A tale of scholarly pugilists

An Oxford Blue recognises the pleasure of thumping Cambridge boys in Blue Blood, a film about boxing at Oxford University.

John Dennen

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‘The solitude of the boxer before his opponent, the stripped-down, unfurnished, essential nature of man pitted against man, in a bare space roped off from the rest of the world, sums up everything about courage. In its way boxing recapitulates something ancient, almost primordial, about human striving, with a rough beauty all its own. It should, though, be banned.’ (AC Grayling, philosopher.)

Grayling thinks boxing should be banned because it sometimes causes brain damage and there is something questionable about taking pleasure in watching men hit one another. But despite apparently knowing better, the strange beauty of boxing appeals to Grayling. The sport has had a long love affair with the cinema screen. But Blue Blood, now on release in selected British cinemas, is a different kind of boxing movie. A documentary, its subject is the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club as it prepares for its annual grudge match against Cambridge in 2004 with five unlikely individuals trying their hand at the sweet science.

You would have thought that Oxford students would be smart enough to know better – and this is what makes the film interesting. Who would want to box, particularly when they should have more enlightened things to do with their brains? Kavanagh, the most obviously comic character in the film, best sums this up. A small philosophy student, he looks hopelessly out of place in the gym. But the Blue, the award an Oxford sportsman achieves if he takes part in the Varsity match against Cambridge, is the prize that lures all of these characters into the ring. Kavanagh’s risible technique contrasts with the natural, Fred Brown. From a difficult family background, Fred, in his own words, likes to hit things. His story in the film is the most personal. We see his tough task of trying to keep up with his studies and training to be a boxer.

Director Stephan Riley is not saying anything particularly groundbreaking either about boxing or Oxford University, but his film is a window into a curious fraternity and a charming depiction of its diverse characters. It has great footage of the glittering towers of Oxford, familiar to anyone who has seen the TV version of Brideshead Revisited. But there are some potentially interesting points he shies away from. For instance, the doomed Kavanagh is given a chance to show his stuff at the anachronistically named ‘Town vs Gown’ event. The gown, of course, being the scholars from the university and the town being everyone else. Here, it might have been worth presenting the town’s view of the student boxers.

Des Brackett, the Oxford coach, however, is from a different world than his protégés. A boxer through and through, from a family of boxers, he works as a builder when he’s not labouring to get nine fighters ready for the Varsity match. It is heart-warming to see the relationship he has with the boys and, where the film could have had too easy a laugh over the posh boys’ collision with the world of boxing, it instead shares Des’ respect for them. Blue Blood shows the wide spectrum of emotions involved in the boxing club. Like what it feels like to actually get the chance to box. A thousand people come to watch the Varsity match in the town hall, packed in close around a small ring. The film captures the sound of that kind of atmosphere. Des, in the movie, points out that it took him years to box to that level.

The film also shows the humiliation poor Boiler, one of the students, suffers when he takes a beating in an exhibition match hosted by the Army. There are few feelings worse than losing a boxing match. When it comes down to it there are only two people in that ring. To win, one is going to have to assert his dominance over the other, and to lose – in any manner, but especially when outgunned – is a crushing sensation. Boxing, of all sports, is an intensely personal one.

Riley plots his film with pace and tension and its depiction of the bouts themselves is a tremendous success. The sport does lend itself well to the camera but the film has to deal with, on the part of some, a questionable level of skill. But with good editing and a great soundtrack, including the Rolling Stones, Radiohead and Metallica, Riley gives each fight a little narrative of its own. The punches hurt and each character, even the comical Kavanagh, is treated with some dignity for receiving them.

This is a warm-hearted real-life British comedy, with a dose of punches and bleeding noses, and I think it succeeds as a feelgood piece. It shows clear reasons why each of its characters wants to box; whether it’s for status or pride or for that Blue. Still, I think it could have scratched the surface a little deeper. Justin, an all-American graduate from the US Airforce, is a striking contrast to the traditional English setting. He tells us things like he has ‘two speeds – hard and much harder’. To watch his relentless drive in training is intriguing. He wants to live big and not let any experience pass him by. But you want to know why this particular experience, why the dangerous sport. He is someone from a military background, reading astrophysics at Oxford. Someone who spends his spare time not only boxing, but also skydiving and swimming with sharks. Obviously the sensory experience is a reason, but I think Justin is a more interesting character than that.

Boxing can be beautiful when the fighters are having a conversation; one trying to score, the other trying not to get hit. But anyone learning the sport has to face its brutal side. You are going to get hit and as you start out you have to acknowledge that the struggle will be a test of how much pain you can accept and how much you can administer. Fred is the most honest when he talks about his anger and perhaps it is no accident that he can express himself naturally in this hard language.

Boxing may be rough and fierce. It should, though, never be banned.

John Dennen is an intern at spiked. He studied at Oxford University and won a Blue for boxing in 2006.

Previously on spiked

John Dennen read the Homer and Plutarch behind Frank Miller’s 300. Mark Aldulaimi thought that Million Dollar Baby showed boxing’s brutality, with none of its beauty. Rob Lyons recorded the decline of heavyweight boxing and the fall of Mike Tyson. Or you can read more at: spiked issue Film.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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