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The new barbarians: How the rich, beautiful and famous are backing boxing

By RAY CONNOLLY - More by this author » Last updated at 01:32am on 22nd April 2008

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There they sat in the comfort of their Las Vegas ringside seats: the rich, the beautiful, the famous - and the ugly at heart. Film stars. A singer. And a smattering of tycoons.

United by their millions and their moral vacuity, they howled their encouragement as two brave, fighting puppets - one Welsh, the other American - pummelled every kind of hell out of each other.

With every blow that cut into the black American's face, they roared approval.

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calzaghe celebrities tabbed up

Punch drunk: These celebrities take pleasure in watching Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins inflict pain

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With every combination of punches that stunned him they rejoiced. When he fought back, they fell silent.

What did they want to see? They wanted Welsh fists driving into the American's kidneys, his eyes purpled with blood, gloves pounding into his temples and crashing into his jaw.

And they hoped - although they didn't get it - to see the American left gasping and broken on the canvas after a knockout.

So let's not mince words. By wanting all that, what Catherine Zeta-Jones, now a Hollywood wife and ludicrously wrapped in the dragon of her Welsh flag, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tom Jones, Topshop boss Sir Philip Green and pop guru Simon Cowell really wanted was to see one courageous, working-class Welsh man inflict brain damage on the American in the boxing ring above them.

Because that's what boxers do for a living. They inflict brain damage on each other.

Did any of those dazzling celebrities who arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center in their limousines think about that for one second?

It's unlikely. If they had, they wouldn't have gone.

There they were, clean and safe from any danger themselves, to feed their bestial bloodlust by proxy.

It was an unedifying sight: a sickening night.

Would any of them have swopped places with the Welsh champion Joe Calzaghe for one second?

You can bet they would not. Just the thought of being in that ring would have terrified them. As it terrifies all of us.

Yet they were quite prepared to spend many thousands of dollars each to obtain ringside seats.

High definition television coverage wasn't enough.

They wanted to see it all first hand, to watch the blood flow for real, to look into the eyes of the victim as he grimaced with pain, to smell the fear and to feel the spray of sweat on their faces.

And, by so doing, they were quite happy publicly to condone the possibility that either man might be at the point of wrecking his or his opponent's life.

What kind of people are these? They'll try to tell you they were simply supporting a great Welsh sportsman, and bathe themselves in the reflected glow of national pride.

They may even believe that. And when their man won, no doubt they celebrated for the rest of the evening.

A great night for the Welsh, wasn't it, boyo!

Well, I'm sorry, but, no, it wasn't. Without wishing to impugn the courage of Joe Calzaghe and his opponent Bernard Hopkins - and in my eyes there is no one braver in sport, none more noble, if deluded, than a boxer - it was only a great night because, so far as we are aware, neither man suffered permanent physical damage.

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Patriotic?: Draped in the Welsh flag, Zeta Jones watches Calzaghe and Hopkins batter each other senseless

But, of course, we can't know that for sure. It might be years, even decades before signs of brain damage are discovered.

Muhammad Ali, once a hero of mine and thought by many to have been the greatest boxer ever, didn't begin to show symptoms of the damage done to his brain until years after he'd finished fighting.

Now, that once wonderful athlete stumbles around, the victim of Parkinson's syndrome.

Is any man the same after a career in boxing? Not many. The constant battering boxers receive causes chronic brain damage, sustained cumulatively over a career, even if a single bout appears to have done them no harm.

The American Medical Association says 75 per cent of all boxers who have more than 20 professional fights are left with permanent brain damage.

Others put that figure as high as 80 per cent of all boxers.

The British Medical Association - whose members have seen the consequences of this sport - have long maintained that it should be banned.

The Professional Boxers' Association and the British Boxing Board of Control reject the medical evidence of lasting harm, but then they would say that, wouldn't they? After all, it's their livelihood.

Yes, there are other sports in which participants die - but in no other sport does virtually every participant end up brain damaged for life.

And in no other sport is the sole aim of the contest to batter a man into unconsciousness.

Doubtless those who were watching in Las Vegas would, if asked, resort to the argument that boxing provides a unique opportunity for working-class boys to better themselves.

That's nonsense. Very few boxers scrape more than a meagre living from it, and if there is a sport that consistently gives working-class boys the chance to earn fortunes and escape their upbringing it's football - not boxing.

The sad fact is that whatever boxers achieve and no matter how much they earn, they pay too high a price for their success.

The list of those young men who have fallen victim to boxing's risks is too long to be ignored.

Two young boxers died following fights in Las Vegas itself within weeks of each other just three years ago.

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Barbaric: Calzaghe lands a punch on his opponent

And do you remember Michael Watson, who was beaten so severely by Chris Eubank in 1991 he spent 40 days in a coma and was confined to a wheelchair?

Did that carousing band of billionaires and millionaires who lit up Las Vegas last Saturday think about any of this? I'm sure they didn't.

They were indulging their most primeval instincts. They were enjoying watching pain and physical damage being inflicted under the guise of sport.

Many people - including myself - wish boxing to be banned, but that clearly isn't going to happen any time soon.

In the meantime, if we could strip the false "glamour" from it and concentrate on the reality of what really happens to those young men in the ring, then maybe it will begin to decline.

But as long as it's glorified by celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Jones, it will flourish. The example they set is appalling.

Maybe, on their way back from Las Vegas to homes which few boxers could afford, one or two of them who raised their glasses to Joe Calzaghe's points victory might reflect on the thuggery they paid so much to watch.

Perhaps one of the billionaires, Sir Philip Green or maybe Lord Lloyd-Webber, might see the error of their ways, and, instead of being at the ringside for the next legalised assault, they might make massive donations to the neurosurgery department of the Royal College of Surgeons.

It's the least they could do.

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12 people have commented on this story so far. Tell us what you think below.

Here's a sample of the latest comments published. You can click view all to read all comments that readers have sent in.

I am not a big fan of boxing, but can see the skill, dedication and sporting prowess of the athletes that do compete in the ring.

- Steve Lloyd, Nuneaton, UK

Grow up!

- Mark, Wisbech

Boxers are volunteers are they not?

- Audrey, Alicante, Spain

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