By Garry White @LWOSGarryWhite
How many times have we heard that familiar refrain? From primetime Vegas, to the bleach and sweat of the York Hall or the latest small hall show at your local leisure centre. Gruff referees mumbling robotically in a struggle to be heard above the din of the assembled crowd. Fighters shuffling distractedly; their minds elsewhere. Looking at the floor or performing the pantomime act of staring menacingly into their opponent’s eyes.
No one is listening. Yet, the words are still integral to the scene. Perhaps, a warning, or the fight games five word version of the Lord’s Prayer. An alternate message from St. Peter, disguised in the Southern tones of the growling and granite tough Mills Lane, to guide the fighter safely home.
Boxing has often positioned itself as “the manly art of self-defence.” Located at its centre the key tenet that it is all about not getting hit. A scientific theory that has been studiously ignored over the years by the likes of Freddie Mills, Mickey Ward and Brandon Rios. Yet, the truth remains that it is impossible to win without liberally striking a leather-bound knuckle into the head or body of the opponent in the opposite corner.
The sports basic requirement is for its protagonists to engage in a form of controlled violence. A natural consequence of this essential ingredient is that its subsequent bedfellows are pain, physical injury and, on mercifully rare occasions, even death. For the referee to announce: “Protect yourselves at all times” before the proceedings commence, could be perceived as an idiotic statement of the obvious. Akin to the “warning: contents are hot” that is now so often emblazoned on fast food coffee cups.
However, there is a hint of the solemn to it. A forewarning of the sports inherent dangers and a restatement of the referees paternal role as arbitrator and guardian. When a fighter ceases to be able to defend himself the referee will embrace him and lead him to safety, protecting from further needless punishment. There is a wonderful simplicity to it. If one was constructing this now with a team of lawyers, it would probably run to dozens of pages of disclaimers. One that could be crystallised into the old junk yard warning “you enter at your own risk” or “the proprietor accepts no responsibility for any loss or damage.”
When due heed is not paid to this simple algorithm the consequences can be catastrophic. Frankie Campbell was a square jawed 26 year-old contender with 32 wins and 26 knockouts on his record, when he stepped out to face Max Baer in August 1930. Baer, known as “The Livermore Larruper” went on to become world heavyweight champion, and have his memory posthumously violated, by Ron Howard’s filthy characterisation in the hit movie Cinderella Man. Conversely, Campbell didn’t live to meet the breaking dawn of the following day.
In just the 2nd round Baer swung furiously with his famously concussive right-hand, but fell short and momentarily lost his balance. As he slipped forward to meet the canvass Campbell partially grazed the top of his opponents head with a misdirected left. In truth it was a nothing punch that did little more than ruffle Baer’s coiffured hair.
But, thinking that the referee had scored the knockdown, Campbell turned his back on the action, and began to make his way to a neutral corner. As he did so, the referee motioned to Baer that it was a slip and to resume his footing. Baer seized this opportunity to rush across the ring and hammer the unprepared Campbell with three massive right-hands to the side of the head.
Campbell, miraculously managed to remain upright and see the round through until the bell. His corner man later remarked that as he sat down, he said “something feels as though it broke in my head.”
The fight staggered on into the fifth round where Baer pummelled Campbell into unconsciousness on the ropes. He was taken to hospital and died in the early hours of the following morning. The coroner’s report later disclosing that Baer’s fierce punching had separated Campbell’s brain from the connective tissue inside his skull. A medical description of Campbell’s earlier heart-breaking assertion that “something has broke.”
If only Frankie Campbell had listened and fully absorbed referee Toby Irwin’s instructions before the first bell, the outcome may have been very different… “Gentlemen. Protect yourselves at all times.”