Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly: The fault is with reality

DURING the 1968 Civil rights rebellion in Paris, one of the slogans used by the protesters was “DO NOT ADJUST YOUR MIND – THERE IS A FAULT WITH REALITY.”

Watching Brexit, and Trump and Boris and the pathological liars at the heart of the UK power grab, where a grown man is sufficiently confident in the Moron Society to announce publicly that he drove a 60-mile round trip to a beauty spot to “test whether his eye sight was ok to drive” has the inevitable impact of making us switch off.

From the news, from politics, from the constant lies. Which is of course precisely what manipulators like Cummings and Gove want. They encourage the clapping of NHS ‘heroes’ because that is a lot cheaper and a lot less work than actually protecting them.


False sentimentality will beat reality if it’s properly presented. Who dares to criticize clapping for our heroes? The big brands are now cashing in on this trick in their ad campaigns. A lot cheaper to call check-out assistants and shelf stackers in Tesco and Spar ‘heroes’ than it is to pay them more than the minimum wage.

This fault with reality is why we turn to sport. It is a sanctuary where we can more often than not find something honest and noble and inspiring, particularly when we go back to the past.

A few days ago I watched the 1977 semi-final between Dublin and Kerry. At one point, Ger O’Keefe hit Jimmy Keaveney in the face with a good forearm smash. Jimmy, outraged, dropped the ball and banged him with his fist in the mouth, knocking him down for a split second. The referee came skidding in like Baggy Pants, awarded Jimmy the free and told them both to settle down.

Nowadays, this would provoke righteous outrage and talk of “protecting the children.” Nowadays, if Keaveney’s arm accidentally came near say Sean Cavanagh’s face, he would go down like a shot horse and roll about until the red card was given, then tell the reporters afterwards that he was merely “taking one for a UK team.”

The lockdown has given us a chance to look back to better times. I have taken particular delight in watching old fights, which bring me back to the fascination I once had with what George Plimpton called “the doomsday clang of the ring bell.”

In his book ‘The Fight’ (for me the greatest book written, to describe it as a mere sports book would be an insult), Norman Mailer opens with his arrival into Ali’s hotel room in Zaire. “There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then, the world’s greatest athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of camp is doomed to appear.”

I re-read it again during the lockdown and felt the same thrill I did when I first read it 20 years ago. His descriptions of Ali sparring are incomparable. Buy it. You will not be disappointed.

As a boy, I was a keen amateur fighter with the St Canice’s Dungiven Boxing Club. Unfortunately, I suffered from the twin problems of an inability to punch and a terrible temper, which I probably inherited from my mother. One of my literary heroes, Lord Byron, who was a ferocious pugilist and regularly settled feuds with his fists, was also said to have inherited his temper from his mother. Her anger must have been considerable since she is reputed to have died of a fit of rage brought on by reading an upholsterer’s bill.

It is possible mine may also have come from my father’s side, since my grandfather Joe Brolly’s florid newspaper obituary contained the immortal line “He was a bonny fighter, with a bonny temper, who loved to lay an opponent by the heels, and dearly loved the telling.” I had a bonny temper alright, but was scientifically incapable of laying an opponent by the heels with a punch. No matter how much I punched the bag and the pads, it remained a mystery to me how fighters like the American boxer Julian Jackson could spark out an opponent by a glance on the chin, as though their fists were tranquillizer darts in disguise.

Indeed, one of the fights I watched last week was the infamous championship bout between Jackson and Londoner Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. The Bomber, who was harder to hit than an apple bobbing on the water, had never been down in his entire long career. He famously used to train by tying his hands behind his back then going three rounds with a perplexed sparring partner vainly trying to hit him.

For four rounds, he made Jackson look foolish, avoiding everything he threw and peppering the champion with a bewildering array of punches from every angle. Indeed, Jackson was so badly injured that the ringside doctor gave him permission to continue for just one more round. The ITV commentator takes up the story: “There’s not a worse opponent to try to knock out than Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. He has elusiveness that Jackson has never known.” The co-commentator chips in “Jackson to his credit sticking to his task as desperate as it is, but falling ever further behind.” At which point Jackson connects with Graham’s chin and the Englishman goes down like a cow falling out of the sky. “Oh no!” shouts the commentator, “Would you believe it?” Graham woke up several minutes later and didn’t fight again for four years.

Roddy Collins, the flamboyant soccer manager and brother of the fearsome world super middleweight champion Stevie, told me recently that after that fight he was speaking to Herol’s corner man Brendan Ingle. Ingle told him that when he took out the Bomber’s gumshield, the front row of his teeth fell out into his palm.

