I am looking for my dead grandfather in the British Library. Around me the new building is calm and white, a little like a hospital for books. I peck my way through layers of computer filing looking for copies of his favourite, long defunct, magazine Health and Strength. Here, according to the story he always told, I will find his photograph: a picture of a young man, a boxer: a middleweight before his marriage, before his daughter, before me.

I wait for the delivery of 1935 and 1936 and, without intending to, remember his scents. My grandfather smelled of Lifebuoy soap and Brylcreem and soft, soft skin. Although he was a fighter and a steelworker most of his life, his hands and feet never hardened. Each new pair of work boots crippled him. His boxing stories were filled with magical strategies for toughening his fists. When I stayed with him and my grandmother in the school holidays, I would be given the task of picking tiny metal pieces from his uncallused fingers and palms with a needle’s point. I realized this was a kind of honour, he usually did the work himself, but now he was trusting me, making his hands a helpless weight in mine. The whole process made me feel sick, all the same: I knew that I hurt him.

On the desk in front of me the Reminder to Readers warns that ‘Books and manuscripts are fragile objects. Please take care and do nothing which might damage them.’ The living and reading are intended to be gentle when they visit, to remember that the information stored here is vulnerable, quite easy to destroy. I don’t believe my grandfather ever considered his weekly bible might end its life in such sickly company. Then again, he neither liked nor anticipated his own decline into frailty.

He was, after all, a man of certainty and solutions. A tool setter for most of his life, he spent hours calibrating machine tools, measuring out their tolerances for error, refitting and modifying them to meet every conceivable demand, the trickier the better: in retirement, he mended old radios, televisions, doorbells, clocks. His unshakeable assumption that I had inherited his general physical confidence and dexterity meant my childhood was littered with unmanageable gifts: the bicycle I couldn’t balance, the roller skates that scared me—I only dared to use them over gravel—and the gleaming, implacable pogo stick. We both wanted me to enjoy these things, but I never could.

Far more comforting were his remedies for likely and unlikely threats. Crouching between his shins, my arms slung over his supporting knees, I would watch old horror films long past my bedtime and we would discuss the fatal weaknesses of vampires, werewolves and monsters of all types. We knew how to finish them, every one. And he would tell me, in only the twitch and surge of television light, how to deal with any real attacker. There, with the safest man in the world, I learned how I should stamp on insteps and scrape shins, gouge eyes and chop at windpipes, or jab with the heel of my hand at the base of noses in a way which he neglected to mention might well prove fatal if it sent the assailant’s nasal septum spearing back into his brain.

Which my grandfather would not have minded. It was a gently accepted fact that he would have killed anybody who harmed me, who even thought of it. These were among his quieter gifts, the ones I didn’t notice at the time: his unconditional belief that I was precious enough to be so very well defended, and my certainty that I can defend myself. I have many of the usual kinds of fear, but fear of attack is not among them. I have never, it so happens, lost a fight and I have never seen the strength and size of the male body as a threat. I have had full freedom, if I’ve wished, to find it only beautiful. My grandfather, Joseph Henry Price, he gave me this.

When it arrives, in leather-bound volumes, Health and Strength has its own kind of beauty. Billed as ‘The National Organ of Physical Fitness’, it mingles articles on the perfect punch and sexual advice with photographs of the physically fit. Men in leopard-skin trunks and gladiator boots tense and grimace happily. A man carries a small live pony draped resignedly around his neck. Here and there, sturdy Nordic women brandish hoops or beach balls in states of noticeable undress. ‘Greek’ scenes are recreated in homoerotic tableaux involving a good deal of oil and sometimes fig leaves. A range of small ads offers trunks, boots and leaves, all available for convenient purchase by mail.

The effect is chaotic and hardly what I’d expected Joe Price to find comfortable—I recall him as a man who thought twice before removing his jacket and who had no time at all for homosexuals. But there is a unifying theme here, something I know he understood: the need to be admired, to be an obvious success. It’s most visible amongst the amateurs: the clerks and NCOs, the shopkeepers and factory workers who once hoped to make their own fabric a thing of pride. Six decades adrift, they still look out, perpetually pale and young and keen, snapped balancing on park benches, kicking in a brief Sunday’s surf. They’re three years away from a world war and showing their bodies as precious things, their best assets. A Mr Harvey stands alone in 1936, braced and British and facing the desert near Cairo, naked with his back to the camera. His arms and calves are tanned, the rest strikingly white from his knees to the bared nape beneath his savage army haircut. Other articles in the same year praise ‘George VI—our Athletic King’ and feature, without irony, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott lounging together in trunks—’two noted Paramount stars who believe in the value of Physical Culture.’ This is the promise of health and strength, the longed-for gift of physical democracy: film stars, commoners and kings all equal when stripped to the skin.

