Why Bradley Stone? Why not Luther McCarty, Frankie Campbell, Benny Paret, Davey Moore, Johnny Owen, Steve Watt or a multitude of others? Their names are many and could run into the hundreds or the thousands, approximating the mien of your local war memorial; some famous for their lives or at a minimum their final actions; others all but forgotten, their photographs and identities elusive beyond the vague exactness of their names.
A virtual Menin Gate to honour the fight game. Names hammered with sharp chisels into unforgiving stone. Sincere promises to remember for evermore or more realistically to the furthest point of human memory. Everything fades from view in time: unremembered or unimaginable. Only the remarkable survive into a world of revision. And boxing throws around its battle hymns and metaphors. Inside and out of the ring we refer to wars, battles, bloodbaths, warriors.
When, last weekend, the referee stepped in front of Brandon Rios to save him from further punishment, he protested that he was “ready to die in the ring.” Perhaps he meant it. Or maybe it was just another hard-edged fight game metaphor. His slurring speech already an indicator of the future that awaits him. Yet, he wants to fight on and we glory in “Bam Bam” the once ironed chin warrior as his skills desert him, the fire slowly fades and his head becomes ever more hittable, his health second to the entertainment and vicarious viewing pleasure of watching a man that knows only how to fight, regardless of personal cost.
The hardest sport
When Benny Paret was beaten into a coma in the corner of a Madison Square garden ring in March 1962 television was still in its relative infancy. The ratings went through the roof as the great US fight commentator Don Dunphy recalled incredulously that “they are tuning in to see a man get beaten to death.” That, essentially, is the game driven down to its starkest most naked form. It’s all about the danger, the pain and the unreconstructed courage. We can decorate it with the technical and the sweet science plaudits but for the majority of viewers this is what it comes down to. If you remove the danger, both immediate and protracted, then you extricate a key elemental piece from the entertainment. It becomes like Formula one without the crashes.
And already I have done what everyone does to Bradley Stone. I have forgotten the individual and merely used him instead to illustrate a point. Utilising him as a metaphor for life and death in the ring, and the harsh realities of the boxing business. No longer an individual but a moulded template to illustrate an age old story. His death, like so many of those war memorial names, becoming the most enduring and memorable thing about him. It's dark background all but enveloping the lit foreground of the life that once was.
That he didn’t fall charging a machine-gun somewhere, makes it worse, the unfulfilled aimlessness of the loss somehow more palpable. A British super bantamweight title fight on a late spring evening in 1994 is not Rawkes Drift or The Somme. Although on an individual basis and with the uninterrupted view of hindsight the personal loss is just the same. The arithmetic always finding its way back to “1”.
You can scour the internet and find little to support the fact that Stone ever existed. No browser bursting Wikipedia profiles and even little in the way of old fight reports. Only pages that focus on his death in the wider context of boxing’s continued validity or as a reference point against renewed tragedy. And that is probably the cruellest cut of all, to take the warriors identity and to recast him as docile victim. A 90s “Who killed Davey Moore?” for those on the side-lines to whet their appetite on and use as a weapon to attack the thing that was most central to his identity.
The pictures of his statue outside the famous Peacock Gym in Canning Town: poised, small and ready to take on all-comers, forever if necessary; outnumber those of the living fighter. The boxer as an accelerated allegory of the precariousness of life; played out in brutal three minute bursts.
Carved in Stone
But, why Stone and not the others? Luther McCarty was the “Great White Hope” when that absurdity was still relevant. Cuba’s Paret was a former world champion who died in a rematch for his title, and Owen a British, European and Commonwealth champion fell challenging for world honours. Yet it is Bradley Stone that remains at the forefront of my mind. His last fight was just before my 17th birthday and my youthful adoration for the sport at its zenith. The time and place locks it there in a way it never can for the others, not even Scotland’s Steve Watt. That Stone’s career and achievements serve as mere footnotes to the tragedy exacerbate the sadness.
The following year Nigel Benn knocked Gerald McClellan into unconsciousness and permanent disability live on British prime-time television, in what was one of the great street brawls. I wrote a piece titled: “In light of the Gerald McClellan tragedy, should boxing be banned?” as part of an interview for a university Journalism course. Needless to say I didn’t get in and it remained the last thing I wrote on boxing or any other sport for more than 20 years. I suppose the circle always completes itself in the end.
A harsh reality
For every Owen, Campbell or Stone, there is a Lupe Pintor, Max Baer or Richie Wenton. The man in the opposite corner that lives under the memories and the curse. Shackled forever to their vanquished foes in an immovable recoded history that forever seeps into the present. Pintor travelling from Mexico to Wales to unveil the statue of “The Merthyr Matchstick” in his hometown, or Baer permanently restricted in his ability to go all-out lest the Campbell tragedy be repeated – a truth lost in his despicable portrayal in the Hollywood Blockbuster “Cinderella Man.” For Richie Wenton it was a struggle to come back. He pulled out mid-way through the fifth round of his next fight as the weight of the past became too much to withstand; but was in time mercifully able to continue and progress on to a world title shot.
For Stone it ended two days after his 10th round stoppage to Wenton. His final record captured at 17-2-1. Aged 23 he had been a professional for four years and had been unbeaten in his first 17 outings. His shot at the British super bantamweight title coming on the back of a fifth round stoppage defeat the previous month.
The statistical bible "BoxRec" records it all in systematic good order. He stood 5'6" and was born in Mile End, a stone’s throw from his final fight venue at the York Hall. They don’t provide a picture and instead leave us with only our memories of a cropped haired young man with dreams to pursue, once flesh and bone but now cast in bronze forever back home outside the Peacock Gym in Canning Town.
What are some of your favourite lesser known boxing tales? Comment below...