EXCLUSIVE: Harrowing tales of British boxing's last three tragedies

EXCLUSIVE: The harrowing tales of British boxing’s three tragedies this decade – through first-hand accounts from an intervening referee, remorseful opponent and grieving brother, who recall the traumatic nights which still haunt them today

  • Three British boxers have lost their lives in the ring over the past decade
  • Sportsmail has spoken to the central figures of this trio of infamous fights
  • Referee Jeff Hinds cannot bring Michael Norgrove’s final minutes out of his mind
  • Adam Westgarth is still wondering how it went so wrong for his brother Scott
  • While Dale Evans has to live with inflicting the punishing blows on Mike Towell 

Twice a year, without fail, Dale Evans will post on social media to firstly wish Mike Towell a happy birthday, and then commemorate that fateful day.

When referee Jeff Hinds is asked or thinks about boxing, Michael Norgrove’s final minutes aren’t far away from his memory.

And for Adam Westgarth, it’s the traumatic journey between three hospitals and being brought away into a small room to hear the worst about brother Scott that still emanates.

Dale Evans was a central figure in one of British boxing’s three tragedies of the last decade

The adored, but unforgiving sport of boxing has affected these three men in different ways. Ways which have left deep marks in the mind of nights which can never be erased, no matter how many years have passed.

But among this select group, two emotions are indelibly shared: trauma and forgiveness.

Only three British boxers have tragically died after a bout in the past decade.

In a rare insight into the most brutal of gladiatorial pastimes, Sportsmail speaks to central figures of this trio of infamous fights — a referee who bravely intervened, a man who has to live with inflicting the punishing blows, and a brother who wonders why and how it all went so wrong.

Evans was the opponent of Mike Towell (pictured), who lost his life in the ring back in 2016

‘He comes to mind probably every day. There is always some thought, some memory of him. He’ll be there forever; it’s not something you can forget.’

Evans is getting ready for work. He is in a rather different occupation to being punched for a living; since 2018, he has looked after children in care at a residential home in Pembrokeshire.

His six-year professional boxing career had its peaks and troughs; a string of wins before becoming unstuck at British title level. He was making a living from a sport he cherished as a child growing up in the Valleys.

That all changed on 29 September, 2016. Evans was scheduled to fight Towell in a British welterweight title eliminator in Glasgow.

Towell’s reputation as a power-puncher made the 31-year-old even more wary than usual in the preceding weeks.

‘I don’t usually do this but I Googled him and saw that he was a character, a bit hot-headed like myself,’ he says.

‘There were videos of him cutting down trees in the forest. I was just going for runs, hitting the bag and sparring, and this lunatic is chopping logs!’

No shortcuts were taken for this fight. Evans knew what was at play.

Evans took on Towell (pictured above in the early stages of his career) back in September 2016

A packed room inside the Radisson Blu hotel where ‘it felt like the crowd were on top of you’ greeted both fighters, with Towell the home man. The 25-year-old hailed from Dundee and had family and friends in raucous support.

Evans says: ‘I knew it would be a bit more hostile. I could hear people chanting for Mike hours before the fight had even started.

‘From the off I could feel his power. A few times when he caught me, I was seeing stars. I had never been hit like that in my life.

‘Something I have always lacked is confidence — I wasn’t confident that I was going to win. He caught me with some big ones, I caught him with some big ones.’

A few of those ‘big ones’ knocked his opponent down in an action-packed opening round, but he got back up and pressed on.

As he unpacks the fight, his voice gradually slows and pauses. Evans knows all too well what the next phase leads to, and no matter that six years have passed, it is never any easier to retell.

‘I don’t really think I ever remember it (that fifth round) because it’s something so tragic,’ he stammers. ‘I put him down, he got up and then he went down again, and the fight was over.

‘There was panic straight away because he wasn’t getting up, the room went silent. There wasn’t a nice atmosphere in the arena at all. You know it (boxing) can be dangerous, but you don’t know the severity of the job until something like that happens.’

Towell was taken out of the ring on a stretcher after being knocked down by Evans in the fight

Paramedics had rushed into the ring to administer oxygen to Towell, before requiring a stretcher.

The Welshman did not know what to do or think, waiting for any updates on his stricken opponent in the hotel reception.

A punter at the bar said: ‘It’s not looking good’. It had started to hit home for Evans what had happened.

He recalls: ‘You can imagine going to bed in the hotel being a lonely night. It was quite obvious what was going through my head.’