As I turn through the cheap, yellowed pages I realize how much my grandfather lived by what he found here. He left school in 1930 at the age of fourteen, walking straight into the mouth of the Depression. His family was working class with pretensions to gentility, his father a handsome man who dressed well but was violent in drink. One of four children, Joe wanted to defend what he found precious: to guarantee safety for his mother and himself, to assure his own dignity and success. It would have been tempting to believe that positive thinking and hard exercise could bring him all he wanted by acts of will. Variations on the theory were popular at the time. By the late 1930s Health and Strength includes more and more German snapshots: worthy National Socialist bodies, stripped and staring towards horizons bright with eugenic promise.

Joe Price didn’t embrace the politics or the spurious science, but he did put his faith in the logic of effort and will. He believed that he could and must fight to build a life worth living. More an individualist than a pacifist, he would spend his war in a reserved occupation, avoiding the daily risks of steel. He once told me he thought all conflicts should be settled by champions, squaring up, the only blood shed in the ring. His idea of combat was always individual. To build a character and a future, solitary effort was the key, and the most worthy drove themselves the hardest, took the greatest punishment: the boxers. Boxing suited his philosophy, his expectations and temperament. The magazine is filled with their faces, the men who made Joe’s choice and boxed. Amateur and professional, each one measures himself against the classic pose: shoulders cocked, head ducked, hands ready and high, eyes confidently alert, perhaps that touch brighter with the possibility that, ‘If you do achieve success, then your fists may well be the means of your seeing the world and meeting some of its most famous inhabitants.’

The path to personal advancement through sport: it’s never offered with much enthusiasm to anyone outside the underclass, the risks are too great, the rewards too ephemeral. Boxing is held in reserve for the special cases, the young and poor who might be needed by the military, who might be troublesome if they weren’t given discipline early enough. The myth is as powerful today as it was in the 1930s, the thought that—as Health and Strength put it— ‘There is no sport like boxing to develop and cultivate a feeling of assurance and self-control. It gives you an aggressive spirit, properly leashed.’ Watch African American and Hispanic kids trying to knock each other’s lights out in any United States amateur bout, watch every nation offering up representatives of its least prosperous groups in Olympic competition or televised professional spectacles, and you’ll realize boxing remains an occupation for the hungry.

I remember sitting in a Brooklyn church gym hall, watching a young Irish fighter losing, the only white boxer of the evening. His father, a small man who had obviously led an outdoor life, was behind me, trying to smoke away his nerves—he never normally touched cigarettes. He quietly rationalized the proceedings for me. This was a chance for the boy—coming to America—he’d never even, no offence, seen a black man at home and people had been very kind and, as long as he didn’t get hurt, it could all be great for him. As long as he didn’t get hurt.

Another father had brought along his son, a boy of eight or nine, who was a fan of World Wrestling Federation wrestling, but was already slowly pacing and turning his fist in the air ahead of him, working through the proper motions of a punch. Weaned on the glamour and choreographed fakery of the wrestlers, this was his first time at a boxing match and he was enjoying it well enough, tolerating the lack of pyrotechnics while his father tried to make a lesson of the evening. He wanted the boy to understand how fit a boxer has to be, how hard he has to try, about winning and losing and being only a few generations away from Ireland themselves, and this somehow having to do with life’s realities. The boy kept on practising his punches, hardly listening, the man looking at me now, his voice softened, his eyes making it plain that this was something too hard to say, too hard to consider all at once. Then we both looked away while I remembered that my grandfather took my mother to watch boxing bouts and wondered what it might have been that he was trying to teach her. I’d only really agreed to come there that night in case it let me feel nearer to him, edged me back towards all the things I could no longer learn.

In London, Joe Price was apprenticed into the steel trade, learned how to dodge molten metal when it flew, played cards with a suspicious efficiency and slept in a hostel with a knife kept close to hand, because the Queensberry Rules don’t cover everything. He kept on learning how to take his lumps and, even though he’d told his mother he would stop, he kept on boxing. She realized this was the case when she opened the March 7 issue of Health and Strength in 1936. There she discovered him, just as I do now, standing at the edge of a group from the Corinthian Athletic Club, Stoke Newington. (My mother and I have both inherited his photographic reticence, we all lurk at the frame’s edge, if we can.) I can see the slight dip in his sternum—the place where he always told me he was hit by a cannon ball, a lie we both enjoyed. He’s smiling a little, a muscular twenty-year-old in neat black trunks and boots. And (I may, of course, be biased) he seems to have a confidence, a presence, that none of the other Corinthians matches. Something about his expression suggests he is standing a little apart, not out of shyness, but because he is special.

