Archbishop Martin spoke recently about the changed nature of violence among young men. He looked back to a more innocent time, when young lads fought, as they always will and one, or perhaps both of them, emerged with a bloody nose. There were boundaries to what was allowed. To cross those boundaries brought shame and contempt. To kick an opponent was the hallmark of a coward. ‘When did this change?’ he asked plaintively, appalled as he is, like any reasonable person, by the prevalence of extreme violence on our streets.
The late Sam McAutrey remarked wryly, that the recruitment of young men into the army in World War Two, kept them off the streets and out of trouble. No doubt they learned transferable skills in the war, which they could apply in later life. We all learned from post war comics, how to deal with sentries like the Commandos did, silently and efficiently. The Germans seemed to recruit blind and deaf soldiers, specifically as sentries. The enemies went down in flames or up in explosions, in the graphic art of The Wizard, The Hotspur and The Adventure. That was o.k. though. They had asked for it. ‘Our chaps’ fought fair and square, by the rules of war. In the final analysis, a punch to the jaw was usually enough to sort out any foreigner. Or was that all in fairy tales?
Enter the Dragon!. We were in Drogheda one Saturday afternoon, minding our own business, when the cinema disgorged a crowd of young lads into the street, from the matinee show, the first ever Bruce Lee, Kung Fu epic. It was as if buckets of yelling spiders had been emptied out all around us. Satisfied customers. They kicked and jabbed with the appropriate blood-chilling yells. A good time was had by all. There was something different here. Bruce Lee was undoubtedly a foreigner. That made his kicking and hitting below the belt, understandable. He could levitate, unlike the kids in the street. He represented the forces of good, just like the knights of chivalric legend. He always won, just like the good guys in the Wild West films. Since then we have been overwhelmed by practitioners of the martial arts, judo, ju-jitsu, kendo, karate, tae-kwando, origami, sushi. You are nobody if you can’t kick your opponent on the head or levitate onto roof tops. No holds are barred.
Gus Mulligan a Commandant in the army and a good neighbour, occasionally gave us boxing gloves to work off some steam. We strictly observed the Queensberry rules. Ollie Coulter, a bit of a wag, put his snake belt around the top of his head. Every boy had a snake belt, the coolest fashion accessory at the time. ‘No hitting below the belt,’ he insisted, as he weaved and jabbed, feinting with his left and following up with a devastating right…At least that was what he said in his running commentary. We fell about, laughing. Yet there was some moral force in the belt. I found out later what the belt was. A medical student, twice my size, was throwing his weight around at the bathing place. ‘Did you ever hear of the solar plexus belt?’ ‘No.’ ‘Come here and I’ll show you.’ Knowledge is power. He showed me all right. I wish that I was a black belt fukushima expert at the time, but Bruce had not yet burst upon the scene. I wish I could have levitated and landed a few devastating blows on top of Ollie Coulter’s head, come to think of it. No, I’m glad I couldn’t do that. Ollie made us laugh. It was all in sport.
Do you remember when the notion of a professional foul came into the language of sport? Is that an oxymoron or what? Is it a defence in law? I remember. I saw J.P.R. Williams, a god of Welsh rugby, fell Mike Gibson with a punch, thereby averting a certain try. He justified it as a professional foul. A what? A case has been made that athletes should be allowed to use whatever drugs they want… and the Devil take the hindmost. Fortius, citius, altius. Stronger, Faster and as High as a kite. The hindmost is most likely the clean competitor. The damned fool. What about a professional lie, as distinct from perjury? Lord Denning cast doubt on the capacity of black people and immigrants to serve on juries or practice law. In the case of The Birmingham Six, he ruled that their action against the police, would, if it succeeded, ‘open an appalling vista…’ No ‘reasonable person’ would want to open that can of worms. Even a Law Lord can stoop to a professional foul. We call it ‘Post truth’ nowadays.
Lord Queensberry curbed the excesses of The London Prize-Ring rules (anything goes except biting and gouging) with his generally accepted rules of boxing. These could not be applied to dog fighting, cock fighting, bull and bear baiting, so these sports remain illegal. Significantly, the champions win enormous belts, big enough to cover the solar plexus. They do not, of course, wear these belts during the contests, especially not on the head, despite Ollie Coulter’s best efforts. Even amateur Olympic boxers are not allowed to wear protective headgear, despite the current concern about concussion in sport.
I admire some things about Conor McGregor. He dresses impeccably. He is clever and highly articulate. He turned the disadvantage of unemployment into an opportunity. He is a shrewd businessman. He is dedicated to his calling. He has a charismatic influence, especially over young men. He makes a lot of money. He tells the truth. ‘I’m involved in a violent and dirty business…’ He said this on being presented with his award for R.T.E. Sports Personality of the Year, as decided by a public vote. Personality, yes, but Mixed Martial Arts/ Ultimate Fighting/ Cage Fighting is not sport. People die.
Is it any wonder, Grasshopper and Your Grace, that young men bring what they observe and learn, onto the streets, particularly late at night and after a few drinks? They are all Bruce Lee in their own minds. The man who made the most money out of this phenomenon was a Hong Kong film maker, Run Run Shaw. Possibly the best advice when confronted by ninjas, dragons or tattooed Viking berserkers in a late night food outlet. Run! Run like hell!