By Terence Dooley
It was my mother who told me about the death of Scottish boxer James Murray in October 1995, she woke me up to let me know he had passed away and asked me to stop going to my local club, West Gorton ABA. She was worried about my obsession with a sport that had seen another high-profile injury earlier that year when Gerald McClellan was injured in his fight with Nigel Benn. It was a question she had asked me in April of the previous year after Bradley Stone passed away after a British Super bantamweight fight against Richie Wenton.
Undeterred, I went to the gym twice that week, and for many more weeks to come until other things got in the way: life, university and, eventually, both unemployment and employment took precedent. I read a lot of boxing books in the meantime—I haven’t bothered with them since, what more can they say?—and when I came back into the sport in 2005 it was as a so-called writer and spectator rather than wannabe participant.
By 2009, covering fights had taken over from wanting to fight—the odd world middleweight title winning daydream aside—so I was ringside for Brian Rose’s vacant Central Area light-middleweight title fight with Jason Rushton.
Rose scored a late, late stoppage, 2:59 of the 10th and final round. News filtered though that Rushton had been taken to hospital, so the fight between Kevin Mcintyre and Brett Flournoy (later found shot to death and buried on a farm) had to be stopped and declared a NC due to a lack of an ambulance crew. It prompted one writer to claim: “Excellent, I might just make the last train”.
It was a flippant remark given macabre context when news filtered through that Rushton had suffered a brain bleed and would not fight again. It was not a malicious comment—I know the guy, and he is a good guy—just one borne out of the complacency that comes from attending fights week in and week out. Everything is always going to alright, right?
Tragedy also struck one night when I was covering a fight between Anthony Crolla and Kieran Farrell for the English lightweight belt. Farrell put in the best display of his career only to succumb to a brain bleed after the final bell; he recovered and is now a trainer and promoter, still involved in the sport that almost cost him dearly.
From Michael Watson to Paul Ingle, then to Murray, Rushton and Farrell, with other names in-between, the sport throws up reminders that the spectre of brain injury always looms large in the space that exists between the lights and the canvas.
We see the fights, the news reports, and we glimpse and have to be seen to applaud the eventual recoveries, of varying degrees, yet we do not get to see the battle that takes place when the damage has been done. What happens when the fighter is sent home and begins the painstaking process of putting the pieces back together again.
It is a theme that is explored in the Paddy Considine-directed film Journeyman; the story of a world titlist, Matty Burton, ably and subtly played by Considine, who suffers a brain injury following the maiden defence of a belt that looks like the WBO title but is billed as the WBA strap, so they even got the confusion over titles correct in this one.
The film eschews the usual boxing clichés, speeding through the pre-fight hype and reaching Burton’s real fight in the time it takes for the first training montage to kick in during most big budget boxing films. It was a labour of love for Considine, one that he struggled with as he wanted create both a human and cinematic experience about a sport that he loves and follows.
“I wanted to show a boxing film and a boxer that people hadn’t seen before, but I always knew there was a somber side to boxing,” said Considine when speaking to BoxingScene about the film.
“I remember sitting in a car with Neville Brown—it was just before the Frank Grant fight—and a lot gets lost in memory but I remember him speaking about the melancholy about being a fighter. He said it was OK for me as I was doing photography at the time so could do that forever, but he couldn’t box forever. I never forgot those private moments when I’m building a script, all those little moments and insights go in there.
“I had all these lovely insights that I’d picked up over the years and I think that made it more authentic. I had people from the boxing press for the press conference scene. They were treating it as a real press conference, asking questions and making it look like it wasn’t staged.
“It was also important to show that Matty is a fighter, and that’s just what he does, yet you also have fighters like Nathan Cleverly and Nicky Piper who are clever guys, so I wanted to capture that. Being around the Ingle gym was a big thing for me because I’d heard stories about fighters who had been through the doors of that gym, had money and squandered it in the way that fighters do.
“I had heard about Brendan Ingle asking fighters why they had bought a 20 grand watch and not put the money away for their future. I thought that maybe Matty would be one of the people who listened to the advice given that type of character, a good student who took all those lessons on board. I wanted to create something different.”
Boxing and its various layers and stories are inherently cinematic, but the fights themselves are harder to bring to film—the action is always that little bit too fast and frenetic in movies, plus everyone has a granite chin. Considines’ decision to wrap up the fight quickly in order to reach the aftermath frees up time while still giving us the private and human moments required to care about the protagonist.
“I knew I couldn’t make the fight look like a real boxing match, the only way you can do that is by hitting each other, and we couldn’t do that,” he said. “I had to find a way to shoot it so tried to make it an experience, a bit like what [Martin] Scorsese did in Raging Bull. Making it into an inferno. I wouldn’t say it is the greatest sequence ever filmed, but hopefully it brings across the experience of fighting and especially how lonely it is.”
What follows that scene is an accurate, well-researched exploration of what comes next. It is the story of what happens when the cameras move on to the next champion, the next story, and the family—in this case the wife, brilliantly played by Jodie Whittaker—has to help the former fighter piece his life back together again after he collapses at home.
