Great Moments in Pop Culture – Ricky Gervais Has a Fight

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[Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti FingerJames Cameron Digs Up ChristMr. T Thanks His Mother]

One day, I turned on the telly, and watched Bob Mortimer beat Les Dennis in a boxing match. No, that’s not a dream you’ve gotten stuck listening to me drearily describe right into your ear on the bus, but a thing that actually happened. The bout took place in 2002, during the heyday of celebrity boxing, in a year that also saw the battle between Willis from Diff’rent Strokes and Vanilla Ice, and other such names as Tonya Harding and Screech from Saved by the Bell lacing up the gloves.

Dennis vs. Mortimer was part of BBC1’s Sport Relief; a Comic Relief spin-off charity that mostly involves Eddie Izzard running marathons until his piss turns red. The show was successful enough for the planning of further fisticuffs, including Darren Day vs. Donal MacIntyre, and Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley against political journalist, John Pienaar, with Hadley warning Pienaar that he’d “batter him.” Sadly, the British Boxing Board of Control stepped in to pressure the BBC, claiming its unlicensed fighting was too dangerous, and that was that. But everyone loves to watch familiar faces clumsily knocking the shit out of each other, and by 2004, it was back with more televisual sights that read like what you see after quaffing a huge block of cheese before bed; Ben Fogle fighting Ricky Butcher; the hottest one from S Club 7 spitting blood into a bucket. Now some years on, it’s the BBC’s initial showing, The Fight, which stands the most culturally significant, having featured the unarmed combat skills of the newly-famous Ricky Gervais.

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The Fight sits in that fledgling era of reality TV, nestled between the launch of Big Brother and the rise of TOWIE/Real Housewives faux reality. Back then, if you were a regular schlub who wanted to be on TV, with no social media to post your aspirational selfies on, you didn’t need to be young and beautiful, but merely romantically involved with someone who was already on the box. Such a landscape helped fill the rosters of shows like Channel 5’s The Farm, which is best known for Rebecca Loos tommy tanking a pig, but should be remembered for a baffled Flava Flav’s questioning of Kat Slater’s real-life ex-boyfriend, which saw a growing existential crisis play out across the latter’s face.

     “What do you do?

     “So… I used to go out with a girl from a soap.”

     “But what do you do?

     “I’m a fireman.”

     “But why are you on this show though?

     “I used to go out with a girl from a soap.

     “But why are you here?

     “Um…

Gervais’ opponent was Grant Bovey, a textbook example of achieving fame through being married to someone. Along with his then-wife, Anthea Turner, Bovey was victim of an early celebrity cancellation, after the pair were handed Cadbury’s Flakes by a paparazzi at their wedding. One snap of the newlyweds cartoonishly gorging on the chocolate was all it took for tabloids to deem them crass beyond repair. If Twitter had been around then, they’d probably have been burned in the streets.

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What really stands out, 17 years on, is how strongly The Fight is the kind of thing that’d be sneered at by the modern Gervais, now seeing himself as a shock-jock Woody Allen, self-seriously hosting the Golden Globes while sipping a beer with a sixth former’s faux-nonchalance to show how hard he is. Filmed after series two of The Office and a year before its Christmas finale, it’s a portrait of the man before he spent all his time asking people if they’re offended — yeah? — before the endless tweets and headline quotes of “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re wrong;” a line which has become his “I am Groot!” The auteur champion of ‘free speech’ and friend of the Hollywood elite would never headline a reality show against the husband of a TV presenter. And yet, even the brutally honest footage of him sweat-drenched and cowering is markedly less embarrassing than pictures like this.

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Now he’s long-since locked into that character, it’s weird to see him in his nascent form, half an inch from David Brent and yet to self-filter through the whitened teeth and measured media presence, back to the innocence of cackling at an endless parade of his own quips. Unlike the modern war he’s battling daily from the trenches of Twitter, this fight is not against the snowflakes, yeah? It begins with his getting kitted out at a sports shop for the essentials; gumshield, gloves, a protective cup. “I need a big one,” he says, looking at the camera, happy to flaunt his paunch for comic effect.

Gervais’ team is led by Kellie Maloney, putting him through the paces in the kind of grotty gym you’d see in Guy Ritchie’s shitty films; push-ups, heavy bag, and shadowboxing in front of a filthy mirror. He wears a black beanie like Phil Mitchell when he was on the crack, hands wrapped in bandages soaked with the sweat of their previous user, and is beasted until he collapses, wheezing and flat on his back, as water’s tipped into his mouth. If only he’d worked so hard on the scripts for Derek.

