York Hall, Bethnal Green. Summer. It’s uncomfortably hot. I’m sitting ringside towards the end of a sweltering 6 hour, 15-fight card, watching another something-and-0 prospect ping shots into the guard of another 80-something fight veteran, and there’s hardly anyone here. The slap of leather on skin echoes around the near-empty, harshly lit hall. To my left, the medics chat idly in the front row of a bank of vacant seats, relieved their night’s work is very nearly done. To my right sit the ring girls, one with her head resting on the shoulder of the other, bored. Opposite me are the officials, their scoring of seemingly little consequence in this late hour.
Ding. Another round ends. The ring girl resting her head suddenly springs to life and scrabbles for her round card. The medics look up momentarily, checking for any signs of distress they know are not there. An official doodles on his papers. A few more people finish their drinks.
This is something of a witching hour in boxing. It’s a tough hour, long after the main event has ended and the raucous crowds have migrated to local pubs. It is reserved for the prospects who can’t sell tickets or don’t have respectable amateur backgrounds to bolster their profile, and performing at this time is a thankless task. Knowing they are somewhat down on their luck in these respects, I stay, telling myself a short review is some small recompense for their efforts. But I’m reviewing this event for no pay. I have been here since 4pm, and I am starting to lose concentration.
“Knock ‘im aaaht, Tone! Knock ‘im aaaht!” shouts a loyal fan as the next round begins, the only voice in the whole venue. Not much in the way of advice or encouragement, but it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. ‘Tone’ paws with another jab, and his journeyman retreats. I exhale heavily as thoughts of home start to creep in, and I scour the running order to see there how many fights there are still to come: two more after this one, both four-rounders. Quick maths: a three minute round plus a minute rest is four. Sixteen minutes a fight. Two fights… call it half an hour, plus the remainder of this fight, plus entrances and announcements. About an hour left. Steady as we go.
‘Tone’, meanwhile, has stalked his opponent into a corner. “Knock ‘im aaaht!”encourages Superfan, sensing an opportunity. An overhand right misses – the opponent escapes. “Tony! Knock ‘im aaaht!” he bellows, incredulous that Tony apparently believes this to be bad advice. Perhaps I should offer a second opinion? I clear my throat: “Stay patient, Tony, keep sending that jab out, you’ll get him” I offer. “Don’t stay patient!” barks Superfan immediately from behind the ring girls. “Get stuck in and knock ‘im aaaht!” I shake my head in the ensuing, awkward silence. Perhaps not.
Turning back to the dramaless action in the ring, I suddenly resent it all. Who is all this for? Is this for me? What am I doing here? What is any neutral fan who is still here actually doing here? What’s Tony doing here, at gone 10 o’clock at night, boxing in front of family members, Superfan and wageless reviewers in this bizarre private showing? This has probably cost Tony a lot of money, yet there’s little glory in the victory he’s paid for, or in the muted applause that will greet the win. There are no post-fight interviews and there are no cameras. The domestic title fights are years away, if they are there at all, and those years will be filled with more four rounders against more journeymen in more empty leisure centres.
And Tony is not alone in this predicament. I have spent a lot of time with hopeful young pros in various gyms across the country, and most of them are talented enough to, at the very least, compete for a regional domestic title. But so few of them ever will, because talent can only get them so far; the working-all-day, training-all-night grind will slowly erode their resolve, and a surprise loss or even a bad winning performance can shake their confidence enough to put them off the sport for good when their careers have barely begun.
A eureka moment from Superfan brings me back to the room. “Tony!” he snaps, standing from his chair, his eyes wide with new discovery. “KNOCK!! ‘IM!! AAAHT!!” That did it for me. I’m not sure whether it was the heat, the fatigue or Superfan and his special brand of nonsense, but at this point I suddenly decide I’m leaving. As I pack my notes away, a timely text arrives from my dad, who sponsors another pro on the card; he’s down the road in an Italian restaurant with my family, and is asking if I want spaghetti. I realise I’m hungry, and I want a beer and some conversation. More importantly, I realise that I don’t want to be in this hall anymore. I don’t want to watch Tony fight. I don’t want to listen to Superfan. I don’t want to take any more notes. I’m disappointed to realise that I’m giving up, and I don’t really care.
Jacket under my arm and feeling renewed by the thought of a meal, I shuffle my way out of the aisle, nod my thanks to the security guard at ringside, and start heading towards the exit. As I reach the wooden doors, I glance over my shoulder. Both boxers are sat on their stools, breathing heavily under the floodlights. The ring card girl is climbing the steps to the ring. There’s a low, sparse chatter from the bar in the adjacent room. Everything else is strangely still, a sorry picture telling a story that no-one really wants to be part of, and no one is really interested in hearing. It’s a sad sight, one I am happy to turn my back on. After a moment I do so, opening the doors and walking into the fresh night-time air.
Boxing is a tough sport, and it is full of tough hours. The hours of sparring, dieting, running, the hours away from the family, and the hours trying to sell tickets – none of them are easy. But when those hours amount to fighting for nothing in front of no one, in what is supposed to be the moment that makes it all worth while, then surely that unforgiving hour is the toughest of them all.