He went home the next day but his mind and soul were still in the hotel — he wanted to hear some positive news about Towell.

Trainer Gary Lockett and family and friends kept checking up on him. He needed it. His mental state was badly inflicted. But he couldn’t remove himself from his phone. And that led to him finding out the worst through a few scrolls: ‘I think I found out (that Mike had died) through rumours on social media.’

Again, pain seeps through his oration. He never wanted this. You can feel his heartbeat through the phone. Though through tragedy, Evans managed to find light via an unlikely source — Towell’s family.

They have embraced him and supported his mental recovery — he was even invited to the funeral. They know it wasn’t his fault. They know how dangerous this game can be.

After Towell’s passing, Evans (second from left) was invited to the funeral by his family

Annually on September 29, the Welshman makes his way to Dundee. Stories galore of Towell are rejoiced over a few drinks, memories enlightened, and laughs shared about a loved family man.

‘It’s been incredible, to be honest,’ he explains. ‘His family, friends treat me like royalty when I go up there — I don’t even get treated like that at home!

‘It’s phenomenal. I expected it to be quite intimidating going there, but it is completely the opposite. They take me into their homes, we’re drinking together. I just hear that I am so similar to him which is quite funny.

‘They have all reassured me that it wasn’t my fault, and I know it wasn’t my fault. I know that, but I am reassured all the time.’

That affection and deep connection forged through tragedy has contributed to why Evans can never, ever forget about his opponent in some form, and it is also why he must be acknowledged twice a year in social media posts — on the day Towell died, and his birthday.

He adds: ‘It’s something that will always be in my head. And you remember someone’s birthday, it’s a big day for families and friends.

‘He’s going to be in their thoughts and I understand that, so I make sure to wish him a happy birthday and it’s comforting for his family, too. Mike will always be in my thoughts.’

‘He said, “You alright ref?” That’s the last words he would ever utter to me. That came back to haunt me two weeks after the show.’

In 1990, Hinds earned a British Boxing Board of Control licence to become a professional referee. Refereeing was, and still is, his main passion in life.

But when embarking on such an uncertain hobby — NHS financial accountancy is his day job — never did he expect to be in the same ring as tragedy.

The 61-year-old had dashed from his shift to get the train to The Ring venue in Blackfriars, London — a site that holds 150 people and was hosting its first professional boxing event in 73 years.

‘Halfway through the first round, Norgrove hit Tom Bowen with a straight right hand and Bowen hit the canvas with an awful bang,’ Hinds recalls of March 28, 2013.

‘When I turned around to start counting, I thought I would count Bowen out or stop the contest because he went down so heavily. You could hear that awful whack on the ground. But, to my surprise, he got up and didn’t actually look any worse for wear.

‘So I said, “Box on”. Round two he came out again, he lost the round as well but it was still a good contest. Round three, I think he lost, and round four he actually hit more with his jab, and I scored that round even.’

Michael Norgrove (pictured) was also killed after a boxing match against Tom Bowen in 2013

The fact Norgrove was ahead made round five even more bewildering for Hinds. He still can’t get his head around it.

He says: ‘About 45 seconds in, all of a sudden he went into like a spasm. It’s like saying you are walking the dog, but you stand on something with electricity in it and you can feel the sharp pain.

‘Norgrove went [Hinds scrunches his face up and squeals] as though everything had tightened up.

‘My first instinct, and I don’t know why, was to stop the contest because something was wrong, very wrong. A guy who had been winning the contest all of a sudden goes into a spasm like that.

‘A different boxer might have been quicker than me and gone in for the kill, but I was quicker than Bowen that night.

‘Heaven knows what would have happened if I wasn’t there at that time because if Bowen had thrown another punch at him, in that state, I think you are looking at an actual death in the ring. That would have looked terribly bad.

‘I remember him only taking one punch in the fight and that was a straight left jab.’

The next part toys with this referee, knowing he could not have done anything more to change the outcome. It caused self-questioning.

Norgrove (pictured with trainer Terry Steward) had a spasm in the ring while leading the bout

‘At this point I’m distraught,’ he explains. ‘I’m thinking, “Bloody hell, what has happened here? Is there anything I could have done differently?” It’s a state of shock because you’ve never seen it happen before, and there’s no reason you could think of as to why it has happened.’

He returned to work the next day, sat in his office at a computer but not fully there. Hinds would talk to his colleagues as if nothing had happened, but he was processing distress.

A reel of the fight was playing on loop in his head; a never-ending loop that would rewind itself to the start once the stretcher leaving the venue scene finished. Without fail, it was on his mind every hour of the coming days.