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When he’s put in sparring sessions with a bent-nosed ex-pro, his fascinating mindset comes to the fore. Obviously I write this as a coward who’s never demonstrated the girth of my dick by entering into combat, and ever only thrown a punch at the boiler when it won’t light for my nightly bubble-bath, but man, for someone who signed up for a boxing match, he is really afraid of getting hit. A huge chunk of the documentary’s taken up with Ricky’s exasperated team trying to talk him into actually throwing a punch, so terrified that if he hits the guy, he’ll enrage him, and catch a right hand in response.

This trainers try to reach Gervais in pep talks; to convince him he won’t be murdered by his sparring partner, and if he’s going to box, he should learn how to, you know, punch someone. He’s all “but listen, listen, but listen,” bartering and pleading like a kid trying to talk their parents into letting them sit up late. It’s a curious mix of abject terror and macho bravado, promising that while he won’t punch the ex-pro, rest assured, he’ll fuck up Bovey. “I’ll do it on the night,” he says, “I’m gonna knock him out.” When he finally starts swinging at his sparring partner, they’re sailing right past, like when teenage draftees in Vietnam deliberately shot over the heads of their enemies. Throughout his training, he remains too frightened to hit the boxer, wanting to stick to sit-ups and punchbags, and yet, is utterly convinced that on the night he’ll be an animal, and knock Grant Bovey’s head into orbit.

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Speaking of Bovey, though he’s given markedly less screentime, in the brief looks at his training, it’s clear he’s in far better shape; lean and able, and not afeared to throw dem hands. Cutting between the two camps has somewhat of a Rocky IV feel, with Grant Drago all abs and hi-intensity cardio, and Ricky looking like he’s been made to do PE in the rain. In a weird piece of trivia, Grant Bovey’s sparring partner is Alan Partridge’s chum Michael (Simon Greenall), who himself previously fought at a white collar boxing event against a 56-year-old librarian.

The final bout takes place in front of a VIP audience of A-listers, with Gervais’ cheering section consisting of luminaries such as Darren Day, Michael Ball, Davids Baddiel and Walliams, Dawn and Tim from The Office, Ralph Little, and DJ and rapper Mike Read. Across in the Bovey section, he’s got, well, his wife. At ringside, Bob Mortimer interviews Jonathan Ross, who suggests Grant shaves his chest because he’s “a ladyboy.” Topping off the sub-Ritchie vibe, our MC is professional geezer, Johnny Vaughan, introducing a red-robed Ricky, who looks more Hugh Hefner than Rocky, strutting down the aisle to LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out. The shuffling timidity of training is gone, as he stalks round the ring, chest puffed, chin out, ironically putting you in mind of that Office meme of his own face — “Ooh, you’re hard!”

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Vaughan’s joined on commentary by veteran fight-mouth Reg Gutteridge, who assuredly never saw a match like this, with three 90-second rounds akin to those lunchtime scraps from school, when some lad would get his jacket pulled over his head. A mess of arms hitting arms, its wild swings are demonstrative of desperate male pride; unable to bear the shame of being out-battered, and standing so bullishly close to each other, there’s no room to even crank back for a punch.

To his credit, Gutteridge gives the the shitshow the weight of his serious analysis, until interrupted by Vaughan, as barely-dressed ring girl Jo Guest passes by. “There’s a view viewers aren’t getting at home” he says, lustily adding the pair of them are “getting the lion’s share of the buttcheeks.” A visibly disgusted Gutteridge lets the words sit rotting in a festering silence. The hypnotically awful fight goes the distance, with the high-point coming when Gutteridge provides a glorious spoonerism, hoping for some final round “thud and blunder.” In the end, Gervais takes it in a split decision, capping this strange snapshot of early 2000’s reality TV. Though it’s no Rumble in the Jungle, The Fight was hugely historically important, as testament to the last time in the career of Ricky Gervais that he was seen punching up.

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~ by Stuart on June 7, 2019.

One Response to “Great Moments in Pop Culture – Ricky Gervais Has a Fight”

  1. […] [Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch” — Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti Finger — James Cameron Digs Up Christ — Mr. T Thanks His Mother — Ricky Gervais Has a Fight] […]

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