ON THE ROPES
Let me posit that the greatest book ever written on boxing is one that most readers have never heard of.
On the Ropes, written by Geoffrey Beattie, came out in 1996. Beattie was then a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, after a stint working at the University of Manchester, he is professor of psychology at Edge Hill University. So far, he has written twenty-four books. On the Ropes was his sixth.
It continued a theme for him of life in the industrial north of England. In one of his later works, The Shadows of Boxing, Beattie would write, “I started writing about the North soon after Thatcher came to power. Things were changing in my own life and around me. These changes needed to be documented. I was a young university lecturer and had recently moved to Sheffield. […] The very fabric of life in the North was in a state of flux as the traditional industries went, and unemployment rose, and I was there in the middle of it. Whole communities were destroyed and new cultures started to emerge—new romantics, new entrepreneurs, new drugs.”
Interviewed over the phone, Beattie says that his writing was an extension of what he had seen through his academic work. “What got me into boxing,” he says, “was being shocked at what was happening around me. I’m from a working-class Belfast background. When I moved to Sheffield, we had psychologists who studied the effect on people’s lives of unemployment. But in the street where I lived, there were unemployed steelworkers and miners, and I thought the psychologists were missing something—that was people’s lives as they were being experienced. I wanted to reflect on that, listen to them talking about the effects of unemployment on mental health. So I started writing for The Guardian at that time about northern life. My first book was in 1986 and was called Survivors of Steel City. It was a description of everyday lives—vignettes of how people lived and what they did on a day-to-day basis. It was quite quickly, with the kind of people that I was meeting with and speaking to, that boxers popped up.”
On the Ropes is a book where not much happens, save the recurring cycles of violence, small time larceny, and boxing as a way of life. There is little sense of people moving forwards, but about their defence of the things they feel define them—their toughness, one subject’s status as a ‘quarter millionaire’, their reputation on the streets, a social standing predicated on money or status, if not achievement.
And within this world are the boxers, often the guys with records of 4-4 (2) and an aim to make as much money as they can while retaining as much of their health as possible. It shows them in the morning after a fight, in working in security jobs, in training, with their families. The book looks at the forces surrounding and forming these men, but makes no attempt to explain them. It is observation after observation. The understanding is that this is how these people are and there is no need further analysis. It is an extension of what Eddie Futch would say when people asked him why boxing existed, “Men just fight. That’s all.”
There is a world champion in its pages. And philosophy. And a legend, in the days before he was a legend, when he was still little more than a short and skinny kid whose best friend, mentor, and guide is a transplanted Irishman dedicated to improving the lives of all those in his community.
Its style and structures follows Beattie’s earlier works. Like Hard Lines and England After Dark, On the Ropes presents vignettes of Sheffield at the time. Much of it is tragi-comic.
In one chapter, Beattie attends a court session dealing with young offenders. One, named Lee, is facing charges of theft. It becomes clear that Lee has a history of solvent abuse, paid for by crime. “The magistrates seemed desperate to help,” wrote Beattie, “but they could only sentence on the basis of the charge before them. The chairman of the bench addressed Lee: ‘Is there anything you can tell us about your life to help us? Your mother says that you steal a lot to buy Calor gas and Butane gas. Is that true?’ ‘That’s not true.’ Lee was indignant, and for the first time all morning it looked as if there as going to be an argument in court. But then Lee continued. ‘Butane gas, yes, but not Calor gas.’ I felt like laughing, but I was the only one to find it funny.”
There is little hope in On the Ropes. It avoids cheap sentimentality. There is no need for a happy ending because there are none. It is a world where whatever has happened before is happening again and will happen once more in the future.
The book begins with Beattie sparring former professional Mick Mills one Saturday morning. Mills was a former-boxer-turned-doorman at the time. According to BoxRec, he stood 5’8” and fought as a light-middleweight. His professional career ran between 1977 and 1985, and he finished with a 33-15 (23) record.
“I’d done England After Dark,” says Beattie, “and I thought doormen were interesting stories. Mick Mills was one of them that I liked enormously. He famously said, ‘I’ve broken twelve jaws, but only one in the ring.’ He was about my height but a genuine, genuine tough guy. I’ve always done a bit of running and he did it, too, so one day he asked me to come to the gym with him to train. I started getting into it and he asked me about bagwork, and then showed me some routines. And he said I had a great right hand, a real killer punch.”
Beattie laughs at the next part. “And then he asked me to spar, but with no punches to the head. And I said no, but he was, like, ‘Come on.’ So we get into the ring and I started sparring with him. Afterwards, I took my shirt off and someone said, ‘Fuck me, you look like you’ve been in a car accident.’ That was because of the bruises all over my back.”