And he’s right, he knows he’s special: as special as human beings prove to be when given any kind of close examination. He knows, for example, that he has ‘short arms’—he grinds through his opponents’ defences until he can infight. In the process, he soaks up punches to the eyes, the left eye especially, and to his head. Although he only fights for something like ten years and solely as an amateur, boxing will close down his eyesight and leave him using a magnifying glass for near work, squinting at splinters of metal that he can’t find in his hands. What the punches will do to his thinking, no one will really be able to tell. Joe Price, like many boxers, wasn’t educated to be an intellectual and his life rarely encouraged him to lower his guard among strangers, he was a largely closed and quiet man. His handwriting was never expected to be anything more than the fiercely angular printing I recognized on envelopes at Christmas and birthdays, or on the wildly over-wrapped parcels he sometimes sent. As I write in the hush of the room, I miss his lettering. I miss him: his secrets and evasions, even the ones about his eyes.

Joe made sure until late in his life that no one he loved would be able to tell exactly how much he couldn’t see. With doctors, he would be adamant his weakness had nothing to do with boxing, most particularly when they said it was. With me, he would admit his style meant he’d had to battle—that was why they’d called him Battling Joe Price. He admired Sugar Ray Leonard, marked out his life according to a calendar of all the middleweight champions, but he always had a special affection for Marvin Hagler, another infighter, another brawler.

Because Battling Joe, when I think about it, didn’t fight clean. Although with me he was never anything but tender, having no son and now no grandson, he told me his secrets of victory in the ring. How to stand on your opponent’s feet, how to elbow, headbutt, rabbit and kidney punch and hit below the belt, how to wet the old-style leather gloves to make them hard and how to work your fingers through their horsehair stuffing to put some knuckle in your punch. It was his own fault when he broke his hands fighting—it would have been someone else’s when he broke his arm. And for the eyes, he had no mercy, because an opponent blinded by swelling or blood is no real opponent at all. The gloves Joe fought with still had separate thumbs that could gouge into sockets and untaped lace ends he could use to open cuts above the eye, just as every twisting punch he landed on the eyebrow would be meant to. He fought, as they say, ‘with bad intentions’. When he acknowledged that sometimes these tricks had been used against him, he still seemed both puzzled and aggrieved. Listening to the familiar purr in his voice, I never could understand why anyone would want to hurt him, why anyone would want to punch him in his eyes.

Joe’s eyes, the same blue as mine, were built in the usual way, with a lens and muscles for focus to the front and a relatively gristly exterior behind which formed an almost spherical hollow filled with a translucent gel called vitreous humour. Like the eyes you’re using to read this, they were miraculous; organs of sense so delicately complex and elegant that they gave Charles Darwin pause for thought. He wondered how gradual evolution could have created something only functional in such a highly developed state. The curved back of the eye has three layers: the outer sclera, then the choroid and then the retina. Our retinas receive the images which pass through the clear cornea, lens and vitreous humour. The retina is arguably where we start truly to see. If the eye were a camera, you might say the retina was its film.

But I hope it would come as no surprise that the human retina is far more lovely than any film. Freshly dissected, it is semi-transparent with a gentle purple tint, although it quickly clouds and whitens, fading. It is, after all, a fragile thing, never intended to be exposed. Under a microscope, the retina’s ten layers appear more vegetable than animal, like impressionistic wood grain. Nutrition and sensitivity combine as the nerves within the layers transmit, and their cells consume and grow, entirely interdependent for the transfer of information and nourishment. This is a balanced system, cells sometimes intertwining across layers and sometimes simply resting against each other. Which is the retina’s weak point—a hard blow to the eye can distort it for a moment and split the retina’s layers apart, ripping the pigment cells away from the receptors which feed them and carry the impulses to generate our sight. Rents, even holes may form. An especially traumatic blow can rupture the eye itself, allow it to lose vitreous humour, but more commonly the retina suffers. Any detached section dies and the eye becomes, to a greater or lesser extent, blinded.

Joe Price boxed at a time when ringside doctors might not be present, when referees were none too anxious to stop fights, when boxers—if they could find the matches—might fight two or three times in one night, under a false name if they had to. He took more punishment than he would today, but the laws of physics haven’t changed. Multiple hard blows will do more damage to an eye, may even ‘punch your man blind’, but it still only takes one significant impact to damage a retina. Laser surgery can fuse the retina back into place—my grandfather was offered the option, but didn’t like the sound of it. Recently, minority medical opinion even suggested that eyes repaired in this way were stronger than they had been before. This has proved, unsurprisingly, not to be the case and boxers who have suffered retinal damage or any other serious eye pathology are not legally permitted to box in Britain, or to take part in world title bouts. A detached retina effectively ended British heavyweight Frank Bruno’s career. Worldwide regulations are similar, although sometimes less stringent and more easily evaded, particularly when boxers choose to change their identities. No regulations can reach the unlicensed boxing underground which quietly eats up former contenders at the bottom of their downward slope and hard men who need money more than health.

