THE TOUGHEST FIGHT OF ALL

2 November 2003

Former world champion Duke McKenzie is a shining example to Frank Bruno that there is life beyond the ring

In south London yesterday former triple world champion Duke McKenzie was celebrating another successful day in his second life. At the same time to the north of the city the more familiar face, who as a huge raw-boned teenager used to spar in the same gym in Croydon, was trying to find his own solutions to the post-boxing emptiness when a ring career is over. Big Frank should take comfort from little Duke.

For while Bruno’s problems have been made appallingly public by his heavyweight and panto fame, they are only a severe case of the withdrawal symptoms which afflict boxers and indeed many sportsmen, when the adrenalin of competition is over and in Kipling’s Recessional phrase “the tumult and the shouting dies”. In my racing world we get plenty of sad cases who revert to drink, drugs and self-disgust when they see that their jockey’s dream is over. In boxing, the situation is even more acute.

“Boxing is a very emotional business,” McKenzie said on Thursday, “with a big fight coming you take yourself away from your family for up to six weeks and then climb into the ring opposite a guy who is going to try to knock your head off. You get incredibly wound up but it means you are someone.

“When it is over you don’t know where you are, don’t know what to do. For a while I had something of a breakdown. My marriage was over, I lay in bed all day and cried a lot. If it hadn’t been for my brother, Clinton (also a former champion), making me come over to his gym I don’t know what might have happened.”

McKenzie was talking amid the punch bags, exercise machines, wall mirrors and white-roped ring of the long and, on Thursday, rather chilly room he has rented above a MOT garage in West Croydon to develop into what he calls a “boxexercise” gym under the punning title of `The Duke Box’.

He is an alert, bespectacled 40-year-old in combat fatigues and a black leather jacket, still fit and lean but some 40lb above the 8st flyweight fighting weight who beams jockey-thin but triumphant from the fading photos on the wall.

Like Bruno, McKenzie’s children are his abiding joy. Like poor Frank, relations with his family are now amicable; he takes his two daughters to and from school every day and the two-year-old son he has with his present partner is an equal treasure.

The gym is beginning to gather members, a local young offenders unit is sending him classes and, as always with boxers, he has got a young prospect – “hasn’t fought yet but he is white, hugely talented, 18 stone and a southpaw; a marketing dream”. With all that and with the regular BBC commentary work which this week sees him in Sheffield alongside John Rawling on Grandstand, you can believe Duke when he says engagingly: “I am lucky, I have a chance to get on with my life.”

Others are not so lucky. They may not be acting out their dramas as publicly as Bruno has to do, but others share as acute a plight without the big man’s financial safety net. “Loads of fighters get depressed,” says Nicky Cantwell, the former British flyweight champion and three-time world title contender, who is now a driving force behind the British Boxers’ Association.

“When you leave the ring you are totally unprepared. I lost my house right before Christmas with three children to feed. We have some 600 licensed fighters and nearly 10 times as many amateurs but there has been no after-care. Many leave with chips on their shoulders. Now we are trying to bring in counselling and education. So a young man can have a great time as a fighter but can train for another profession; be it a plumber or bricklayer, it is still a profession.”

The British Boxers’ Association were formed in 1993, with Barry McGuigan as president under the umbrella of the GMB and their chief executive Gerry Nelson. When you have finished chuckling about the appropriateness of the Boilermen’s Union supporting those who slave away in sport’s own version of `Hell’s Kitchen’ you can sober up by listening to the former `Clones Cyclone’ as he bothers about those less fortunate than himself.

“Fighters don’t plan for the future,” McGuigan says, “and often the better the fighter the less the common sense. They don’t think more than the next fight, more than three months ahead. Mind you, there is a paradox there because in fairness you don’t want a true professional to think ahead beyond the next fight. But we want to be ready with this after-care for when the fighting is over, the guy no longer has his routine, gets under the woman’s feet, which brings family friction and often domestic violence.”

The McGuigan tones we came to know so well when he was in the ring now have a touching concern about them. “There is a popular misconception that fighters earn a fortune. Most of them come out with very little and quite soon they find their lives spiralling out of control, no longer making any contribution to society. I see victims every day. We want to give them a purpose in life.”

A day spent among boxers takes you back to the other central paradoxes of the sport. That there should be so many warm and kind-hearted men at the centre of a business so often loaded up with brutality not to mention wickedness. They deserve our support.

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