Much of what follows in On the Ropes is a deep dive into the world of professional boxing. Or, more accurately, professional boxing as viewed from the bottom of the undercard. A key chapters recounts the morning after a fight for Steve Howden, a 4-4 (2) professional who would finish out his career at 7-13 (3).
From On the Ropes: “Steve was another of Brendan’s boys. A crowd-pleaser. He put up a terrific show, but the punters were wandering in and out during it. He was a warm-up man. From his appearance, it was clear that Steve had a particular role to play. He was a skinhead covered in tattoos. I had been told that he had got his first tattoo at thirteen and his last one, the Geisha girl on his stomach, when he was fifteen. You wanted to boo as he entered the ring. It reminded me of wrestling, or the pantomime. But this wasn’t acting. This was deadly serious. Steve’s opponent, who didn’t much like the look of him either, won on points. His opponent was clean-cut and good-looking.”
Almost a stranger to boxing, Beattie was shocked by the seemingly-predetermined nature of the fights. “That’s what surprised me the most,” he says. “There are boxers with certain types of records and they know why they’re there, that they’ve been selected to help someone develop a career. The whole psychology of that, how they cope with it as a living, is really fascinating.”
In writing the book, he says, “I just wanted to see the lads and the guys on the undercard in the hours before they fight. That’s the part of boxing that most people don’t know about. There were so many fights, but it’s known who’s going to win and who’s not.”
And while Beattie interviewed the working fighters, the guys going door-to-door, fighting each weekend, he also spent time with former champion Herol Graham, then on the way down.
Graham is often thought of as British boxing’s great nearly-man. While Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, and Duran were fighting each other in the late eighties, Graham stood on the periphery. He reflected at one point that while those four were picking up millions of dollars per fight, his own highest payday was a relatively paltry £60,000. That was a hard pill for a man who was European and British champion, and should have been among the mix.
Beattie describes Graham in On the Ropes: “For a while, he had been the hope, some would say the only hope, of this once-proud industrial city. It wasn’t just the success—the thirty-eight straight professional fights without a single defeat under his manager, trainer, and mentor Brendan Ingle—it was the manner of the success. Graham was the master of defensive boxing. The media may have called him ‘boring’, and some rival boxing camps may have referred to him disparagingly as the ‘limbo dancer’, but his opponents never managed to lay a glove on him, and he always won. They used to say that Graham had been sacked by Alan Minter as a sparring partner in the summer of 1980, as Minter prepared to defend his world title against Marvin Hagler, because Minter just couldn’t hit him. Roberto Duran was also said to have sacked him for the same reason.”
The closest Graham ever came to a world title was against Julian Jackson in Spain, when, ahead on points and about to stop Jackson through injury, he decided to trade against one of the hardest punchers, pound for pound, in boxing history. It was a catastrophic decision—he was knocked out with a single punch in the fourth round and would never be the same fighter.
Beattie caught up with Graham in October 1993 as he talked about making a comeback. Graham was then eyeing a second run for a world title, anxious now to save some of his money rather than spending it.
As Graham said to Beattie: “[…] my comeback won’t just be for two fights. I want to get back to the top by 1995. Okay, I’ll be thirty-six then, but I’m still going to make it. A year to get back into it, a year to win the world championship. Then a year defending it to make a bit of money.”
Later, in writing On the Ropes, Beattie would reflect ruefully: “There was almost a note of desperation in his voice. It seemed that he needed to convince himself as much as others.”
There was no happy ending for Graham. He would go 4-1 (1) in the five fights that made up the rest of his career, finishing with a TKO loss to Charles Brewer in Atlantic City. In the twenty-eight years since, life has continued to be cruel to him.
For much of his career, the chief mentor in Graham’s corner was Brendan Ingle, who had come to Sheffield from Dublin in the 1960s. Ingle had boxed as a journeyman light-heavyweight with a career record of 19-14. His legacy, though, lies is in his work as a coach.
Interviewed, Beattie says that Ingle was more than a coach to the children that came to St. Thomas’s Boys’ and Girls’ Club. “Brendan’s gym,” he says, “was like something out of a seventeenth-century philosophical essay. People were coming and giving their kids to this guy who became a surrogate parent who’s not only training them, but giving them these different philosophies of life.”
Beattie continues: “The thing about him was that he’d want to talk about religion, philosophy, or anything else. Boxing was just a part of it. He was unique. He put such care and attention into the gym, which was his whole life. He was an extraordinary social worker because he was giving these kids something to aspire to along with ways to deal with all the bullies and threats in the world.”
It was felt by many that the end of Graham’s career began with his split from Ingle. As Beattie wrote, “The real split with Brendan came later, in 1987, when Graham announced that he felt he should have received something financially from Brendan with the Eastwood deal. Personal reasons were also mentioned, but nobody ever went into them. The fact that Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler were making their millions at that time could not have helped.”
