Could you imagine facing Boris Johnson in a cage fight? Well, in 2012 when Johnsonwas Mayor of London, in a mischievous moment when he was being irritating, I offered him out one night at a drinks reception in central London.
“I’m challenging you to a cage fight… fancy it ?” I said to Johnson. Lo and behold, in a nano-second and without any hesitation, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson gave his riposte.
“I fight at 217 pounds [15st 5lbs]. When and where does it go down?” the floppy-haired blonde replied, looking me square in the face from behind those droopy eyelids and without a hint of flimflam. He looked a good stone heavier.
We nodded at each other as if in accord and off went Johnson to schmooze the room. It was around the time of the London Olympics and Paralympic Games, and Guto Harri-the BBC’s former chief political correspondent-was Johnson’s Director of Communications. “Is he serious?” I asked Hari. “He might well be,” he replied. “You never know with Boris.”
But maybe it would not have been so unusual if Boris the politician had indeed gone ahead with the fight, for charity or whatever cause that might have been the excuse for “fisticuffs”-as Johnson calls boxing.
Plenty from that ilk have engaged in the noble art. President Teddy Roosevelt boxed while he was at Harvard, as did the late senator John McCain when he was in the US Navy (and was instrumental in bringing in the Muhammad Ali Act, to better regulate the sport with a uniform code).
One-time sports minister Lord Moynihan, the former chairman of the British Olympic Association, won a boxing blue at Oxford University as a bantamweight weighing 118 pounds. And boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, who fights for the 71st time in Las Vegas on Saturday night against Keith Thurman, is already acampaigning senator in The Philippines, his homeland, with aspirations to run for President there in two years time.
But more than anything, Johnson’s response that day said two things about him: he (apparently) knew his weight, for one. And the politician, historian and journalist-and, as of next week, the country’s likely next Prime Minister-has a fighter’s radar, with the unmistakable vanity, self-obsession and ego, to be game. We see that on adaily basis. He can indulge in sledging. He can also promote. Just as US President Donald Trump can, and indeed did, as a boxing promoter around Mike Tyson at his most infamous.
More than that, though, Johnson has also shown an understanding of the value of fight sports in our society in his association with several boxing gyms and the project ‘Fight For Peace’, which uses boxing and mixed martial arts to inspire young people in the world most troubled communities.
Recently, the Government has praised The Telegraph’s projects with young women in schools, and given that for two decades we also championed many causes-through a weekly column School Sport Matters-if Boris does get the nod next week, perhaps he could move to right the wrongs of one of his political ring rivals, Michael Gove, who decimated school sports co-ordinators with a drastic funding cut when Education Secretary.
Johnson must champion sport in schools, where it has never been more needed. And, by the way, I’m still out here, Boris. 198 pounds and ready…