Boxing: A cut above the rest?


Boxing has long been seen as a violent sport, with various boxing champions either going or coming out of jail. But is every boxer a criminal waiting to get out? SINEAD NOLAN asks super featherweight Chris McGrath about his journey into the ring.

“Boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book,” said Joe Frazier, the world heavyweight boxing champion who once defeated Muhammed Ali.
There is no doubt that boxing, of all the dangerous sports in the world, is the only one in which a contestant wins by beating an opponent into a state of unconsciousness.
From the very first African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson, boxers have been in and out of prison. Even boxing promoter Don King, who became a multi-millionaire through boxing, was arrested for an alleged murder in the 1970’s.
But what about local fighters today? Nottingham’s super featherweight title holder Chris McGrath is not much different, having spent time in young offender’s institutions and prison. Known locally by his nickname ‘milky’ he is a slight yet charming young man – his good manners and friendly personality belying his murky past.
At just 23, he has already seen more then most will see in a lifetime – including the inside of a cell and the birth of his young son who he is currently battling to get joint custody of.

I meet him in the Nottingham gym dressed in his boxing gear, having just finished training. Sweating a little, he sits on an exercise machine and with a smile admits to being nervous about the interview.
Born in Rugby, Warwickshire he explains how he started boxing at the tender age of just 11, moving to Hinckley Olympic boxing club in Rugby when he was 16. It was there he claims he found a love for the sport. But unfortunately his life took a turn for the worst when Chris ended up in some trouble.
Like former European cruiserweight boxing champion Terry Dunstan who spent five years in jail for assault, Chris came out of prison vowing to get his life back on track.
 “I don’t understand people who end up back in prison,’ he says “It’s horrible. I got to see my life wasting away. I vowed when I came out I would make something of myself.’ Born and bred in Warwickshire, he moved to Nottingham three years ago to make a clean start and continue the sport he loves. Chris admits he is following in the footsteps of his family where boxing is concerned.
“My father and my cousins are boxers. It sort of runs in the bloodline really. I’ve had my face bladdered and still keep coming back for some reason,” he says.
Chris turned super featherweight in November last year when he went for the British Super Featherweight title and won. Then he got the rematch and lost the title again to 6ft 4in Slinky Keiron. “He was a giant!” says Chris with a laugh. 

Chris aka 'Milky', in training.

Chris aka ‘Milky’, in training.

“I don’t care who I fight,” he admits “If he’s got a beat in his heart and blood running through his veins, if I hit him he’s going to feel it, if he hits me I’m going to feel it – that’s fight talk, I don’t care who’s out there I want the fight, I don’t care who’s got the title I will fight for it,” he says.     Although Chris is a positive example of boxers determination and stamina in the face of adversity, there are times when it can all go horribly wrong. Nottingham resident Claire McHugh (35), from St Ann’s has a 28-year-old brother who was brain damaged from boxing in a fight five years ago. “After my brother was injured permanently it had a devastating and irreversible affect on our family. I think its just mindless violence and I don’t like the fact that people pay hundreds of thousands to watch it,” she said.   “If they were people who were inclined to violence then I don’t think it could rehabilitate them. I like the principle of them having boxing in deprived areas where kids can go and learn a skill but they need to have special gear and be covered up – even then I still don’t agree with it. I definitely don’t see how it could rehabilitate a criminal,” she added.  However, some people think differently. In December 2000, in the wake of Damilola Taylors death, Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter said she believed boxing should be used to prevent violent youngsters from doing harm in the first place.   “If the vicious layabouts who killed Damilola had been taught boxing at school, their lethal energy might have been channeled into something more noble than stabbing a small boy to death.”  The image of kids rescued by the discipline and demands of boxing is not a new one, but it’s actually one which the government seems to favour.
In 2004, Home Secretary David Blunkett, whose department funds 26 boxing training projects across the UK said amateur boxing training offers young people a positive way of life. This was in part down to the success of Bolton teenager Amir Khan, who was Britain’s sole boxer for Britain and won a silver medal at 2004’s Athens Olympics. Its success is also reportedly down to the simple fact that it appeals to troubled youngsters, say those involved in the sport.  

Amir Khan  -- A great role model for kids

Amir Khan - A great role model for kids

 Boxing supporter, Gill Davis (57), of Sneinton, Nottingham believes learning boxing can have a positive effect on youngsters. “We used to go see the local youth team box. I enjoy it and they seem to enjoy it. It’s a very disciplined sport if it’s done properly. They have the gym and their coaches training them. I think if their energy is put across in a proper manner then it’s great.” Some have a more varied view however. Jonathon Stanley (26), from West Bridgford said he think’s the sport is okay only when practiced between two non-violent individuals.
“If you put two violent criminals in a ring together with gloves on you’re asking for trouble. I definitely believe rehabilitating criminals this way is a ridiculous idea, and wouldn’t good policy for the government,” he said.

