I remain extremely happy to have been born on the same day that Muhammad Ali fought for the first time under the name he chose (the rematch against Sonny Liston which he won with a first-round knockout, if you're interested). But I can't feel the same way about boxing as I once did.

True, the sport has a beautiful purity. In the words of a friend who can still find it in his heart to love the noble art, it is the sport to which all other sports refer. I accept this, but still I shudder. With age comes a greater realisation of human frailty. Those punches dished out by men trained to a peak of destructive perfection — they have consequences.

Of course, we all struggle these days with the basic objective of boxing — to incapacitate the opponent. And we also live in a far softer age than just a few decades ago. This applies to other sports. From a contemporary perspective it is hard to watch the bombardment that Michael Holding gave a 40-plus Brian Close when the West Indies played England in a 1976 Test Match. With precious little protection, Close ended up covered in bruises as he doggedly got behind the line of the ball — more like a missile in the hands of Holding — and attempted to show, with ever decreasing success, that the impact had not hurt him. Every ball could have done him serious harm. How on earth did we ever consider this to be a healthy activity? More than a Test Match, with today's eyes it looks like a test of sanity, which we all were failing.

And yet I watched at the time with barely a qualm. But it was boxing that took me past the tipping point. Little more than 20 years ago I was at White Hart Lane for the second fight between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson, the one which ended Watson's career and came very close to ending his life.

It was a slow burner. Of much of the fight, I can recall little. Eubank had won a controversial points decision in their first meeting. Watson claimed that he had been robbed, but his change of approach in the rematch made it clear that deep down he felt differently. This time he went to work with an added intensity, giving Eubank no breathing space and building up a big lead.

The end is ingrained in my mind, as if it took place in slow motion. Eubank, in the penultimate round, seemed on the verge of defeat when he caught Watson with a devastating uppercut. Watson was out on his feet when the bell rung — he was still out when it sounded again to announce the start of the final round.

From my seat, admittedly some way back, it seemed clear that he should never have been allowed to carry on the fight. His corner, though, were caught up in the emotion of the occasion. Their man was three minutes away from a famous victory. They sent him out. But Watson was already so incapacitated that he appeared unable to carry out the last round ritual of touching gloves with his opponent. The referee, anxious to give him every chance, helped out, grabbing Watson's arm and pulling it towards Eubank's. "Why is this still going on?" I asked myself as Eubank steeled himself for the assault that would cause the referee, surely belatedly, to call a halt. The last image I have in my mind from the ring is that of one of Watson's cornermen, pathetically and absurdly, yelling at the referee in protest at the decision to stop the fight.

Later that night, as I left the ground and wandered up the High Road, I felt confused by my own emotions. There was elation in the mix — I had attended a big sports event, followed all over the nation, which had undoubtedly been dramatic and exciting. But it was already apparent that something was seriously wrong with Michael Watson, and I could not help feeling guilty that his suffering had served as my entertainment. It is a feeling I have never completely shaken off.

What had really disturbed me, though, was the behaviour of the crowd. I am unlikely to forget the piercing noise and the frenetic, excited movement that accompanied the last couple of minutes of Michael Watson's able bodied existence. Ugly, feature-twisting emotion had taken over the collective mind of White Hart Lane, even warping the judgement of some of those paid to keep a cool head in such circumstances. I remember one figure, an ex-boxer of some renown, slipping away into the night soon after the fight. He had seen enough to know what was at stake up there in the ring. His quiet dignity contrasted with the vein-bulging, adrenalin filled pandemonium that was hissing, squawking and screaming all around — that we have all seen, and maybe been part of, in some football stadium.

"Football," says the Liverpool-based academic Rogan Taylor, "is like strong beer. Some people just can't take it." It is one of the wisest quotes on the game that I know. Our sport, of course, does not have the physical incapacitation of the opponent as an objective — though I have to confess that head injuries are making me increasingly squeamish. But in comparison with boxing it has a greater power of representation — in part because it is a team game, but also as a result of an intense internal contradiction between its simplicity and its complexity. The former means that, with low barriers to entry, almost anyone can join in. The latter means that how you join in says so much about who you are; a player on the ball has so many options available to him that it follows that the choices he makes are in some way culturally formed. Get the ball forward quickly using pace and power, or take the scenic route before suddenly striking, using surprise and deception as a weapon. No other game contains such a variety of movements. 

