When the boxing bug strikes, you’re knocked out for life
For a boxing tragic like me, it’s just a hook and a jab from one hot corner of the global ring to another
A heart thumped loudly on the corner of Oxford and North streets in East London on a grey winter’s day in 1992. It was in my chest.
The previous September I had been hired by the Daily Dispatch to cover cricket for no other reason than that was the vacancy. But what I really wanted to write about was boxing.
In the white world, cricket was played by kids from larney suburbs who went to even larnier schools, whose committees were strewn with their successful parents, who drove them everywhere they needed to go or bought them motorbikes.
I was from shabby places like Stoney Drift, Milner Estate, Panmure and the Quigney – yes, all of them – and schooled accordingly. Neither of my parents had a driver’s licence, much less a car. My mother earned money as a fortune teller. My father was often in jail.
So I was made for boxing. That’s why I was on the corner of Oxford and North.
Weirdly, the shift roster at the Dispatch showed I had three days off consecutively. I resolved to spend them in a large room that sat between a slew of shops atop a flight of stairs and behind a glass door halfway down the hill that connects North to Buffalo Street.
I climbed the stairs, reached for the door handle, took a deep breath, and prepared for my life to be changed forever. It was, and in less than a second.
The stink hit me like Joe Frazier’s left hook. It was the smell of years of compacted, dried sweat that seemed to have seeped into everything and everyone in the room. It was also the smell of hope.
The walls were plastered with posters that fuelled that hope, which could be heard in every slap of leather on leather. Or on skin and, somewhere beyond that, flesh and bone.
As in most boxing gyms, the ring dominated. But there were significant distractions. Look over there – that’s Welcome Ncita! There – Vuyani Bungu! And there, in a corner of the ring, arms draped over the ropes, surveying all with a sharp eye, a skew smile, and a ready mouth, Mzi Mnguni stood, the king in his castle.
I stood for a moment in the open doorway, trying to find air to breathe in the stew of sweat and hope, and knowing that every pair of eyes in the place had fixed on the only white face around.
Turning, I closed the door, said not a word, made for the perimeter of the room and found a seat among dozens of onlookers. No one asked who I was or why I was there. Who I was didn’t matter. Why I was there was obvious: like everybody else, for boxing.
By the end of that day Mnguni, Ncita and Bungu knew who I was, and by the end of the third I had interviewed all of them and several more.
And so the Dispatch’s cricket writer began flinging boxing stories at his editors. Bless the old buggers, they published them.
Over the years I have returned to boxing at every opportunity, as a reader as well as a writer. How could I not? It’s less a sport than a means of social, financial and physical survival. It makes heroes out of the hated and Macbeths out of mediocrities. It is humanity at once victorious and vile. If you can’t read or write – or both – about boxing, best you stop reading and writing.
Unlike too many cricketers to count, I have yet to be disappointed by an interaction I have had with a boxer, trainer, referee, promoter or administrator. Some have behaved like benevolent uncles, others like the crooks they are. One wanted to beat me up.
The magic followed me from East London, the crucible of the fight game in SA, when I moved to Durban – so bereft of boxing now that people there still speak of Brian Baronet and Tap Tap Makhathini – then to Johannesburg – where boxing goes to make money – and then to Cape Town – where an epic on the Whiteboy family lays, as yet, unwritten.
I thought I was leaving boxing behind when I moved to London in September. What I hadn’t counted on was boxing refusing to leave me behind.
Within days of arriving I was trying like hell to be accredited for Anthony Joshua’s fight against Alexander Povetkin at Wembley. Sorry, you’re too late, the suits said. That didn’t stop me from writing about their showdown: boxing is always bigger than fight night.
By then we had settled into a flat in Bethnal Green. A short ring walk away on a house on Paradise Row, a blue plaque reads, “Daniel Mendoza, pugilist, 1764-1836. English champion who proudly billed himself as ‘Mendoza the Jew’, lived here when writing ‘The Art of Boxing’.”
Mendoza won 34 of his 37 bare-knuckle fights. He was born in England and he was indeed Jewish, but also of Portuguese heritage. He stood only 1.7m tall and weighed just 73kg, but he won the world heavyweight championship. He invented the left jab and the sideways step, and liked to say he was the first Jew to talk to King George III.
Talk about being made for boxing. In his diary, Mendoza wrote about a trip to watch a fight that itself involved fisticuffs – once in an altercation with the driver of another cart, then with a shopkeeper who he felt was trying to hoodwink him, and again simply because he took umbrage at how someone looked at him.
Just up the road is the funeral parlour from which Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who were prominent amateur boxers before they became Britain’s most notorious gangsters, were buried.
“In the East End, when we were kids you really had only one of two choices if you wanted to make anything of yourself in life; you either became a boxer or a villain,” Ronnie Kray wrote.
Before they owned the streets I now walk and cycle daily, the Krays learnt their trade at the Repton, which trained its first fighters in 1884 and is now Britain’s oldest boxing club. It’s still going strong in a red-brick building 450m away from where I am punching out these words.
I do mean punching. I type, with two fingers, like Smokin’ Joe used to hook. And I have plenty to punch about, what with the east end of London able to lay claim to boxers like Henry Cooper, Lennox Lewis, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn.
From the scrappy streets of East London to the deep, dark east of London is a long journey. But, for a boxing tragic, it’s just a hook and a jab from one hot corner of the global ring to another.
Seconds out, round number plenty.