 So how hard is it to break into the industry and make a success of it? Chris’s big break into boxing came with a mixture of chance, dedication and hard work – but he says it had a lot to do with being at the right place at the right time. “It happened by surprise,” says Chris. “I turned up to a show called ‘Fight of the Warriors’ to do a friends corner. There was a crowd of over 1000 people. It was televised on fight network on sky sports. They said to me ‘Are you fighting milky?’ and I said ‘No, why you got one for me?’ and he said ‘Hold on a hot second’ and he left. He came back and he said ‘Yeah, you know him. I said ‘Ok, who?’ he said ‘Andy Creighton.” Andy Creighton was significantly heavier then Chris and slightly ahead of him on his career. However, Chris decided to take him on anyway. “I went in slugged it out with him in the cage. I lost on an arm bar – a submissive move where they try and break your arm, but I didn’t come out downhearted I came out proud. I’ve had so much respect for taking that fight. All the fighters want to see us fight again. They’ve seen me grow as a fighter and as a person and my passion for the sport is getting stronger and stronger every year, and after every fight whether I win, lose or draw.” But not all fighters are so lucky. Former amateur boxer, Richard Telfer (32), lost interest when he was suffering headaches outside the ring. “You have to be really fit to do it. I reckon 80 to 90 per cent drop out and never make it – either because they find it too physically demanding or because they can’t make it anywhere.” So just how dangerous is boxing?

The British Medical Association, which represents 84% of the UK’s doctors, opposes boxing primarily because of the threat to the brain and eyes. According to them cuts and bruises are the most common boxing injuries – including stitches to the face and dental work. Also, body blows can lead to broken ribs and internal bleeding. But these injuries are usually not dangerous. More worrying is the damage done to the brain. As boxing involves the competitors hitting each other around the head area, most serious of all is the possibility of permanent severe brain damage. While other injuries repair relatively easily, brain tissue, once damaged, remains damaged. The symptoms of such brain damage, commonly known as being ‘punch drunk’, include slurred speech, slow reactions and occasional blackouts.






Legends of the sport  Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier slug it out in the ring

Legends of the sport Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier slug it out in the ring

 Even The British Boxing Board of Control acknowledge it’s a sport which carries more hazards to health than most other sports. But according to the Scottish Department of Public Health Medicine, these boxers might drift into the already well established underground boxing scene, were it to be banned. “If our profession does not think about minimising harm,” they say in a report “we may go back to the days of bare knuckle fighting and the underground boxing scene will swell even more.” But for Chris the positive side has already thrown him into an area of success he never thought he would achieve in his younger days.

“Turning professional is quite a monumental thing in my life. I have many significant figures around me like Barrington Brown who I train with, also Jason and Nikki Booth, and Andy Creighton. I was lucky to shake hands with Carl Froch recently. There are big figures around me and great role models,” he says.

“There have been boxers in the past who have got bad press through drinking and drugs and I don’t wish to be that sort of image for the sport. I want to be a positive image for young people growing up that want to do the sport,” he adds.

But is real life violence connected to boxing or is boxing merely a cure to vent anger surplus? Any boxers found getting into trouble while they have their license will have it suspended by the British Board of Control.
Lee Livingstone, co-owner of the Bushido MMA Academy, says this is what keeps many out of trouble and also keeps the criminals out of the game. He said: “If a boxer is violent they have their licence revoked from by the British Board of Control who are very strict.”

But for people like Chris getting in trouble again is not an option – he just has his eye on getting to the top.

“I rarely drink when I go out now. If I’m training for a fight I won’t drink for around 6 weeks,” says Chris.

“The general routine for a boxer of my category would be to get up in the morning, go for a run straight away. I wouldn’t eat anything initially – then it’s Weetabix, a bit of fruit, amino acid tablets to boost a bit of protein into my system and then go to the gym for 10 o’clock.

“I have a heavy routine in the morning stay for about two hours and talk to my personal trainer. Then I come back for about five or six o’ clock, for about an hour and a half for some light sparring, depending on how hard I’ve trained on the day whether sparring is appropriate because if you train too hard you over exert yourself, you risk being injured,” he says.

Coming up to a fight, Chris says it gets even more intense. “I have a casual drink now and then, but when I have a fight on the cards I don’t drink at all.

“You usually get about six weeks notice before a fight. You train twice a day guaranteed and then to the last three weeks you really hit it hard to try and get your respiratory rate right. My nerves the night before a night are quite extreme but by the day of the fight I’m usually completely calm.”

With such a punishing schedule it’s not surprising that boxing is considered to be one of the most disciplined sports of all.

But Chris says what drives him on is the thought of success and doing right for his son.

“My inspiration and what drives me is to be a champion and to feel good about myself really. The thought that I can retire and say that I met a goal in life, it’s not an easy goal to reach but that’s what keeps spurring me on that thought of being a champion.

 “I’ve got to stay focused at the end of the day if I fail I’m going to fail my son and ultimately I need to stay strong for him, I need to provide for him and if I want to meet goals in my life, ultimately those goals are going to benefit him.”

Milky’s next fight is to Andy Creighton on the 5th September at Harvey Haddon Stadium, Bilborough, Nottingham.