by Thomas Hauser
In 1998, Ian Probert authored a book entitled Rope Burns that took readers on an autobiographical journey through the prism of boxing.
Probert had dabbled with being an artist and film-maker. There was a time when he worked the beat as a boxing writer. Eighteen years ago in Rope Burns, he wrote, “Ultimately, I left boxing because it was a world that I never really felt part of. Although it was easy to fall under the spell of these young men who tortured their bodies and battled each other for the right to put their hands on the most temporary of prizes, there was a large portion of me that knew that what I was witnessing was wrong.”
Thereafter, Probert’s journey was marked by hypothyroidism that, before it was diagnosed, rendered him morbidly obese and barely able to walk. There were periods in his life when he drank too much. He was depressed and, in his words, “lay in bed, night after night, trying to work out how I could die in a way that would cause the least distress to my wife and daughter.”
Two decades after walking away from boxing, Probert was sucked back in. Dangerous, published this year by Pitch Publishing, picks up where Rope Burns left off. Pitch has also reissued Rope Burns with a new foreword and postscript by the author.
“What am I doing here among the broken noses and bulging scar tissue and calloused hands and knotted brows?” Probert asks in Dangerous. “I said goodbye to this a long time ago and tried not to look behind me. I suppose a comeback of sorts was always inevitable. I’m older, of course, not remotely wiser, and my stamina is shot to pieces. Sounds like an ideal time to try and do something that you used to do years ago but abandoned because you couldn’t handle it anymore. Ring any bells, anyone?”
Dangerous recounts Probert’s recent reunion with Michael Watson (who was beaten into a coma by Chris Eubank in 1991), Kellie Maloney (often referred to by the boxing media as “the former Frank Maloney”), Herol Graham, Nigel Benn, Alan Minter, and others. But it isn’t a book about boxing. Like Rope Burns, it’s primarily a book about Probert and how boxing has impacted upon his life.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, boxing keeps a discreet distance from me,” he writes. “And I try to keep as far away from it as circumstances permit. Boxing lets me get on with my life and, for a while, I even forget that it exists. But every now and then, it leaps out at me and catches me unawares.”
Probert’s insights into the sport and business of boxing are, for the most part, solid. That’s not to say that all is right with Rope Burns and Dangerous. At one point, Probert opines, “For a fight to be considered a truly great fight, it must be resolved with a knockout.” Those who remember Ali-Frazier I and Gatti-Ward I would take issue with that view. And there are several places where Probert mischaracterizes the historical record.
That said; Probert’s work is thought-provoking and well-written as evidenced by the following quotes:
- “What exactly is a ‘boxing man?’ At its simplest level, it’s a term often utilized by those who work within the sport to describe those who work within the sport. To be nominated a ‘boxing man’ signifies entry into an exclusive club whose membership, while comprising some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, finds room to incorporate a number of the saddest, most desperate examples of humanity that you will ever come across. All of these people have one thing in common. From the journalists who make their living writing about the exploits of boxers to the numerous courtiers with which a professional boxer will surround himself, they are all liars.”
- “Boxers are often perceived by the public as ignorant thugs who just happen to be good at fighting. In reality, the majority of boxers possess a refined form of intelligence that only those who study the sport can even begin to understand. I can honestly say that I have never met an unintelligent boxer. I have come across many who would struggle with quantum mechanics. I have also met some who would have difficulty reciting their six-times table. But I have never been in the presence of a fighter who could in any way be described as stupid. Boxers are decision makers. They are trained to reach a conclusion at speeds that would be impossible for the likes of you and I. When a boxer makes a decision, he must commit to it instantly and prepare to suffer the consequences of his actions. Moreover, the decisions that they are compelled to make are often life transforming.”
- “The next time you happen to be watching a fight on television, take a look at the faces of the two men involved. If the one with the cauliflower ears and the broken nose and the heavily-scarred eyebrows looks tough to you, think again before you attempt to pick a winner. He got those cauliflower ears and that broken nose and those heavily-scarred eyebrows because people keep hitting him around those places. It’s the pretty one that you should be putting your money on.”
