BOXING, on the surface, is flying high. Two months ago, Tyson Fury and Dillian Whyte competed at a sold-out Wembley Stadium for the world heavyweight championship. In August, Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk are set to earn career-high purses in a rematch. The hope is that Fury and Joshua or Usyk then come together at the end of the year in a bout that would smash all financial records. A number of esteemed Olympians, like Lauren Price, Galal Yafai and Ben Whittaker have either started, or are about to start, their professional careers. Money is flowing through the industry and plenty of people are getting rich.
So one would think there would be enough cash to fund an effective aftercare system for those ex-boxers who end up damaged in a variety of ways from such a brutal sport. The kind of aftercare that is now in place in other sports like football, rugby and horse racing. But in boxing, where athletes pound each other’s brains, nobody wants to know. Or more accurately, those in positions of power and wealth do not want to know. They should be ashamed. You should be ashamed. We should all be ashamed.
Dave Harris set up Ringside Rest and Care four years ago. The premise was a simple one; open a residential home for ex-boxers in need while providing a service to assist any fighters who fall on hard times. Harris, a former amateur, trainer, manager and promoter, knows a thing or two about ex-boxers, you see. He has been by their bedside, listened to their families explain how impossible it was to find help. He has been to care homes and rescued boxers from misery. He has assisted them financially and staged events to restore the smiles to their faces. When nobody else gave a damn, Harris – a proven fundraiser – gave up his own precious time to give these forgotten fighters some semblance of life.
At a meeting held at the Boxing News office in 2018, representatives from several leading promotional organisations in the sport listened to Harris’ plans. Not one of them offered any concrete support. It won’t work, they said, it’s been tried before. Ideas like putting an extra pound or 50 pence on the cost of a ticket were shot down. I’ll never forget Harris’ face that day. It was a mixture of exasperation and shock. He carried on regardless, of course.
Within 12 months, Harris’ organisation had achieved registered charity status which in itself is not easy. Today, as Ringside Charitable Trust, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised. A helpline for ex-boxers is in place. Fundraising events are happening every month. Money is coming into the charity on a daily basis. Not a penny has been taken out. But it’s a slow and arduous process, one that predominantly relies on the goodwill and generosity of fans. Should it be down to the fans, though? Not a single influential promoter has even publicly acknowledged that the charity exists. Boxers at the very top of the food chain will do admirable work for charity but never, ever, for the sole charity that is in place to help their own.
What a sorry reflection on the sport. Boxing family? We’re all in it together? Only when it suits. Although it is understood that admitting boxing causes damage is not a good advertisement for the sport, it is potentially catastrophic to turn a blind eye to this blatant truth. What message does that provide to those who want to see the sport banned? In short, we need to show we have control of our own problem. Admit there is a problem, speak widely of the problem and put systems in place to ensure the consequences of the problem are dealt with. And not one-off, conscience-easing donations, but fully-fledged support that will protect the sport’s future.
The home will open within two years, Harris will make sure of that. Potential sites are being inspected and plans are underway to open a further two homes after the first one is introduced. Talks are taking place in America for homes to open there. The charity now has the help of a market-leading influential fundraiser who came on board after reading about the charity in Boxing News. He remains astonished that there is not more help coming from the industry. With universal backing, the plans will all come to fruition quickly. It will be a viable long-term solution.
Harris is tired of being ignored. On Thursday July 28 he will stage a press conference in London to highlight the plight of ex-boxers. Members of parliament will be invited along with every promoter. The news media will be in attendance. Plenty will no doubt be a little perplexed as to why there is not already a system in place to assist ex-boxers.
“I need to let as many people know what we’ve been doing and where we are going,” Harris says. “We are on target to open the home within two years. The sport, thanks to the British Boxing Board of Control, is likely as good as it can be when it comes to the medical procedures put in place at ringside. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the fact there is very little aftercare.
“I am not trying to damage the sport by going public with this. I am trying to save it. We will also highlight the good that the sport does to communities, to youngsters and the lives it has saved. We have to be vocal about everything to ensure the message is clear.
“Frankly, it wouldn’t have to be blown up like this if the promoters had just got behind us. It’s as if they’re not taking me seriously, like I don’t know what I’m doing. I can assure everyone I know exactly what I’m doing and the success we have had so far is testament to that. You can’t go through life playing softly-softly with people that take you for a mug.
“They shouldn’t be turning a blind eye, or making up excuses, they should be supporting us. It’s about the whole of boxing coming together. I want their help, I want them to be involved in any way they can. You’d think they’d be falling over themselves to get involved, even if it was just for some good PR. It will be a sad day when the home opens without the help of anyone who made their fortune through boxing.
“For the good of the sport and for the future of the sport, let’s work together on this. Though a lot of people have not done themselves proud so far, I’m also the first to understand that they are very busy people. There is an immense amount of work going on in the sport at the moment to stage some great fights. But at some point we have to show we really care about what happens to those fighters in the long-term.”
Harris is aware that the boxers themselves are part of the problem. Speak to an active fighter who is nearing the end of their careers, mention the possibility of ill health in the future, and it’s like you’re insulting them. Of course, the intention is quite the opposite.
We have seen the consequences of too many punches to the head, and no one has seen more than Dave Harris. He is haunted by memories of Johnny Clark, lost and in tears. He’s listened to horror stories about Bunny Sterling, at the end of his life, pulling chunks of hair and skin out of his scalp because he felt so helpless.
All of them, however, come alive when they are in the company of boxing people. They do not want to alter the past and nor can they. It’s their futures that matter.
“I’ve spoken to ex-boxers and without exception none of them would change their careers,” Harris said.
“Boxing is a dangerous sport, we all know that. But we have to address it and take steps to ensure that the sport not only accepts the dangers but is reactive to them. We have to have systems in place to prove to the outside world that we are managing the situation. To do so, we all need to be united, to work together, and really be that ‘boxing family’ that we have long claimed to be.”