The failed relationship between Graham and Ingle haunts both men in On the Ropes, even if they never articulate it. As Ingle said, “I was very upset by the dispute because he’d lived with me for a year and a half, for more or less next to nothing, like he was one of the family.” It is because of this that when Ingle finds another young boxer with great potential, there is the undercurrent of fear that this relationship will, too, end badly.
That kid was ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed. The relationship between him and Ingle forms the core of On the Ropes’s final section.
Between 1995, when he beat Steve Robinson in Cardiff for the WBO featherweight title, and 2001, when dismantled by Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas, Hamed was one of the biggest boxing stars in the world. He was awkward and unorthodox, a 5’4” switch-hitter with heavyweight power. Hamed’s style was as much a product of the St. Thomas’s Boxing Club as he was. Alongside Hamed in this lineage were Johnny Nelson (below), who would defend the WBO cruiserweight title thirteen times…
…Ryan Rhodes, who would hold British and European titles; and WBC super-lightweight champion Junior Witter. The most-active Sheffield fighter today is former IBF welterweight champion Kell Brook, who is trained by Ingle’s son Dominic. All of them would adopt, to differing extents, the style of Herol Graham, which had been imprinted onto him by Ingle.
“It was a fascinating, intimate relationship,” says Beattie of the bond between Ingle (below, left, with Naz on the right). “These two people were really like father and son. And yet because of what happened with Herol Graham, there was always the danger that this could somehow go wrong.”
It was a relationship that would, like that between Ingle and Graham, eventually fall apart. Both sides would become embittered with the other.
Beattie todays says that the warning signs were always there. “I guess it came down to money and the business of Naz’s ego,” he says. “I could mention the Graham case. It seems to happen in boxing. You have people who are not used to dealing with these huge sums of money. I was having a quick look at The Shadows of Boxing. There’s a bit with Hamed’s brother talking about where Naz’s power came from. That’s part of it, an attributional issue of how we understand our lives. But there’s these huge sums of money and the manager taking twenty-five per cent is always an issue. So the signs were there.”
Like Graham, Hamed saw his career peter out after he and Ingle went their separate ways. “After he got the world title,” says Beattie, “the gym filled up because every parent in Sheffield sent their kid there. Training became much more difficult for him. Naz ended up building his own gym. The difference between that and St. Thomas’s was extraordinary. It was a shrine to Naz, but it had none of the features that nurture talent.”
Beattie goes on: “In my naivety, I always wished that they’d keep that bond. And when it did break, I think that’s when Naz’s career dipped badly. He had to be persuaded to train. Brendan talked endlessly about getting him up in the morning to run. Naz didn’t like running or this and that. There was always that issue of discipline.”
After On the Ropes was published, it was nominated in the UK for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize. Hailed as a boxing classic, its profile has unfortunately fallen in the years since. (Editor Note: The fact that one must pony up $894.90 to buy it new off Amazon suggests the market reflects the worth of the work.) There are many reasons for this: it is a book of and about its time, its subjects were British-centric, and its principals have retreated from the public eye. It has been shadowed, too, that boxing has increasingly become a niche sport.
In Sheffield, Beattie says the feedback was overall positive. “I think everyone in it really liked it. It was very positive. When you write about people’s lives up close, there’s always an anxiety.”
He adds: “In terms of the stories I was telling, the feedback was very positive from Brendan, his family, and Naz. I did some interviews in the 1990s when Naz was leading a different lifestyle. It was obvious that he enjoyed the book.”
Beattie would follow On the Ropes with The Shadows of Boxing, published in 2002. This time, he went back to visit the previous book’s subjects. He also examined the relationship fallout between Hamed and Ingle, and went deeper into the world of doormen and boxers, and the psychology of their lives.
Ingle died in 2018 and Hamed is largely retired from public life. His last meaningful presence in the media was when he was imprisoned for hitting and grievously injuring a man while speeding on the outskirts of Sheffield. Hamed would go on to serve four months in prison.
Beattie now has little contact with that world. “For years afterwards,” he says, “I would keep in contact with Brendan Ingle, but less and less frequently. With Mick, I was in contact with until the early 2000s. We’d have a laugh and a chat together. But people eventually grow apart and it came to pass. I started working on other projects and unfortunately I’m not in touch with any of them.”
Nor does he watch boxing any more. “One of my sons is a boxing fan,” he says. “He is always surprised that I don’t spend more time being interested in it. When I was into boxing, I loved the whole narrative of it. I needed to really care about it. But now I watch it and I don’t care about it as much as I should. Maybe it’s because of the way it all turns out in the end that I have a more negative feeling about the whole thing. I wanted to see people and their lives improve. But maybe the money is too big and there’s too much emphasis on winning and losing.”