-organized, professional boxing today is madly over-organized, with the unhappy result that most ‘world’ champions are really only half-champions. They know – and we know – there is one other man in the world they have not met yet and he is the man that might beat them.
However, from this post-war expansion an our more sophisticated knowledge of preparing boxers and steering them to title fights has come come a remarkable bonus of success. The man who started it all was the hugely popular Freddie Mills, no very skilful boxer but a game and colourful fighter who, in 1948, won the word light-heavyweight crown from the American Gus Lesnevitch. When Randolph Turpin surpassed even Mill’s efforts and took the middleweight title from the ledendary Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, British boxing assumed a world importance it had not enjoyed since early days of the century. It has never looked back and in recent years we have relished the successes of Walter McGowan, Terry Downes, Howard Winstone, Ken Buchanan, John Stracey and John Conteh.
In 1980 came the finest year of all: three world champions for Britain at the same time – Jim Watt, Maurice Hope, Alan Minter, triumph on a scale, we could not have dared to visualize 20 years earlier. And yet… for every winner, there must be a loser, and for every world champion, hundreds, thousands, of boxers who never make it. Most never escape the humdrum six- and eight-round fights, the realistic core of the sport. These men dream about, nut never experience, the Moment of Triumph. Boxing is truly The Hardest Game.