Hard men: my grandfather haunted my childhood with them as if they were entirely natural companions for a young girl’s mind. In my earliest years, I suppose, he was still hard himself. I would swing from his straight-extended arm, at least as pleased as he was with his strength, but I had no cause then to consider what such strength could do. I would read the descriptions he sent me of Victorian bare-knuckle battles to the death, or the marathon bouts between giants like Jim Corbett, John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey (he of the lead-pipe-weighted gloves) and the carnage would seem as genuine as a World Wrestling Federation contest. Joe Price and all the ghosts were just friends. Still, I’ve heard the stories of the way he was as a young married man, anxious to flatten any face that stared too long at my grandmother, looking for a fight.

Joe Price met Mildred Archer in 1938 during an uninspiring period for middleweights—Al Hostak was the NBA champion, soon to ousted by Solly Krieger who lost the rematch in 1939, the year that Miss Archer became Mrs Price. In 1940, another steelworker, Tony ‘Man of Steel’ Zale, was on top of the world, and the Price’s first and only child was born: my mother, Edwardine Mildred.

The Prices made a tight couple, almost too tight for a daughter to fit. They wore suits cut from the same cloth and had their hairstyles matched, my grandmother sporting an Eton crop. Their arguments and reconciliations were equally close-quarter and intense. By the time I knew them, they still worked singly—my grandmother as a French polisher with spectacularly roughened hands—but otherwise they were rarely apart and seemed to need few friends. Milly would shop and Joe would cook and clean and bring her tea and magazines when she took her regular afternoon naps. Every Sunday he would dust the Venetian blinds and make lunch before his wife came home from church.

For many years I didn’t realize the facts upon which this intimacy rested, the reason for my grandmother’s anxiety when her husband was even a few minutes late home. Her marriage to Joe was her second. Mildred Price, a woman of some passion, had courted Jack Peace and loved and married him, just as she should, and they had gone to bed on their wedding night and in the morning she had found him beside her, quite dead. He had been suffering from cancer, but had told nobody.

For a while, Mildred weathered an entirely understandable nervous breakdown. She would be eccentric all her life, but now she saw ghosts. She couldn’t bear to be alone and had to be put out on a chair in the street if no one was left in the house. The family sent her to London for a change of air and this gave her a lifelong fear of the place—she never liked to hear that I was there, risking a city where she’d spent so much unhappy time. She never managed to meet Joe in the unfriendly size of the capital, but did when they were both back home again, safe in Staffordshire.

Joe Price must have been the perfect man for Milly. He was demonstrably, tangibly healthy, more than ten years her junior and fiercely ready for anything. Joe was happy to be utterly devoted, despite his family’s certainty that he was marrying beneath him, and he had that smile, that air of being out of the ordinary. Once he married, he even agreed to stop boxing—the risks would have made his wife entirely demented—and contented himself with training policemen in combat and self-defence. But he still took his wife and daughter to fights. My mother can remember attending a civic hall bout where an Irish Catholic boxer made a great point of crossing himself before the opening round. Then, in front of the almost exclusively Nonconformist audience, he hit the canvas unconscious, having caught the first punch.

My grandfather told the same story, it held another secret he intended to pass on—don’t be too sure of God’s protection. Never mind Providence, Joe Price believed in being personally prepared, from his indestructible parcels to his ease with a half nelson. To underline the point, he also told me the tale of Randy Turpin, a man who was thoroughly ready at just the right time. He was one of my grandmother’s favourites—she liked the way he wore his initials, RAT, on his shorts. Turpin came out against the odds and beat the great Sugar Ray Robinson in Earls Court in 1951. Robinson had been overcommitted and was probably tired but was said to have been complacent, to have spent the night before the fight playing cards until the small hours. Turpin, a fine British middleweight with two equally useful hands, had arrived unawed and in peak condition. He fought the distance fluently and, by the end, Robinson was bleeding and the crowd was singing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ to Turpin. If Joe Price had a dream, it must have been something like this, to slip in as an underdog and win the world.

I wasn’t told that Turpin lost the title to Robinson only sixty-four days later in a rematch in New York, and never flew so high again, or that his last days were penniless, or that he committed suicide in Leamington Spa, the genteelly depressing town where I lived as a student. Robinson ended up equally poor and with Alzheimer’s disease.

