IAN PROBERT’S first book about boxing, ‘Rope Burns: One Man’s Reluctant Obsession with Boxing’, was published in 1999 and has become something of a cult classic for its great humour and incisive insight into the sport. Probert’s new book ‘Dangerous: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Boxing’ which is released today (September 15) sees Probert revisit many of the characters he portrayed so vividly in ‘Rope Burns’.
One man has an overarching presence in both books, and that man is Michael Watson. As a novice journalist and boxing writer living in a squat, Probert formed an unlikely but close relationship with Watson and his trainer Eric Secombe, a relationship that shuddered to an abrupt halt on the night Watson suffered life-changing injuries at the fists of Chris Eubank. Probert visited the hospital where Watson was held on the night of the tragedy, and perhaps understandably given the circumstances his presence was misconstrued by Watson’s friends who made it clear he wasn’t welcome. Equally understandably Probert felt he should bow out and leave Watson’s loved ones to take care of him. It was a decision that caused the author 25 years of regret, left him with a corrosive sense of having betrayed his friend, and prompted Probert to largely cease writing about boxing. ‘Dangerous’ begins with the first meeting between both men since that terrible night, and for Probert it is a deeply significant reconciliation with a man he revered as Watson tells him ‘I love you’, followed by a quizzical frown on the face of the ex-fighter and the question: “What’s your name?” As with much of Probert’s writing style, ‘Dangerous’ is profoundly and effortlessly tragi-comic.
Probert’s intensely personal book and also his return to writing about boxing was provoked by the recent loss of his estranged father, a man he describes as a monster, nasty and abusive, refusing to see or talk to his son while on his deathbed, and while it is left to the reader to draw their own conclusions regarding the nature of the abuse, it is this horribly fractured paternal relationship that underpins an often dark narrative. Only when watching boxing did father and son bond, and as his death sent the author into an unexpected downward spiral of deep depression for which he could not find a rationale, it was a reconnection with the sport and its many characters that helped Probert come to terms, at least to an extent, with what he was going through. As Leon McKenzie tells the author “boxing came into my life at a time when I’d lost everything”, and so it proves for Probert. It is against such a deeply pessimistic background that this remarkable book grabs you by the throat from the first page and holds you tight to an emotional ending.
While some characters have really little more than walk-on parts in the text – Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Tyson Fury – the author elicits genuinely moving, even tragic, personal accounts from men such as Glenn McCrory and Leon McKenzie, although perhaps it is former IBF and WBO champion Mark Prince whose pain over the loss of his son Kiyan to a fatal stabbing as he tried to intervene while another lad was being bullied is portrayed most vividly. Mark went on to establish the Kiyan Prince Foundation and has dedicated his life to combating knife crime and youth violence, and he is living proof of how the harshest, most extreme adversity can produce something good. Prince tells the author: “I’ve got to live with it every day. I’ve got to use it. I’ve got to teach with it. Inspire with it. Motivate with it. And it’s opened up my own life now. So I have to use my own life, everything I’ve done, running away from home, being into drugs, being a criminal… I have to use it all because now it’s all become useful as a teaching tool for the kids.” The author also spends many long days with the gentle Herol Graham as he battled serious illness in hospital, at a time when Probert’s own daughter Sofia fought for life in the same building. At times, the harrowing nature of the book can seem unremitting yet it is undeniably compulsive and laced with plenty of humour, not least the hilarious visits to a Chinese therapist as Probert struggles to understand his depression.
Probert also speaks to people such as Frank Buglioni, Kellie Maloney, Ambrose Mendy, Colin McMillan, Clinton and Leon McKenzie, Alan and Ross Minter and of course Michael Watson, with whom he becomes fully reconciled following their initial misfiring encounter. What becomes clear is that for the author the people he is meeting are providing a wholly unexpected and unorthodox form of therapy that gives him a sense of comfort in his own dark times, and how the fellowship of the sport, the bond between those involved, becomes a source of strength and to a degree, of healing for him. There are without question an inordinate number of truly lovely people in boxing, and Probert’s book is testament to them. Damaged himself, and seemingly by emotional osmosis, the author finds solace in the company of others who have also been damaged until by the end of the book a recovery of sorts has taken place. At a final meeting with a fully healed and ever-smiling Herol Graham, Probert reflects on how the ex-boxers near brush with death may have given him a new perspective on life. Hopefully the same can be said for the author, that the remarkable journey he has taken to write this book has enabled him to look beyond the obvious trauma and glimpse a future which his past does not dictate.
This highly individual and thought-proving book is excellent and certainly a departure from almost anything else you can find in the genre. A great return to form for Ian Probert, and one hopes it is not another 25 years before his next work.