Ian Probert (2016) Dangerous: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Boxing.

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A reminder—if we need one— how Dangerous boxing can be is the Sunday Mail front-page headline: ‘My baby has lost his daddy, I’ll never let him fight,’ with a prominent picture of Chloe, holding her infant Rocco, with an insert photo of her partner, and the baby’s father, twenty-five-year old Mike Towell, crouching in a standard boxing stance and fighting Dale Evans on Thursday evening at St Andrew’s Sporting Club. Towell lost more than the bout, he lost his life. The Observer ranks it further down the news order and puts it on page 14, but the headline message is much the same. It asks ‘How many more lives will have to be lost?’ The answer follows. ‘Boxing ban calls grow after Glasgow death.’  It also cites the brain-injury charity Headway’s call for boxing to be banned and offers as further evidence the bout between Chris Eubank junior and Nick Blackwell, seven months ago, with the latter stopped in the tenth round and taken to hospital bleeding from the brain. Boxing is dangerous.

Here’s Probert’s take on it at the standard media meet and greet at the Hilton in London’s Park Lane. ‘And then I spot the Eubanks arrive. ’ [sic, should read arrival, in a book of almost 300 pages I spotted three errors, perhaps it needed another proofread] ‘A pair of Eubanks: father and son. Boxer and ex-boxer…  ‘What everyone here is aware of, however that his son’s last fight ended in near tragedy. Just as his father did almost 25 years earlier when he fought Michael Watson, the younger Eubank managed to put his opponent into intensive care…Although Blackwell is now out of danger he will never fight again. It’s fair to say that our malprop of Eubanks have since endured a perfect storm of negativity, bordering on abuse, both in the news and in social media’.

‘As press conferences go it’s a pedestrian affair. Nobody is that that interested to hear about Eubank Jr’s latest fancy promotional deal. Equally, no one seems particularly concerned about Eubank’s next fight, not even it must be said, his next opponent, one Tom Dorran of Wales’. The business as usual model has been restored and in several months we can expect to see Dale Evans’s manager doing the same thing.

But the intimate part of the Probert’s journey comes from the world-title fight over 25 years ago between Chris Eubank and his friend and boxing mentor Michael Watson, whose rise up the boxing ranks somehow seemed linked to the writer’s own success.  He decided after Watson’s near-death experience and subsequent brain damage, not to write about boxing again, but like many of the boxers he meets on his return journey, he couldn’t stay away from boxing. Boxing really is their life and it’s his too.

I’m a fan of Probert’s writing. Rope Burn marks out his younger days with the kind of honesty you get after drinking twelve pints, spewing up, and saying, I shouldn’t have ate the last three kebabs. Dangerous is more of the same, but I wasn’t knocked out by the Prologue. Probert describes meeting his therapist who has a very strong Chinese accent. ‘We went into her office and I politely asked if I could take a seat. She gave me a shrug, which I quickly translated as meaning: ‘Why are you asking me if you can sit down you moron? What a ridiculous question…’ Or perhaps she thought I was actually going to take a seat, pick it up and exit the building with it under my arm.’

The jokey tone doesn’t work for me and almost all the episodes with his therapist could be deleted as they detract from what is a smashing book. I was privileged to be one of the few to read at least two of Probert’s chapters on ABCtales, including ‘Scars’ which follows on from the Prologue, is where the book should really start in a windswept hotel on the outskirts of Essex.  A before and after shot of the author and Michael Watson. Pan in. ‘It was 23 years ago when I last saw him. His eyes were closed and an oxygen mask was strapped to his mouth. His magnificent muscular torso was a tangle of tubes and sensors…he could never again be the person he used to be.’

What we find out is every boxer thinks he can be, until that notion is punched out of his head, and even then he remains unconvinced. Steve Watson, one of the few undefeated world champions, who retired, tells Probert he got bored with the game and could no longer get himself up for a fight, but is back training boxers and there’s a hint that he might have had some kind of fit, or blackout that forced his hand. But for warriors like Watson, every school should have a boxing ring. ‘There are very few bullies who are successful boxers’ he tells Probert. ‘Because if you get a punch in the face that is not a nice thing.’

I’m not going to go head to head and argue with Steve Watson. The usual anecdotal evidence pops up that playing rugby, for example, is more dangerous, which is unremarkable. But the message Probert keeps reiterating is ‘How nice boxers are’ seems  contrary to the popular view. Even Tyson Fury and his family come out sounding not too bad. A sport of contrasts.  ‘Perhaps more than any other human endeavour, boxing can be an unforgiving business…On the basis of little more than an off-night today’s champion can be tomorrow’s forgotten man’.  How many days or weeks, for example, will it take to forget Mike Towell and business to go on as usual?

The most poignant part of the book, which gives it real bite, is another chapter which appeared on ABCtales, ‘Lung’. It shows how Probert’s thirteen-year-old daughter Sofia started with a shallow cough, but almost died. Probert berates himself for all the things he did wrong. How he should have been more assertive with his GP, how he should not have went to McDonalds to get something to eat and allowed his wife and child to be sent home from hospital…how he was too trusting and human. These are not particularly bad characteristics and it shows in his writing. I’d go as far to say I like Ian Probert and don’t think he’s very Dangerous. I’m not interested in boxing, but this is an up close and personal account of those inside the sport, inside the passion and outside the money and chicanery. Read on to find out what makes us human.

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