Depression, unmanageable anger, Parkinson’s disease, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s: they’re among the unhappy ghosts that seem to flurry around boxing, no matter how hard it tries to be the Noble Art. John Tate: alcohol and cocaine addiction, became homeless and died in a car crash. Wilfred Benitez: brain-damaged. Michael Dokes: coke addict, now in jail for sexual assault and attempted murder. Tony Tucker: former coke addict and now religious convert. Jimmy Bivins: brain-damaged and broke. Pinklon Thomas: formerly coke addict, currently youth worker. Jerry, Mike and Bob Quarry: all brain-damaged, Jerry now dead. Oliver McCall: coke addict, jailed for assault. Floyd Patterson: brain-damaged. Riddick Bowe: currently under house arrest after abducting his estranged wife and children. All were champions once, or contenders.

The problem lies in identifying cause and effect. No matter how stunned or revolted observers were by Ali and Frazier slogging it out in the ‘Thriller in Manila’ in 1975, no one can definitively state that Muhammad Ali’s genes hadn’t always determined he would spend his later years hemmed in by Parkinson’s disease.

And then there’s Tyson, the poor monster, Don King’s punching freak show—a money machine for everyone with the possible exception of himself. Tyson’s temperament was never docile, even in the sunny days of his old coach Cuss D’Amato, when boxing looked as if it would save a ghetto kid from more jail time and an invisible, wasted life. Now the business of boxing allows him to behave badly and go easy on the sporting discipline. A truly iron Mike, after all, is bad for the pay-per-view; an out-of-shape Tyson, weakened by character defects and deficiencies in the ring, promises a positively Shakespearean spectacle. But are his flaws caused by bad character, bad company, or blows to the head? Tyson, even now, is hardly known for catching punches.

Both sides try to carve out their own moral high ground. To quote Golden Gloves of America Incorporated, which organizes America’s most influential amateur championships, boxing supporters promote a sport which ‘encourages a positive lifestyle for today’s youth’, although your average Golden Gloves competition will be heavily policed to keep all those disciplined gentlemen, and now ladies, from—possibly armed—combat outside the ring. And, for the few, we’re reminded, there’s the chance of fame, maybe wealth, some foreign travel. Boxing’s opponents see self-destructive dupes being injured in the ring to provide promoters and ghouls with a gladiatorial spectacle. While some professionals hit the big time, in their opinion, all boxers, including juniors and amateurs, risk serious injury or death.

The physics of boxing is slightly less ambivalent. And when the will, the imagination, when thought is removed—that’s what we all come down to: physics. It might be said that our lives represent an elaborate flight from the inevitable return to inanimate matter and the laws that govern it. When Ali managed not to drop before Frazier did in Manila, he proved we can buck the trend for a while, despite extreme pressure. He is, after all, the man who kept on going against Ken Norton in San Diego in 1973, even with a badly broken jaw. When Joey Gamache went down in the second round to Arturo Gatti in Madison Square Garden last spring and then sat up, looking about him—a man in bloodstained shorts with the face of a waking child—he was diminished, but on his way back from the fall. The fall, when his head met a dreadfully effective triple combination of punches, when his body dropped beyond his control—that was when Gamache was matter and nothing more, a mindless, tumbling mass. His utter unconsciousness was as plain as a tiny piece of death: as clear as—say—Tommy Hearns’s knockout at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1985. Marvin Hagler had worked neatly, methodically, through three vicious rounds, one eye eventually clouded over with his own blood, while Hearns’s long arms whipped in at him, increasingly powerlessly. Then, the swagger still in his shoulders, Hagler punched Hearns back into a spin, caught him with a final right and Hearns’s face emptied, took on the puzzled look of a post-mortem photograph, while his body drooped over Hagler, fell without a will. Physics.

Various researchers have tried to calculate the force of a punch, placing accelerometers in punching bags, asking boxers to swing at force plates. A more realistic experiment studied the British heavyweight Frank Bruno when he punched a sixteen-pound ballistic pendulum—sixteen pounds is roughly the weight of a heavyweight opponent’s head and neck. The punch travelled at a little under nine miles per second and the force it exerted was calculated at 0.63 tons. Naturally, a range of boxers would have to be tested to average out the blows for various weights and levels of ability. Still, it gives us some idea of what one punch amounts to, which is, in this particular case, equivalent to the impact of a thirteen-pound padded mallet being swung at twenty miles per hour.