- “Boxing has been around in various forms since the ancient Greeks. And nobody has ever been able to find a way of stopping people from doing it; not that anybody has really wanted to. But where do you draw the line? My feelings are ambiguous. I’m one hundred percent sure that I don’t want people to get fatally injured for my enjoyment. You’d have to be a psychopath to enjoy that. I get no pleasure from seeing these people bleeding, and I get no pleasure from seeing them sustain a broken nose. But I also know that the spectacle of two men standing before you, aiming punches at each other until one of them falls to the floor unconscious can be one of the most exciting things that you will ever bear witness to in life. And perversely – and I don’t want to say this – I enjoy watching people get knocked out.”
- “Now it’s time to cut to the chase. Boxing is wrong. There, I’ve said it. There can be no place in a civilized society for an activity provided exclusively for the entertainment of the masses which places its main protagonists in clear danger of losing their lives. I am aware of all the counter-arguments. I have employed them myself on far too many occasions. I know that nobody is forcing the boxers to climb into the ring and hit each other. I know too that boxing has allowed many people to live a life that would have been unthinkable were it not for their ability to hit other people accurately and hard. However valid these arguments might appear, they fall flat on their faces when a boxer loses his life. There is simply no way that this can be defended.”
- “When I said that there can be no place in a civilized society for an activity such as boxing, I meant every word. What I didn’t say was that it should be banned. Yes, in an ideal world, boxing should be consigned to the trash can that contains the remnants of other equally abhorrent pastimes such as badger baiting, bullfighting, and seal culling. Yet I would suggest that, before society elects to make an example of boxing, there are plenty of other things that it should be worrying about. Prior to ridding itself of the sport that is not a sport, which gives us all a glimpse of our species’ most primitive and primal urges, society could turn its attention to more pressing and immediate problems.”
The emotional climax of Probert’s journey comes at the end of Dangerous. Talking about sessions with his therapist, Probert confides to the reader, “I seem to slip boxing into the conversation more than is healthy or coincidental.”
Why is he doing that?
It has to do with the man Probert describes as “my nasty and abusive deceased father.”
“So I do what I have to do,” Probert writes. “I go and see my mother. I’ve seen her only once since my father’s funeral two years ago. I turn up unannounced on a warm Saturday morning, which obviously shocks her. I’ve never done this before. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asks. For the first time ever, I tell my mother everything. I’m not going to go into detail here. Suffice it to say, he was a monster. A monster who ruled by fear – psychological and physical – when I was a child. And more of a monster when I became a teenager, who did things to me when we were alone that a father should never do to a son. A demon who stole my childhood from me in a manner that I’ve never really been able to get over. I spill out all the lurid details. Her face remains expressionless as she listens. She calls him a bastard. She says that she hates him. She says it like he’s still alive. She asks me why I never told her it was happening. I tell her that I tried to. At least, I think I tried to. ‘Well, you should have tried harder,’ she says, too coldly, too callously.”
“And yet,” Probert concedes, “in spite of all this, I wanted him to be proud of me.”
Probert’s father loved boxing.
“It’s absurd the lengths to which one will go to earn a father’s approval,” Probert confesses. “Even one who brutalized you. In retrospect, it’s certainly no accident that I ended up jettisoning the career in the arts that I’d always coveted and became a boxing writer. Even though I could never admit it to myself, it’s clear that I did it for him. I did it because a part of me wanted him to be impressed by something that I had achieved. And I was prepared to mould my entire life around this silly objective.”
That’s not as unusual as one might think. Probert’s writing brought back the memory of a sitdown I had years ago with Randy Neumann.
Neumann was a heavyweight contender in the 1970s, best known for a bloody ring trilogy with Chuck Wepner and a decision triumph over Jimmy Young. After retiring as an active fighter, he refereed more than three hundred bouts. More significantly perhaps, he graduated from college and went on to build a successful career as a financial planner.
I asked Neumann why he became a professional fighter, and he began by telling me about his parents.
“My father was a scholar-athlete and my mother was an incredibly beautiful woman,” he recalled. “They could have been the king and queen at any high school senior prom. But my father was a tragedy of World War II. He was in the Air Force. He saw a lot of his friends killed. After he came back from the war, he had a nervous breakdown. When I was five years old, he moved away from home. My mother was a tough independent woman. She never remarried. Instead, she went to work as a model and earned enough money to raise my sister and me well.”
Then Neumann broke into tears.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” he said. “But I was looking for the hardest thing I could do this side of the law to prove to a father who had left me that I was tough.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.