Then, April 6, Hinds’ daughter’s birthday arrived; a birthday he can never forget.

‘About six in the morning, my phone rang and it was a boxing photographer,’ he says, in a whispery voice.

‘He said, “Jeff, I’m calling to let you know that Michael Norgrove has died, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news”. I said, “Bloody hell, they couldn’t save him?”

‘He replied, “No”. I am totally depressed by this now. Later, when I was driving on the road, my mind was not there. You’re not the loser here, it’s his family that are. It’s then all over social media.’

A couple of days later, Hinds received a letter from the British Boxing Board of Control to attend a hearing on the fight. It confirmed what he already knew deep down.

He says: ‘At the hearing they said, “We looked at the contest and we didn’t find that you could have done much more than you did”. I was then asked, “Would you like to see the fight again?” I said, “No thank you, I can remember everything about the contest”.’

Despite being cleared of playing any part in Norgrove’s demise, he could not stop fixating on the 31-year-old. One minute Norgrove was winning a fight, the next minute he was dead.

‘If you think about something a lot, your memory can do some quite interesting things,’ he describes.

‘It reached a point where I could remember seeing Michael come in the door on the night of the fight. I could remember the top he had on because I had a similar one for Christmas.

‘I hadn’t noticed those things on the night. When I gave him his pre-fight check, you look at the gloves. He said, “You alright ref?” That’s the last words he would ever utter to me. That came back to haunt me two weeks after the show.’

Norgrove was in Hinds’ thoughts so much that the referee attended the funeral with his wife. He wanted to be there. He was part of this chapter.

He recalls a previous fight in 2008 featuring Gilbert Eastman — the beauty of prolonging life that has stayed with him when refereeing numerous other bouts in a career which has so far spanned 1,250 fights.

It may have helped limit Norgrove’s suffering.

‘In the last round of that bout I said to myself, “Listen — as much as the crowd is enjoying this contest, and as much as Eastman wants to make it to the final bell, stop this contest”,’ Hinds says.

‘I stopped the damn contest and Eastman wasn’t happy. Forty-five minutes later we get the rumour that Eastman collapsed in the changing room, he’d gone to the hospital with a bleed on the brain. He made a full recovery but did not box again.

‘I was at an event in 2015 and who is there? Gilbert Eastman. He brings his wife to me and says, “You see this man here, he saved my life”. He said that if I didn’t stop the punch, one more punch — what happens?’

Referee Jeff Hinds recalls a previous fight in 2008 featuring Gilbert Eastman (L) which may have helped limit Norgrove’s suffering on the night

Hinds did not inflict fateful blows on Norgrove, nor knew him in a personal capacity, but it does not change the fact that the fight will always stay with him.

He adds: ‘When I think of boxing, his plight is never a million miles away from me. It’s never been away for more than a month.’

‘The doctor took us to a separate room, and at that point I knew what the words would be. Then the words came out of his mouth, and I just stopped listening at that point. I wanted to explode.’

As teenagers, Adam and Scott were markedly different brothers. Adam, a temper when provoked; Scott, a more relaxed figure who liked to joke around.

But it was Scott who went down the boxing route, picking up the insatiable bug as a late bloomer aged 25 before turning professional at 28.

Before relaying the fight in question, the 39-year-old wants to first get the most traumatic part out of the way — his sibling’s fight for life.

A charade that saw the family whisked between three different hospitals after Scott’s condition deteriorated following his English light-heavyweight title eliminator against Dec Spelman.

Scott Westgarth was the third British boxing who lost his life in the ring over the past decade

‘They sent him to Doncaster A&E which doesn’t have a neurosurgical unit. Then, Sheffield Royal Hallamshire hospital, which is 45 minutes away, wouldn’t initially accept him until he had a brain scan,’ he grimly recalls.

‘I was first sent to the wrong hospital. We were then redirected to Doncaster until I got a phone call saying Scott’s now going to Sheffield.

‘We literally span around on the motorway and drove back towards Sheffield. We got to the hospital before Scott even arrived. It was horrendous, a farce. That drive between the hospitals will never leave me.’

Adam now takes a deep breath, exhales and rewinds to the beginning. He had assisted trainer Glyn Rhodes in guiding his brother’s career, helping to arrange the bout against Doncaster’s Spelman.

Spelman had good credentials — unbeaten at the time — and on paper, it was an evenly-matched bout.

Scott was already feeling down after having multiple fights cancelled at short notice. He sparked up when this opponent was offered to him.