In a street fight, the swing can connect where it likes; in the ring it has rules to follow, a target area for scoring blows. If the fist is correctly positioned and lands a technically proper punch to the torso or the front of the head, it is deemed ‘effective’. Punches to the head, carrying with them the possibility of a knockout, or at least a knockdown, are understandably popular. What happens when the head suffers an impact depends greatly upon the physics of the skull and brain. There is a slim, fluid-filled space between the brain and the skull, which means that, when the head moves violently, the brain can literally twist on its stem inside the skull and can collide repeatedly with the surrounding bone as the skull’s acceleration and deceleration fail to match that of its contents. The resultant stretching and shearing within the different structures of the brain can stress neurons beyond their tolerance. Damage to the two membranes (the septum pellucidum) that separate the two fluid-filled ventricles deep inside the brain is thought to indicate other, as yet invisible, penetrating stress. The septum pellucidum is close to the limbic lobe, an area of the brain associated with aggression. Injury here is thought to have links with violently dysfunctional behaviour. For all that the brain has a phenomenal capacity for reorganization and survival, it will always be limited by the fact that nervous tissue cannot regenerate.

A membrane, the dura, designed to hold the brain in place, can be damaged, as can blood vessels inside and outside the brain. Bleeding can increase the pressure inside the skull, even forcing the brain down towards an impossible exit, the point where the brain stem feeds out into the spinal column. Blood clots within the brain, or between the brain and skull, can cause anything from localized areas of dead tissue to coma and death. Dead tissue in the brain can, of course, affect anything and everything that we think of as ourselves: our ability to move, our senses and our personalities.

It’s hard for anybody to imagine their own destruction. Boxers may find it harder than most, trained as they are to pare down their thinking to the moment, an eternally present tense of speed, attack, response, a sometimes self-destructive belief in the attainability of success. Their trainers and supporters surround them with uplifting lies. In Brooklyn, the young Irish kid and all the other losers heard their share as their opponents pummelled them—’Stick a jab on him when he charges’, ‘Punch when he punches’, ‘Don’t feel bad, you did well’, ‘Even if you lose this now, you’ve won it’.

Win or lose, they grow from sporting teens with the usual sheen of immortality into men of certainty and solutions—because that’s how they have to be, the ring would be intolerable without a mental defence. This kind of individualistic, almost magical training in faith and faith in training may be one reason why boxers, despite so many generations of uneven breaks and destitute retirements, have never formed an effective association in any country. It is always their patrons who organize. Meanwhile, alone in the ring, the boxer works in a place where self belief is all that will move a body against pain, against an opponent who is equally alone. Injury and failure are too close to consider, in case the thought might bring them on.

And the brain, in any event, is always shy when it comes to thinking of itself. Sitting in the library, I can turn my head to look around and know that I’m turning—among other things—about forty-two ounces of brain. My whole sense of myself and the world: up there in a weight I can’t notice. It would fit, cradled very comfortably, in my palms, almost surrounded by my fingers. A man’s brain might be three or four ounces more—either way, this seems light, considering all it represents. If I set it down on the table beside me, it would subside just a little, showing that it’s surprisingly soft, vulnerable. This is what you and I carry under the scalp, above the face: the familiar coils and curves that give the organ’s form a peculiar, fluid grace. Sliced cleanly through from—as it were—ear to ear, the brain looks almost like agate, the layer of grey matter undulating gently, surrounding the layer of white, the ventricles opened in twinned, seashell curves. The septum pellucidum is of an almost impossibly delicate, milky transparency. The brain makes a beautiful, unsettling study—a fascinating object with a form that gives little indication of its function. It is left unscarred by thought. I couldn’t guess where, or quite how, it held scraps such as my liking for raspberries, the movements necessary for a kiss, my kiss, my past, all the memories upon memories that deal only with my grandfather’s way of walking—so much I wish to be defended.

And, if I decided to enter the ring today, boxing medics would try their best to defend me. In fact, if I didn’t conceal my medical history, they’d bar me immediately for the sake of my health. I have suffered serious concussion and migraines, both of which would lead to my exclusion from any kind of reputable organized boxing. The British Boxing Board of Control is arguably at the forefront of boxing safety. It submits professional boxers to an exhaustive number of tests and investigations before granting them a licence to fight. MRI scans were made compulsory in 1995. Any discovery of weakness, psychological instability, drug use or prior damage and the licence is not granted. The tests are repeated annually. There are cooling-off periods for recuperation between fights and a series of weigh-ins to pick up fighters who are trying to make their weight by dehydrating. Dehydration may slightly increase the space between the brain and the skull, intensifying injuries—it certainly weakens boxers and leaves them open to greater risk from their opponents. Participants are examined before and after bouts with particular attention paid to those who have suffered any period of unconsciousness. Doctors and an ambulance with trained staff and resuscitation equipment are on standby during bouts. Of course, safety provisions and testing for juniors and amateurs are not so extensive, although they run the same risks as professionals, without the benefit of experience.