“It started out as a boxing story, the brain injury one was one that I’d never seen explored so, when making the film, I wanted it to go out into the wider world,” explained Considine. “I met people who had suffered a brain injury—from car accidents and things like that—and had a case study in Sheffield that helped me understand the change in Matty’s personality and why he has to rebuild everything.
“I wanted to show that it is down to the family to pick up the pieces once that burst of goodwill has gone. I was struck by the outpouring of messages and goodwill on the Monday after Scott Westgarth died, but also the fact that people then started talking about the next weekend’s fights by the afternoon. It struck me how quickly things move on in boxing.”
Over a decade ago, a friend of mine was hit with a brain tumour; it ended his life just under a decade later, as per his doctor’s prediction. He had been allowed to come home following multiple operations, with warnings that the trauma would also have other long-term effects. Personality, mood and character changes followed, wrong-footing those around him with their severity and swiftness.
Minor or major, concussion and brain trauma isn’t just a physical hurdle to overcome, the mental effects have to be dealt with and Journeyman handles this issue well. The use of quick flashbacks and sound provides real punch to Burton’s post-fight journey as well as dragging us back into the fight again, only this time it is made far more visceral as we know what it led to. Like Burton, we relive the event throughout the course of the film.
The film drags the viewer along with it, even managing to elicit sympathy for the character’s motivations on the occasions where his inability to deal with the changes to his personality prompt to him to behave terribly.
Considine’s balancing act was clear from the outset: deal with a difficult subject without losing the wider audience and while paying homage to the sport, which he does with some subtle nods and references to famous fighters—a family photo placed into his boxing boot and a wedding ring threaded into his laces pays homage to Sugar Ray Leonard and Willie Pastrano respectively.
“That wasn’t something I knew about, I just thought it seemed like something a fighter or athlete would do,” admitted Considine. “It became a totem because it had such a big bearing on the end of the film. I just thought about those little rituals that people do, but I tried to steer clear from the usual boxing references. I only added a training montage after I saw the first act and realized there was no momentum, but there are a few Rocky references in there!”
By the time the film really kicks into gear it is all about Burton’s real fight, his battle to get to the best mental place possible. The performances, especially the two central ones, drive the film to a satisfying dénouement, one that gives a nod to boxing’s cynical, macabre hold on the people involved in it as well as its ability to give people a purpose in life despite being a dangerous profession.
Less a boxing film and more a family/friends drama twinned with a ‘Back from the brink’ story, Journeyman flips the script on what to expect from a boxing film then closes the door on Burton’s life at just the right time. It is clear that he will never be the man he once was—he has to adapt to his new life—but in the end he is still the fighter that we were introduced to in the beginning.
Burton’s character isn’t Jerome Wilson, Ingle, Watson or Farrell—he is every fighter we have ever watched, the men incrementally obliterating themselves for our enjoyment, scorn, and disdain.
Burton is the everyman, the possibility of what can happen if you step into the ring. This is why the film serves as a sober reminder of an aspect of our sport that many people push to one side: ‘This is sport is legal, but is it moral?’.
After all, when watching boxing we all use the fighters as a means rather than an end: to enjoyment, to prove a point, and the many other outcomes—for example, getting paid to write an article about them. For Considine it was a balancing act between creating a cinematic experience as well paying homage to people he mixes with and watches week in and week out.
“It (injury) is a sad reality of it (boxing),” he said. “Really, and classically, it is kids off the street who go into boxing and very few make a good living from it. They are not educated or prepared for a life after boxing and you wonder if there could be a type of management to teach them that life after boxing is very short-lived and so is the money. Boxing is a metaphor for life, and life is cruel and not everyone is going to make it—you are going to have your failures and mistakes as well as your successes.
“I didn’t want to make an anti-boxing movie, if anything I wanted to show my gratitude for what these people do, but, and as a boxing fan, I’ve also been on the edge of my seat shouting at the television. Sometimes, we forget that the boxers are real people—the distance between ourselves and them can make them a bit like characters on the screen. It can dehumanize them a little bit and make us forget just what they do. Boxers are not average people; you can’t be average if you choose to box.
“I do sometimes sit there and question why I am a fan when a tragedy happens or when you see a brutal fight, like what happened with Lucas Browne last weekend. He should have been pulled out after the fifth, but was left in there and it was a highlight reel ending. You see them get bloodied and hurt, there is something really tragic about it.”
The morality of boxing is a question I’ve never seriously asked of myself, even when my mother raised it, as it is a dilemma for the fighters, their families and their friends to wrestle with—I have enough humility left within me to avoid that type of thing. I feel it would be insulting to engage in grandstanding hand-wringing when a slew of fighters are out there risking their lives.
That is just me. I enjoying watching boxing matches—the knockouts, brutality and unseen damage picked up in training is as normal and natural to me as crossing the road. To his credit, we are not given a definitive answer to the questions posed above during this Considine’s film—or, indeed, by the sport itself—but the fact that Journeyman raises them once again is not a bad thing. It is well worth a watch.
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