‘Scott said, “Yeah, I’ll fight anyone”, that was the type of guy he was,’ says Adam.

‘So I texted Dec. About a month before Christmas I got a message off Dec saying, “We’ve got a date, make sure you guys are ready because I am coming to make a statement”.’

February 24, 2018 was set at the Doncaster Dome. Scott took control of the early rounds, scoring a knockdown in the second and notching up a healthy lead.

Westgarth (pictured with girlfriend Natalie Kerr) died after a bout against Dec Spelman

Fatigue from both men caused the middle rounds to be a back-and-forth ding-dong, before Spelman went on the front foot from round seven.

It got to the deep waters — the championship rounds, which saw his opponent land a flurry of blows as Scott ducked and weaved in the corner.

The fight ended and the Northumberland-born fighter was still on his feet despite a late onslaught from Spelman. He looked jaded and slightly hurt, but who wouldn’t be after a 12-round war?

Anxieties receded when Scott was declared the winner on points, and proceeded to give broadcast interviews. He ambled off to the changing room while Adam stayed behind to talk to his opposition’s family and his friends. Then a bolt from the blue pivoted his attention.

‘Suddenly someone came to me and said an ambulance has just been sent to Scott’s changing room,’ he explains.

‘Scott was dressed and showered, and I just remember him sat in the corner with a rolled-up towel around the back of his neck and his eyes closed.

‘I went, “You alright Scotty?” and he didn’t acknowledge that I was there. At this point I am bit nervous now, so I just sat down next to him.

‘He then got on all fours and put the towel down on the floor. You’ve got to remember it’s a stone tile floor, you know? And he’s used the towel on the floor as a pillow for his head.

‘He was complaining about pains in the back of his neck and a bad head. And I believe he had already been sick in the shower.’

An ambulance arrived to take him for observations but even at the final hospital, there was hope. Adam, along with family and Scott’s gym mates, were told by the surgeon: ‘He is in the best place, don’t worry, it will be fine.’

That bit of hope started to dwindle and again pivoted 360 degrees, and then some. His world came crumbling apart.

‘It wasn’t until about three or four hours later when the doctor separated our family into a small room and came through with the bad news. This was probably four or five in the morning,’ he says.

Westgarth’s brother Adam has recalled the harrowing night in question almost five years on

‘I felt a lot of anger very quickly. I wanted to explode; I don’t know what kept me under control. Fortunately, my dad was stood next to me and we embraced each other.

‘I have never felt anything like it, it was the worst experience I’ve ever gone through in my life.

‘I went through that initial anger of trying to blame somebody, Dec or Glyn, but it was not anybody’s fault. It’s about having to come to terms and living with it.’

Adam is not embittered. Despite an utter farce of a journey, his brother had died in the ambulance. The correct hospital would not have been able to save him.

The coroner concluded Scott threw up twice in the ambulance and after the second time, his body went into a spasm from the brain being starved of oxygen. That was when he had died.

Losing a brother will stay with Adam forever, though a connection to his opponent and family has subsequently blossomed.

Spelman admirably invited him to his English title fight against Kirk Garvey — for the belt he and Scott had been competing for a shot at.

‘He came up to Prudhoe and handed me the belt,’ says Adam. ‘When he won the belt in Scunthorpe, I was dragged into the ring — that was very emotional. I could feel Scott. He was there as well. I could feel his presence because that was his moment, too.

‘Before Covid I’d go down to Scunthorpe and meet up with Dec’s family, close friends and get the coach to wherever his fight would be.

‘With this last fight he is due to have, I will definitely be there to show support. He still wears Scotty’s name on his shorts, which is a nice touch.’

Ultimately, Scott will never be forgotten in the Westgarth household. And memories again came to the fore this Christmas, his name the showpiece. They of course miss him, and ‘life will never be the same again’.

Adam says: ‘You look back through all the records of the amount of boxers lost over the years and Scotty being the only fighter to lose his life but win his fight speaks volumes of his character to complete his mission.’

There is one more wish — Adam wants ringside mobile brain scanners introduced to reduce the chances of future tragedies. He has campaigned since 2020 and is still pushing.

‘I would love to get these brain scanners introduced in his name because I’d hate to think his death was just a tragic accident,’ he concludes.

‘I wanted it to be that he has died for a reason. But I have thought, “Well, you (Scott) saved five lives through your organs being donated” and that was the type of guy he was.

‘Always doing something for others, putting everybody else first.’




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