When I asked the British Boxing Board of Control’s chief medical officer, Adrian Whiteson, about the safety conditions surrounding my grandfather’s boxing life, he mouthed ‘appalling’, as if he would rather not criticize the sport out loud. He presents modern boxing with a reformer’s quiet evangelism—the professional game is conducted in a medically responsible manner, fielding boxers who are all thoroughly screened for optimum safety and psychological stability, fighting fit, chemically clean and engaged in an occupation with social benefits. In a professional boxing scene still heavily connected with organized crime, and where financial risks and pressures are high, Whiteson’s portrait of the noble art admits no pressure to compromise, no lies, no evasions. The mystifying fact that Mike Tyson is able to pass a British psychological examination and gain his licence to fight here goes unmentioned. Whiteson contrasts licensed, responsible boxing with the underground scene, the legendary turf where mobster enforcers meet gypsy champions. He doesn’t mention the current rise in British unlicensed public boxing—a high-risk affair with few safeguards for often poorly prepared participants—and the popularity of the even more gladiatorial no-holds-barred fighting codes such as Vale Tudo. In his, and the British Boxing Board of Control’s, opinion, keeping licensed boxing popular offers the best chance of keeping boxers safe, or as safe as anyone involved in a contact sport might reasonably expect to be. Whiteson is not a member of the British Medical Association which, like its American counterpart, calls for a total ban on boxing, licensed and unlicensed. He genuinely loves boxers as individuals, loves the sport. This, many fellow medics would argue, involves him in a degree of double-thinking.

He appears absolutely sincere when he states that: ‘The sport is irrelevant. At the end of the day, it’s their health that matters.’ He denies the existence of hard evidence that repeated exposure to head trauma produces a high chance of brain damage and points out that too few examinations of brains have been carried out to determine what a ‘normal’ level of damage to structures such as the septum pellucidum would be. Nevertheless, he does admit that, in such an extreme sport, it is impossible to prevent injuries, sometimes of the very worst kind: ‘Not the acute brain damage, sadly no one can stop that.’ Health matters, then, but boxing will continue in spite of the consequent unavoidable acute brain damage. Whiteson makes it plain that the British Boxing Board of Control’s policy is to stop a fight continuing, or even taking place, if there is any doubt over a boxer’s condition, because: ‘One punch and he could die.’ And yet he has a touching faith in the ability of an ‘equally matched’ fight to reduce both boxers’ risks to acceptable levels.

Dr Whiteson is the kind of man my grandfather would have trusted, a proper gentleman with a Wimpole Street private practice and an OBE. Intelligent, soft-spoken and charming, he tells me how natural boxing is—that two infants in a playpen would fight over a toy. As it happens, the example undermines his point. The infants might well scrap over the toy, but then the winner would generally win and the loser would cry and that would tend to be that. Bouts of formalized, punching combat certainly wouldn’t ensue. Studies show that children fighting tend to wrestle. If blows are struck at all, they are more likely to be slaps than punches and the head seems to be protected by something akin to a physical taboo. When tired or inexperienced fighters fall to clinches and slapping blows, they are withdrawing from their training into, one might say, more natural techniques. The pugilistic toddlers provide the sort of anecdotal evidence that stops comfortable people being too uneasy about less comfortable people’s pain by making it a natural necessity. They have little connection with fact.

I would be the first to agree that violence exists in nature, but I also know it has nature’s economy. Whether it proves dominance or provides food, it’s too quick and too definitive to provide paying entertainment. Boxing exists in an artificial middle ground between death and retreat—in very human territory that encompasses humiliation, bravery, fear and the kind of sympathetic magic which creates the worship of champions. Human beings do attack each other, of course. I’ve been attacked and I’ve defended myself, once against a Parisian pickpocket and once against a Scottish drunk, but upper cuts and timed rounds didn’t come into it. I did what my grandfather taught me to do, which was quick and worked. Punching someone in the head (so much a part of boxing) is an unnatural act and is often outside, or marginal to, even combative experience. Ask anyone who’s stepped in the ring, or watch young fighters try to press themselves into truly trading blows—the giving and accepting of that type of pain, that particular shock, takes a lot of getting used to, no matter how much adrenalin and training lends a hand. My grandfather got used to it, he had the knack. Joe Price said he only ever lost one fight, his first, because he was frightened. He made sure he wasn’t frightened again. His life had prepared him to see that as a good choice.