Once, Floyd Patterson, the retired heavyweight champion of the world, visited St Canice’s. He was brought around the town by the gravel millionaire Tommy O’Connell in his horse and carriage. We lined up outside the club and the great man shook hands with all of us and said a few words. It was dingdong in the middle of the Troubles and Floyd was probably the first black man ever to come to Dungiven. One of the boys, a devout republican, became momentarily excited as he thought we had captured a paratrooper. I told the story of Patterson’s visit on the radio some years ago and a few days later Brian Carthy rang me to explain that it had come about because the champ had married a lady from Rhode in Offaly and was back in Ireland for the summer.

Max Baer, one of the greatest punchers ever to win the heavyweight championship (he retired with 51 knockouts to his credit, before going on to become a movie actor) was asked once what advice he would give to young boxers. He said “If you get belted and see three fighters through a haze, go after the one in the middle. That’s what ruined me – I made the mistake of going after the other two guys.”

One evening, in the course of a tournament hosted by St Canice’s, I was being walloped by a fighter from the visiting St Mary’s club, lost it, jumped on all three of them, and proceeded to kick, punch and wrestle with them until I was dragged away by the Dungiven corner men. Henry McAuley, God rest him, marched me up Station Road to our house, knocked on the door and said to my father “He may stick to the football Francie, don’t send him back to us.” Someone once wrote that in every young man’s life, there comes a time when he suddenly realizes he will never be heavyweight champion of the world. This was my time.

I may have been expelled from the club with no right of appeal, but my fascination with boxing continued. Some years ago I was at a fight with my father. We found ourselves very close to the SKY box, where the ferociously tough Glaswegian world lightweight champion Jim Watt was on duty. Jim won by foul means or fair and didn’t much care which.

Between fights, we went over to him to say hello and to our delight, he was full of chat. My father said “I was there the night you fought Charlie Nash.” Watt said “He boxed the ears off me for three rounds.” “Then you punched him in the privates, head-butted him and knocked him out.” said my father. Watt laughed, shook his head and said “I am so delighted there is anyone still alive that remembers that.” I was starry eyed as the great man talked about Duran and Pituala and Vasquez.

We followed all the local boxers. Sam Storey, who was good at British level but got knocked down so often as he went up the ladder that the comedian Frank Carson said “Sam is the first boxer with a cauliflower arse.” McGuigan, John Duddy (of whom Barney Eastwood said “his first line of defence is his face.”), our one truly great modern world champion Dave Boy McAuley whose two fights with the terrifying Colombian Fidel Bassa have passed into legend. Those fights were voted Ring Magazine’s fights of the year in both 1987 and 1988. I met Dave Boy once and I felt something close to reverence.

I have gotten to know Hughie Russell well over the years, the former British bantamweight and flyweight champion. These days he is a photographer with the Irish News. Hughie passed into folklore up here after his two fights with Davy Larmour. The first fight was so bloody that the canvas was soaked with blood. As Hughie said later “it was like an abattoir in there.” The referee Mike Jacobs was a Londoner and his white shirt was covered in blood. When he went back home Jacobs left it into the dry cleaners and when he came to collect it the police arrested him. The dry cleaners – thinking he must have committed some atrocious murder – reported it to the police and it was only when a statement was obtained from the head of the British Boxing Board of Control that the poor referee was released from custody.

When my Dungiven club-mate Paul McCloskey turned pro (Paul was our left corner-back when we won the Derry Championship in 1997) I sat at his fights in terror and watched him knock out a series of opponents to become European Welterweight champion.

The beginning of the end for me was the night Paul fought Giuseppe Lauri to defend his title at the King’s Hall. BoxRec described it afterwards as “an all-out war.” By the tenth, both boxers were badly marked and exhausted. They were in the boiler room of the damned, locked into a battle that felt as though it might easily end in death. Halfway through the 11th Paul threw a murderous right that seemed to go straight through Lauri’s head. The Italian was unconscious as his head bounced off the canvas and as he lay there, eyes dead and body twitching as if he were having a fit, the girls in the row beside me reacted hysterically, jumping and hugging each other and punching the air.

Lauri lay on the canvas for five minutes as the wild celebrations continued, forgotten by everyone except his corner and the officials. One of the saddest parts of fighting is the way the defeated fighter is instantly irrelevant. He comes to the ring as a colossus, glowing with health, and departs as a ghost. Perhaps this was why Floyd Patterson used to travel to all of his fights with a bag containing a full disguise. False beard and moustache, glasses, a peaked hat and so on. If he lost, he would slip out the emergency exit unnoticed.

I will not go to a fight again, but when I see these old fights listed on the TV schedules, I cannot resist. Why did grown men despair when Ali lost? And celebrate when he won as if he was their own son? Why are we fascinated by Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury?

I think it is because the violence appeals to our basest instincts. Like the pacifist who is surprised that he is secretly thrilled at the bullfight, it is somehow an inevitable component of the development of the species. It is a part of our DNA. It is entirely human to thrill to the doomsday clang of the opening bell, even though it is a thoroughly inhumane affair.

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