Simon Targett reports on the growing popularity among students of an activity normally associated with battering brains rather than expanding them.
It was a second round knockout. The Irish heavyweight caught the Englishman with a bruising right hand. Roared on by the crowd, he followed up with a flurry of clubbing combinations which forced his tired opponent into a submission, first retreating to the ropes and finally tumbling to the ground. For a moment or two, it looked as though the paramedics would be needed, but the bludgeoned boxer hauled himself up and staggered back to the blue corner to be comforted by the tracksuited seconds.
This could have been any boxing match. But these fighters were not typical Tyson types. For them, boxing was never an escape route from a life of crime and poverty. The two boxers were students - the Irishman from University College Dublin, the Englishman from Sussex University - and they were competing at last Saturday's British and Irish Universities and Hospitals Boxing Championships in Birmingham. The material rewards were minimal: a goldish cup, a medal, a certificate with nice lettering, and a chorus of screaming debutantes. So, by risking their mental health for so little return, you would have thought that the undergraduate boxers had to be, as it were, out of their box.
Yet there has always been a mutual fascination between brawny and brainy people. It is the pull of polar opposites, the magnetism of mind and muscle. Among boxers, Muhammad Ali, self-dubbed "the professor of boxing", recited poetry; Chris Eubank, proclaiming himself a master of psychology, expressed the wish to study at Cambridge University; and last month Lennox Lewis, posing in studious-looking spectacles, put Pounds 1 million into an eponymous college. Among intellectuals, Pindar long ago composed paens to Olympic boxers, and Norman Mailer wrote about the "rumble in the jungle" between Ali and George Foreman.
It is therefore not surprising to find that two of the oldest amateur boxing clubs can be found at Oxford and Cambridge. Founded in 1897, Cambridge had the best of the early years, and the seedy gym at Fenner's contains a wooden wall panel where the great victors are honoured like fallen war heroes. Oxford had some notable individuals - the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the rock singer Kris Kristofferson, the former sports minister Colin Moynihan - but the club lost popularity in the Beatles era, and it was formally disbanded in 1969.
At the thirteenth hour, the club was revived by Bobby Nairac, who later hit the headlines as the soldier who was kidnapped and tortured by the IRA in the late 1970s and who was finally shot after refusing to talk. He formed a scratch side to face Cambridge, and Oxford is now widely regarded as the top British university club, coached by former Allied Forces welterweight champion Henry Dean and regularly attracting 50 students to weekly sparring sessions.
The boxers now contesting the coveted blue are very different to those of bygone days. Once, Oxford had many experienced boxers, some of them quite outstanding. Back in the 1920s, American Rhodes scholar Eddie Eagan was the reigning Olympic heavyweight champion. More recently, the current shadow sports minister Tom Pendry arrived as colonial middleweight champion having been taught to box by Benedictine monks at the age of 11. There are still student boxers with pre-university experience, including Cambridge captain Nick Lois, an engineer from Cyprus who learned the noble art during national service. But most are new to boxing, and this means they are very clear about why they box.
For American Matt Phillips, a strapping six foot sixish, it is all about "mental toughness". For Jamie Stein, going for a first-class degree in ancient Greek, it is a fascination with what he calls "the warrior monk" way of life. For Alex Mehta, Oxford's finest boxer, it is a myriad of things. "At first," he remembers, "I fell in love with the sounds of the gym, especially the skipping rope on the wooden floor." He also liked the art of boxing: "It was like ballet: perfect timing, movement and rhythm." He grew to appreciate the quickness of thought boxing demands. "It's not a street brawl," he explains, "it's thinking man's chess. You've got to look for holes in your opponent's defence and figure out the best artillery to exploit them." And now he realises boxing has been useful preparation for his career as a barrister. Finishing a law PhD, and going to Lincoln's Inn next year on a scholarship, he says: "There's no difference between a boxer in a ring and a barrister in a courtroom. One fights with his mind, the other fights with his hands. The tools are different but the skills are exactly the same".
But if boxing can teach highminded lessons, it is fundamentally about danger. "It's an aggressive, violent and sometimes brutal sport," Mehta concedes, "and when you climb into the ring you have to lose part of your humanity." But, he adds, drawing out a deeper meaning from every boxing experience, "you only realise how precious something is when you lose it, and so when I climb out of the ring, my humanity comes flooding back, and the first thing I want to do is find my mum and give her a big hug, tell my girlfriend that I love her, and hang out with my friends and be good to people".