Go into a gym and you’ll see the ones who have it and the ones who don’t. Dancing and dipping through combinations, their trainers singing out, counting out, blows that will contact faster than they can be named: ‘Hook, hook. One, two,’ you’ll realize the boxer’s unopposed speed. Bodies slip and angle round each other, the presence or absence of commitment achingly obvious. Men stare themselves down in mirrors, hit the treadmill, skip and sweat, finding personal walls and breaking through them, finding and breaking through. This is where Joe Price lived, amongst the down-time tenderness of sparring partners, the small breaks of nudging play and the docile binding of hands: the willingness to let them be a helpless weight, before they take their proper place and swing, express a will. Neurological tests found one other effect of boxing, the improvement of motor functions, the increased ability to master human physics.

In training and in the ring, here is what Mildred Archer fell in love with—the flush under the skin that might be passion or pain, shame or heat. Here are the men who move with uncanny precision, even outside the ropes—soft-shoed, soft-footed men who have a constant, unusual sense of direction, a firm expression of will. When I watch old boxers—the set of their shoulders, the fix of their heads, the slightly softened mouths—I realize how much of my grandfather was burned into him by boxing. He walked like a middleweight, with that particular blend of solidity and lightness.

I’ve heard Tyson talk in an interview about the sheer excitement of ‘being able to outsmart a man…to out-time them, to out-think them…they make one mistake and you outsmart them and then you have their wallet.’ I didn’t expect him to remind me of my grandfather, but he did. Joe Price was the man who would beat you every time. A burglar once decided to break into what should have been just one in a row of pensioners’ apartments. But it was my grandfather’s home and, even in his sixties, he was more than able to knock the intruder out cold. He was so pleased that all he could wish for was to be able to do it again. My grandfather took exception to being robbed, of course, but he also punched the man out just because he still could. Thirty years earlier, Joe Price would be the one to join you casually in a game of cards as you both whiled away a train trip, the one who would somehow manage to clean you out by the time you reached your station. That was how he got his holiday spending money. He did it because he could and you were stupid enough to let him.

At our final meeting, we got out the cards and, for the first and only time, my grandfather played as he would have against a stranger. We both knew that he was very ill and that we might not see each other again. He asked me to cut the deck whenever I dealt and named every card I cut to before I showed it. He was a man with hardly any eyesight left, with a body that was comprehensively betraying him, and he beat me soundly, thoroughly, arrogantly, beautifully. He knew what the ring was all about before he ever climbed inside: it was a place where he could win in a life where—beyond the card games—he would spend a great deal of time never even being able to compete. I know that he deserved better, because boxing rewards few and damages many—it damaged him. Boxing is not, by its nature, safe. Span your hand across the crown of your head and you’ll be measuring out the greatest distance the force of a punch will ever travel, the greatest distance over which it will ever be able to dissipate. You’ll be cupping your palm perhaps half an inch above the greater part of what you are. Joe Price, the little-known amateur, risked that every time he sparred, or fought, just as any world champion did, just as anyone who boxes does today. There is no audience, no manager, no promoter, no association, no doctor, no trainer worthy of that commitment.

My grandfather made the best of it, just as he made the best of an unusual marriage, of plans to be his own boss that never quite materialized, of his ulcers, his heart attacks, of the night when his wife was suddenly ill, fell asleep and never woke, of the last six years he spent as a widower growing frail. Even when it took him some effort to cross a road, he still had that air of being special, the dignity he’d fought for. If he went slowly, it was because he intended to stroll, if he leaned on my arm it was because he had decided we’d walk close. Still, make no mistake, he hated being old and unable to see. He didn’t want to have lost his power, the shadow he’d always boxed, now slow beside him, uneasy in its balance. Providence was catching up with him. Used to fighting, to pushing himself where his will needed him to be, he decided to go for heart surgery, in the hope that it would free him from the problems of old age. He wanted to die on the table. In fact, the set of tests before the operation gave him his wish.

I thought his last gift came when he told me he was going for the surgery and gave me the chance to say goodbye. I was wrong. In researching this piece, I’ve discovered another. Health and Strength would have called me a ‘brain worker’ and, sifting through the Internet files and libraries, working away, I’ve found the secret he left for me to find.

My grandfather always called me Tiger, which is an unusual nickname in Britain, especially for a girl. It was something else between us that only we had and that no one ever questioned, although he allowed it to fall out of use as I grew up. I remember going back to his house just after my grandmother died, climbing the narrow stairs and walking into a room full of silent relatives. His chair faced away from the door, as it always had, and he turned round to me softly and said, as I’d known he would, ‘Hello, Tiger’, wishing us back to a time when I could still swing on his arm and his wife was alive. And now I understand why I was Tiger. Checking the middleweight champions he followed all his life, I found that the World Champion in the year I was born, 1965, was the British-based Nigerian fighter Dick Tiger. Before I even knew myself, my grandfather had made up his mind and privately christened me for a champion of the world. So now I thank him for that.

 

Photograph by Karen Pilling

But Richard Widmark
Whale