As you live, think and dream, so you express yourself on the football field. And so those who watch feel themselves being expressed, as individuals, and in those moments when a surge of emotion makes a crowd react as one, collectively as well.

Here lies the problem with Rogan Taylor's observation. When a mass of people are overdoing the strong beer all at the same time, their collective intoxication is more like a poisoning of the mind, the hysteria that fascism seeks to generate and feed off. And it can take effect with alarming speed. Some of those at Heysel in 1985 talk of a friendly atmosphere on a lovely spring evening suddenly descending into an inferno. I recall being at a derby in Cali, Colombia, which seemed to be a relatively good-natured affair until one police action turned the stands into a riot zone, with the game halted and disorder reigning for hours afterwards in the streets around the stadium. Or, more than a decade ago, going to the Maracanã by bus to see a Vasco da Gama-Flamengo game, Rio's most potent local rivalry. As we approached the stadium a gun battle was raging — it may have been between rival groups of fans, it might have been the police firing into the air in a bid to control the crowd. No one was keen to put their head up long enough to find out. Everyone was on the floor of the bus, children wailing and old people shaking with fear.

Ah, local derbies. So often the atmosphere they generate is referred to with a blithe smile. To my mind they can often be the most over-rated games in football, almost guaranteed to generate more heat than light, fuelled by demented anger. Being in a big derby crowd can sometimes be like experiencing a 90-minute version of Orwell's Three-Minute Hate. Am I the only one troubled by this? Apparently not. "Stand up if you hate Arsenal," goes the inevitable Tottenham terrace song. Hunter Davies and an elderly fan nearby stayed in their seats. "I'm too old to hate," said Davies. "I'm too old to stand," replied his acquaintance.

Am I too feckless to walk away? I watched the 1985 European Cup Final, stayed with it all the way to the end, perturbed, of course, by the scenes from the stadium, but still curious to see whether Liverpool or Juventus would come out on top. It didn't feel quite right at the time, and it feels worse in hindsight. But I was not the only one. I'm haunted by an image in my mind, a tale recounted on a TV documentary by someone who was on duty at the Heysel stadium that night. He recalls seeing an Italian fan, who had lost his shoes in the deadly crush and whose clothes were covered in dust. But now the match had started this fan was cheering on his side, totally caught up in the emotion of the game. Football is powerful stuff.

For years I carried all of these thoughts in my head, but they were locked away in a guilty little corner, seldom visited. Therapy came from an unlikely source.

Towards the end of last year I had the opportunity to interview Paul Breitner, West Germany's star left-back and midfielder from the 1970s and 80s. His reaction to my opening question did not bode well — I recalled that he had been known for taking political positions as a player, and asked whether he thought this type of stance was missing in today's players. I made no reference to Chairman Mao, but even so he was exasperated at having to fend off an enquiry that touched on the folly of his youthful idealism. Once that was out of the way, though, he was an excellent interviewee, forthright and intelligent. There was one point he was very keen to make: whether it was racism in stadiums or young players unwilling to accept responsibility, his piercing blue eyes flashed and he pointed out that these were not problems of football — they were problems of society that were manifesting themselves in football.

It is a simple observation but a brilliant one. Football matters, and so we tend to load more on the game than it can realistically carry. It had been foolish of me to blame football, even in a little corner of my mind, for the dangerous passions it can unleash. The fault lies not with football. Perhaps, in this case, the idea that society is to blame does not go far enough. It is more fundamental than that. It is a problem of the human being.

Turning against football on these grounds would be like hating democracy because people voted for Thatcher. Give the human being the chance to express himself and the outcome will not always be pleasant. Far better that the ugly side of humanity get an airing at a football match than at a public hanging, or even a boxing bout.

Because football carries within it so much that is positive. One of the driving forces behind boxing success is narcissistic individualism. In football the glory always has to be shared. The far right can make a fetish of competition, but human progress has almost invariably been the result of co-operation. Football teaches us the dynamic between these two forces. The best way to compete is to co-operate — a lesson well worth learning, even if it comes at a price.


This article appeared on Episode Ten of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.