MICHAEL CONLAN pushed at the oxygen mask with his glove. He wanted to speak, he wanted to say he was fine.
And he was, by the way.
Conlan was strapped to a gurney, the blood from the fight still smeared across his face and body. There had been a lot of blood and guts up in the ring.
Somebody squatted down to listen, placing their ear near his lips. I think it was his father, John. I hope it was. I’m not sure if there has ever been a more important conversation between a father and son.
It was the scene from hell that every boxer dreads and every father fears.
Medics and doctors talked over Conlan’s body, fidgeting with tubes and straps and their survival tools; the fighter’s corner asked for reassurances, his father and brother, Jamie, watched. It was a scene of quiet despair at that moment. The security created a smooth exit path; it was all happening so fast.
Conlan was taken from ringside, taken through the arena doors and taken in an ambulance to hospital. There were still a lot of people pushed up close to the barriers and trying to get a look at the tiny and still boxer. Some were stunned, some curious.
Catching even an obscured view of a stricken boxer, rushed from ringside in desperation, is a glance that lingers and will never vanish from your memory. You can never take that look back.
Less than an hour later, as midnight settled on the city, the news from hospital was very good. Conlan was sitting up in bed, congratulating Leigh Wood. The news meant that Wood could dance. At last.
Less than an hour to switch from horror to hope. It is called the Golden Hour; if Conlan had been damaged, that hour would have determined his life.
Well, that’s the general rule but one night in September, 1991, Michael Watson changed the rules.
Watson was also beaten in the 12th and final round, upright and defiant as Roy Francis hauled Chris Eubank off. Start the 60-minute clock.
Too many stretchers, too many boxers, too many vigils. Nothing compares to the Watson night.
Watson was carried out of the ring on an old stretcher, a doctor hanging over him trying to hold in place an intubation tube. Watson was deeply unconscious and fighting for his life; there were no careless whispers to anybody as he slipped into darkness. I was too close to forget those seconds, the moment his head was placed on a doctor’s briefcase, the moment his body went limp in the arms of Jimmy Tibbs. They never leave, the things you see in desperate moments.
Watson was lifted above the heads of ringside hacks to clear the ropes. It was like 1941, not 1991. You probably know the rest. He missed the Golden Hour by another hour – perhaps Watson’s Miracle Hour. And then he fought and fought and won. He’s with us now. “Boxing saved me and boxing ruined me,” he told me one night in 2001.
Conlan was talking and I might have actually been smiling. I had some faith, a faith forged through fear. And awful experience.
One night in Glasgow in October, 1995, I had no faith. Not one little bit. It was another stretcher, another blood-smeared fighter.
It was Wee Jimmy Murray. A warrior.
Murray was stopped with just 34 seconds left in the last round of his British bantamweight title fight. And then there was a riot outside the ring as the medics and doctors jumped into the ring. Gary Jacobs, the great and too-often overlooked welterweight, kept the ring clear. He was the hero that night.
It was bad in the ring. There was real concern on the faces of the people working on Murray. I held a rope, watching the doctor with one eye and watching for flying bottles with the other. Murray was placed on another damn stretcher.
And then I saw something I hope to never see or hear again. As Jimmy’s body went through the ropes, his mother, Margaret, came over screaming and crying and refusing to be held back. She touched her son’s leg. And howled. The stretcher stopped and she repeated his name.
I remember that Jimmy’s legs were still wet with sweat.
The stretcher bearers pushed on with their damaged cargo, Jacobs clearing the way and a mother’s sobs fading from a besieged ringside. The idiots smeared their blood across their fat topless bodies and continued their stupid war. They had not paused for one second during the struggle to save Murray and not cared during his ugly passage from the ring. It was confirmed that 16 were arrested.
The doctors performed surgery on Jimmy Murray that Friday night and into Saturday morning. He fought, they fought – both lost. The Saturday vigil was evil; I waited by the phone for the news. I was the only national newspaper boxing correspondent there.
The news came very early on Sunday morning. Wee Jimmy was gone. I finished my newspaper report with: “I never again want to hear a boxer’s mother wailing like Margaret Murray did on Friday night, as her son’s life faded in front of her eyes.”
When I saw Conlan tumble from the ring – both limp and hurt – last Saturday and knew that John, a fine man and the brilliant coach of the Irish boxing team, was right there, I remembered those words.
A few minutes later I went over and felt reassured. And, yes, that was invasive and I make no apologies for doing my job in Nottingham. It was my job, but that was personal. I needed to know.
I held a rope in Glasgow as the stretcher came out of the ring and then I walked out in Murray’s slipstream. No apologies.
I stood 10 feet from Watson at one hospital – the wrong hospital – when the doctors were desperately phoning around for a neurosurgeon. No apologies.
Three men, three different boxing stories set in round 12. There is nothing quite like this business we love.