When I was a boy, crouched by the wireless tuned to the Light Programme and listening to boxing commentaries from Raymond Glendinning or Eamonn Andrews, with inter-round summaries from W Barrington Dalby, I could have told you who was World Champion at each weight, British and Empire one too (often the same man) and even usually the European one.

Of course it was easier then. There were only eight divisions: heavyweight, light-heavy (sometimes called cruiserweight), middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight, flyweight. Now most of these have been sub-divided and there are lord knows how many different weights, and by one count there could theoretically be 68 men entitled to call himself a World Champion.

There’s been inflation all my lifetime – I can remember when the record football transfer fee in England was £14,000 – but this is absurd.

For me, as for most boys who loved boxing, there were then no awkward questions. Maybe that’s how it should be. We were all innocent enthusiasts, and there’s something to be said for prolonging the innocence of youth.

We assumed the fight game was straight.

If you had told us that boxing in New York was controlled by the Mafia and that half the fights in Madison Square Garden were fixed, we would have been shocked and indignant; pained indeed. We overlooked the brutality of the sport. Perhaps overlooked is the wrong word. We saw how fierce fights were, and admired the courage of a battered fighter.

And though British World champions were rare, that made the occasional success all the more marvellous, as, for example, when Randolph Turpin from Leamington Spa, son of an immigrant from what was then British Guiana and an English mother, beat Sugar Ray Robinson on points at Earl’s Court in 1951. Robinson was perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time, but Turpin’s triumph had the Marxist folk-singer Ewan McColl celebrating: “Oh you should have seen our Randy/ Beating up that Sugar Candy/ On the night he won the right to wear the Crown.”

He didn’t wear it long. In the return fight in New York’s Polo Grounds a few months later, Sugar Ray, ahead on points and but badly cut, let loose a ferocious attack in the tenth round which left Turpin helpless. Something like forty punches landed in ten seconds. Turpin was never the same fighter again. In  1966, aged only 37, bankrupt and depressed, he shot himself and may have tried to shoot one of his daughters. Robinson’s loss to Turpin was only his second defeat in more than 130 fights. He would have 201 in all, going on too long, far too long, spending all he had earned, dying at 67, with Alzheimer’s.

Cruel sport, boxing but so engaging. I was in Italy in 1964 when Cassius Clay (not yet Muhammed Ali) fought the fearsome ex-con Sonny Liston. The poet George Barker and I headed for a bar in Albano where we believed there was a television set. In fact we had to listen to a radio commentary. I backed Clay, George Liston. Clay won. We got drunk. George announced he couldn’t live in a  world of which Cassius Clay was heavyweight champion. He survived for another quarter of a century, which is more than Liston did. He died in 1970, possibly of a heroin overdose, possibly of ordinary heart failure.

So we came to the Seventies and the great heroic decade of heavyweight boxing: Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman. Ferocious utterly gripping fights,repeated time and again on TV, available now on demand on U Tube.

How often have we watched “The Thriller in Manila” and “The Rumble in the Jungle”? How often can we do so now without a sense of guilt souring the admiration for skill and courage? Is this, one has to say, sport? Perhaps yes. Is it entertainment? Shamefacedly, one says “yes,” then, after a long pause “but…” And one thinks of Muhammed Ali as the shambling wreck he was for the last twenty years of his life. Of course the defence is easy. People choose to box. Even women choose to do so now. It’s a free country. One may employ the Hemingway defence. Criticized for attending – and enjoying –  cock-fights , he asked “what else does a fighting cock like to do?”

Boxing is brutal, depraved and corrupt. It’s not in the great championship bouts that it’s seen at its worst. Worse things happen on the way up. SKY TV has been paying more attention to boxing lately – partly because it has more space to fill since BT started grabbing rights to football, rugby and Test cricket. There’s a Fight Night Channel that seems to be on most nights.

Recently this was covering Anthony Joshua’s progress to the World heavyweight crown. I caught one of his early fights. I’ve forgotten his opponent’s name, but not the revulsion I felt. The opponent looked to be a veteran, was overweight and unathletic. He was there to be knocked out. He was no more than a step on the ladder Joshua was mounting. He swung gallantly, took some punches, played his part, undoubtedly earned his purse. The fight wasn’t fixed. There was no need to fix it. The choice of opponent for the young star was all the fix that was needed.

Well, it’s always been like that of course. Boxing is a blood sport, like hunting, shooting and fishing. Cock-fighting too of course, and dog-fighting, though happily both these are illegal here. It is actually the morality of us as spectators that is in question. You can of course make a moral case for us. Boxing calls forth our admiration, instils pity and terror in us – just like Shakespearean tragedy. This is a fair claim, and one can argue that the greatest fights do have a purifying or elevating effect on us.

But so much in the game is sordid and ugly, less the Noble Art than an Ignoble Spectacle.

It’s a puzzle. I’m pretty clear of one thing. It was better – more healthy – for me as a boy to listen to fights on the wireless than it would have been to watch them and see the reality of a punch or series of punches, better a listener than a voyeur – and one can’t deny that there is something of the shame of voyeurism in watching two fighters hammer at each other.

One can also dwell on the lighter side of things, on the rough mocking humour of the fight world. The Londoner Terry Downes was, like Turpin, briefly World Middleweight champion. Like Turpin he outpointed Sugar Ray Robinson, but it was ten years later and Sugar Ray was forty-one, no longer a champion, and in inevitable decline. “I didn’t beat Sugar Ray,” Terry said. “I beat his ghost”.

A couple of years on, Downes fought an American , Willie Pastrano, for the World light-heavyweight title. He was narrowly ahead until in the eleventh round, Pastrano had him helpless on the ropes. The referee, humanely, stepped in and stopped the fight. Asked later by journalists if he could have gone on, Downes said, “Course I could, but the ref’s getting old, you know. He can’t last 15 rounds.” Terry Downes was a bright London boy. He had made a good joke, but he knew it was time to go.

So many don’t. They box on, fooling themselves or making a wager that the worst won’t happen to them. But it does, all too often, and most of us hear only about the champions for whom life turns bad. We don’t hear about the journeymen and the consequences of the blows they took when put in the ring as cannon fodder. And if we who have watched and listened to boxing and boxers for years are honest, we’ll admit we would rather not hear about those things.