Back in the late 1950s gentlemen in our Radnorshire village would retire to a private lounge in the local pub to watch one of the first television sets in the district, its aerial directed towards, I believe, far-off Wenvoe. A favourite programme was Grandstand, which in the very early 60s would transmit Fight of the Week supplied by America’s NBC channel. Here Radnorians came face to face with the likes of Hurricane Carter and Davey Moore - both later subjects of Bob Dylan songs - and numerous other black fighters of varying degrees of formidableness.
The viewers would also talk of how in their younger days they’d set up a boxing ring in the village’s old mill. Did Rocky Marciano - allegedly stationed with the American troops on Penybont common - really spar with Glyn Evans? Another favourite story was how a sparring partner of the well-known Merthyr boxer Cuthbert Taylor had once visited, only to have his face cut to ribbons by the cracked-leather blood-caked gloves of his opponent. Perhaps this would have been around the time in April 1937 when Taylor headlined a boxing card at Llandrindod’s Grand Pavilion.
Every now and again I would sneak into this all-male club room, my uncle being the pub’s landlord, to devour the various reading matter available; not just Parade but especially the US fight magazines Boxing Illustrated and Ring. These provided one with a social, historical and geographical education not available in the local schools.
Ring magazine, especially, was a revelation. The publisher stroke editor Nat Fleischer was a legendary journalist who had seen every great fighter since before the war - the First World War. When he compared the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Cassius Clay, he’d actually seen them fight in the flesh. Ring was a magazine that covered the past as much as the present, so old Welsh fighters were often featured. Fleischer produced an annual list of the greatest ever boxers in the eight traditional weight categories - none of this junior or super nonsense. High in these lists were the famous Welsh pugilists of the early 20C: Jimmy Wilde at flyweight, Freddie Welsh at lightweight and Jem - it was never Jim - Driscoll at featherweight. It all added to my sense of patriotism; so that within a few years Ring, Boxing News and Welsh Nation were finding their way through my letterbox along with (another obsession) Motor Sport and Motoring News.
Working in London in the early 70s I discovered that television gave no sense of the explosive power of a live fight. The boxers often came across as witty, intelligent and decent, which was more than could be said for some in the crowd or the press seats. Gradually I took less and less of an interest in the fight game, even feeling somewhat repulsed by the lack of respect for its practioners on the part of the gate.
Nowadays even the women fight, with Nicola Adams proving one of the more interesting characters to emerge from the last Olympic Games. Women’s professional boxing is largely moribund with the real interest being focused on the cage-fighting practioners of mixed martial arts. A November card in Melbourne headlined by two female title bouts is expected to draw a crowd of 70000, with millions tuning-in worldwide on pay-per-view.
Should women even fight? Well if that’s what they want, who is to stop them. If women’s fighting is a brutal spectacle so too is that involving the men; redeemed to an extent by the heart exhibited by both sexes. All you can hope for is that the new business is governed by rules that offer some protection to the fighters. This seems to be the case, although there should be more female weight categories to prevent the dangers of ridiculous weight loss. This aside I would be more worried about rugby than cage fighting.
In the old days boxers often ended-up punch drunk. Cuthbert Taylor’s online record shows he competed in at least 250 professional contests. In the six months leading up to his Llandrindod bout he fought 9 times, losing on 6 occasions. Nowadays it is the professional rugby player who receives far too many hits to the head. We are already seeing the results of the long-term damage received in a professional sport which needs some serious rule changes in order to limit the number of head-on tackles that players are expected to make week in week out - 13-a-side might help.
One of the champions involved in the Melbourne card is the Pole Joanna Jedrzejczyk whose outstanding skills and infectious bravado remind me of the young Ali. Another is a former Olympic judo medallist Ronda Rousey and here is a problem that the MMA world will have to solve. If the undefeated Rousey can grapple her opponents to the floor she will apply an armbar and win the contest by submission. The fighter best equipped to defeat Rousey will likely be a fellow judoka and how many people would actually pay to watch a judo bout?