The danger element actually excites some student boxers, especially those with experience of dangerous sports. Last year's Oxford captain was a kung fu black belt, and judo and karate black belts are commonplace. The club also boasts one of the country's top bungee jumpers - the aptly-named Tim Fell. Now a broad shouldered Oxford don and a graduate of the famous Oxford dangerous sports club, he has co-ordinated the audacious free-fall stunt which opens the new James Bond film Goldeneye. Yet he turned to boxing as the ultimate dangerous sport while finishing his PhD in physics. "I could not believe the brutality I saw," he says, recalling the first time he watched an Oxford-Cambridge match. "I was shocked to the soul that these two guys were really trying to hit each other and I vowed that I had to know what it was like".
Of course, it is precisely this danger factor that disturbs the medical profession which, through the British Medical Association, has been lobbying hard for a ban since the death of James Murray. Boxing fans point out that other university sports are statistically more dangerous. Look at rugby, they say - and in the week when Will Carling was effectively KO'd, they have a case. More convincingly, they point out that professional and amateur boxing are two quite different sports: the first with 12 rounds, the second with three rounds, head gear, and a computerised scoring system which privileges acumen above aggression. As David James, a former national coach and director of sport at Kent University, puts it: "One is a business with a lot of blood and a lot of commerce, the other is a sport where skill pays dividends".
These arguments do not persuade Paul Kemp, a consultant in nuclear medicine at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge who last month published evidence of brain damage among amateur navy boxers. With persuasive logic, he upper cuts the professional-amateur point. "The brain," he says, "can't tell a punch that has been paid for from one that has been given gratuitously." He adds that boxing skill may be important in the amateur game, "yet it remains true that the best way to beat an opponent is to flatten him". He has a point. Last year, Cambridge's Richard Bramley, an 18-stone vet, secured victory after landing a haymaker which left his 14-stone opponent unconscious on the canvas for three minutes. Known as a rugby player - he captained England's under-21 side - Bramley had been recruited barely two months before the varsity match, and knew nothing of the subtlety of boxing science.
But Kemp's research is based on boxers who have fought more than 40 bouts, and these days most student boxers fight fewer than 15 bouts during their university careers. As Fell says, "that's the length of one football match", and this means that boxing is regarded not as an unwarranted risk but as a challenging recreation. There is even talk of a renaissance. New clubs are cropping up, notably Newman College of Higher Education, which hosted the universities and hospitals championship. And just like the professional circuit, where several organisations recognise different champions, there are rival boxing boards - the Irish and British Universities and Hospitals Boxing Association and the British Universities Sports Association - although an Atlanta Olympic prospect, Newman College's Paddy McCullough, last week went some way towards uniting the two by winning the best boxer award. Earlier in the year, he defeated Oxford's Alex Mehta to take the best boxer award at the BUSA finals.
But if anything suggests that university boxing is thriving, it is the growing business sponsorship of clubs and championships. A local Midlands security firm spent thousands supporting last week's tournament, while the P&O ferry company helps Oxford - the richest university club by a mile - meet its Pounds 15,000 running costs. Why take commercial risk by associating with what some customers regard as a blood-lust sport? Graham Ward, an old Oxford blue and now a partner at Price Waterhouse, which sponsored the university club before being outbid by P&O, thinks the dangers are exaggerated. He, after all came second out of more than 4,000 taking the national chartered accountancy exams, and other boxing blues have gone on to become top QCs, top politicians and, like P&O's chairman, Sir Bruce MacPhail, top businessmen.
Yet the business benefits are considerable. "We wanted to get a profile within Oxford University," Ward recalls. "Rugby and rowing were already spoken for, and it seemed to us that, with around 1,000 people turning up for the annual varsity match, boxing was the third most popular sport." Also, it sent out a signal to the sort of people Price Waterhouse were seeking to employ because, as he explains, "the qualities we are looking for - self-discipline, self-reliance - are coincident with being a good boxer".
It says something about the ephemeral nature of the modern, throw-away, high-tech age that top employers are starting to turn to the ancient and noble art of boxing to find the most fundamental transferable skills.