Bitter taste to the sweet science


Watched Steve Collins schmoozing with Gaybo on Friday night. No more Celtic Big Shot. No kilts, no capers, no greasepaint. He looked the better for being rid of the burden of his cumbersome image.

Maybe this tranquil interlude in Collins life will be brief. Several creatures with shiny white teeth are circling him with a view to extracting their pound of flesh. We know little of the detail of these cases, but adhere to the general principle that in boxing, he who takes the shots should call the shots. Collins has taken the shots.

There is nothing more poignant than a boxer forced back on to the canvas when the hunger and the hope is gone, but history tells us that boxers never really retire.

This column has in the past expressed its reservations about Collins and his involvement in the low-rent pantomime which is WBO boxing. Collins looked bigger than the WBO before he was sucked in, and he looks bigger than the WBO now that he has departed.

As the endless triangular tournament between Chris Eubank, Collins and Nigel Benn (This time it's really serious! - yawn) has been played out for the benefit of Sky television and its credulous viewers over the last few years, one has often yearned for Roy Jones junior to come riding over the hill to fight the three of them together.

I would have paid to view that.

The WBO and its marketing arm in Sky Television is a latter-day version of an old boxing story. Give the folks some personality and some context and forget the quality of the sport involved.

So we had Benn, Collins and Eubank and the repeated declarations that they all really, really, really got on each others' nerves and the assertions that next time, oooh next time, there were going to be some right knuckle sandwiches to digest. Avert your eyes from Michael Watson over there in the wheelchair, ladies and gentlemen.

Things have been refined and made legal since the days of Primo Carnera, whose sad tale I happened to be reading when Gaybo and the Celtic Warrior started jawing on Friday night.

Born in the village of Sequals in northern Italy, Primo, allegedly, weighed 22 pounds at birth. Any wonder his aggrieved mother sent him to an apprenticeship at the age of eight and saw him leave home when he was 12.

That was 1918 and Carnera begged his way northwards through France, worked as a labourer when work was to be had, but starved mostly. At the age of 17 he was six foot six inches and this being the days before the NBA, he joined a travelling circus rather than go hungry any longer. He was billed first as a freak, then as a strong man, and finally as a wrestler fighting more than 10 bouts a day.

When the circus disbanded in 1928 a second-rate heavyweight (European in other words) named Paul Journee spotted Carnera and promised him a glittering ring career. Journee brought him to meet the fight manager Leon See. Times may have been tough for Carnera up until then, but getting involved with professional boxing was a singular misfortune.

Leon See pushed him into 13 fights in the space of a year and learned that Primo had a glass jaw and couldn't really punch. He took him to the US, though, and for the cheap-suited mobsters who queued to buy a stake in Carnera, these flaws scarcely mattered.

It was 1928 and when he was freighted to America the boxing business, and the usual bunch of beaten-docket journalists who serve sport not newspapers, dutifully hailed him as serious stuff.

Carnera fought 22 times in his first year in the States, with most of his victims contracted to be just that. Many of them spent the minutes before a bout studying the calibration of an automatic weapon.

In Philadelphia one night Ace Clark beat Carnera to a pulp for five rounds and just before he came out for the sixth, a small man with a hard face beseeched him to take a look at what he was carrying under his coat. Ace Clark was hugging the canvas within seconds.

Bombo Chevalier was having a time of it in Oakland another night. They rubbed embrocation cream in his eyes between rounds. Boom Boom Bombo. And the winner is . . .

It was that raw and clumsy back then. Innocent pugs as the victims on the merry-go-round. The operation is smoother today and there is little need to threaten boxers with hardware.

Carnera fought 80 fights before winning the heavyweight title. He got to Madison Square Gardens in 1931 and Jack Sharkey whom the mob neglected to buy, dumped him with a left hook in the first round and danced around him for 14 more rounds of intense humiliation.

It didn't matter. In February 1933, rehabilitated as merchandise, Carnera fought Ernie Schaaf, a sick man who had been battered almost to death by Max Baer a few months previously in Chicago. Schaaf died not long after the fight with Carnera. Killed by boxing.

Carnera was heartbroken, but the ghoulish hoodlums around Carnera used Schaaf's death as a marketing tool. Our boy can punch hard enough to put you in the next world.

By June 1933, Carnera was facing Sharkey again, this time for the heavyweight title. Sharkey won the first five rounds listlessly. In the sixth after some gentle pawing, he lay down on the canvas and didn't get up until he saw the shoes of mobsters stepping past him. The fix had gone down. After 80 fights, Carnera had $360 dollars to his name and was champion of the world. A month later he was declared bankrupt.

He fled to Europe. Rested, he returned to the States where, for his troubles he got put in against Max Baer in a straight fight in Madison Square Garden in 1934. He entered the ring a dupe and left it a bloody mess. In the moment of his most heartbreaking defeat he showed a courage which redeemed him in the eyes of the public. Knocked down three times in the first round, he kept taking it. He was knocked down 13 times in all, never parting company with consciousness. The ref stopped it in the 11th.

The mob hadn't done with him, though. They flogged him as the man who got up 13 times. They sent him on a money-spinning tour of South America and realised that money could be made from having the giant beaten to a pulp. They threw him in against Joe Louis in Detroit, one night in 1935, and six rounds later, with his face smashed in, dragged him out again with his heels trailing the canvas.

He fought on through to 1936 when he was beaten to a pulp by Leroy Haynes in Philadelphia and because the fight drew a crowd they re-staged it 11 days later in Brooklyn. This time it ended when Carnera's left leg became paralysed. He spent five months in hospital and boxing grew bored and left him alone.

All that was a long time ago of course. Couldn't happen today.

Rest well, Steve Collins, rest well.