Nick Butler

Violence and foul play was an enduring theme across sport last week, with differing incidents occupying varying levels on the fighting-ometer.

We had the theatrics, diving, overreacting and - on occasions - devious thuggery on show at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, most of which came from Brazil's Neymar.

We had a bizarre moment on athletics' Diamond League circuit in Lausanne when Ethiopian teenager Selemon Barega finished second in the 5,000 metres despite fellow countryman Yomif Kejelcha grabbing him by his shorts and attempting to pull him into lane three with a lap to go.

And we had a spectacular mass brawl at a Basketball World Cup qualifier between Australia and The Philippines in Manila in which 13 players were ejected after a devastating orgy of punching, kicking and chair-throwing more akin to a professional wrestling royal rumble than genuine sport.

Violence is nothing new in sport, of course, and many grizzled ex-pros shake their heads in nostalgic regret at the general tameness of today in comparison with the "good old days" when "men were men" and fights were genuine. 

Sports like ice hockey and rugby are completely synonymous with fighting. In the National Hockey League, combat is still permitted so long as both players drop sticks and remove their hard leather and plastic gloves before commencing battle. Rugby has changed since the 1970s when the British and Irish Lions developed the notorious "99" call, which, if uttered, meant every member of the team had to punch the nearest opponent and thus leave the referee with a choice between sending off all or none of the team. The decreasing number of fights since is better explained by the greater number of cameras today than by any deep cultural shift, however, and spectacular punches are still thrown. 

Every other team sport has its moments. Pretty much anything goes below the surface in water polo and, at the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, a match between the Soviet Union and Hungary taking place shortly after Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest became so violent that the water supposedly turned red with blood.

International baseball had a mass brawl between Mexico and Canada at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Handball had a big fight between Slovenia and Ukraine at a World Championship qualifier in 2014. Hungary were involved in another water polo scrap against Australia during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

A spectacular fight erupted in a basketball World Cup qualifier between Australia and The Philippines in Manila last week ©Getty Images
A spectacular fight erupted in a basketball World Cup qualifier between Australia and The Philippines in Manila last week ©Getty Images

Football had some real fights too back in the day. Derby County's Francis Lee was a rookie in comparison with today's ilk when it came to diving, but he had such a reputation for going down easily that his nickname was apparently "Lee Won Pen". Leeds United's hardman Norman Hunter took exception in 1975 when adjudged to have fouled him and responded with a huge right hook which split's Lee's lip. Lee, instead of going down injured, responded with an extraordinary flurry of punches, most of which missed completely, and both were sent off.

At least they were on different teams. Newcastle United team-mates Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer were each sent-off for fighting each other after Bowyer took exception to Dyer supposedly not passing him the ball.

Ex-France and Manchester United striker Eric Cantona is among those to have been poking fun at Neymar during the World Cup. He achieved infamy in 1997 when launching a kung-fu kick at a spectator shouting abuse from the stands.

Cricket, a sport associated with the "sledging" - i.e. verbal abusing - of opponents, also has some good cases of players attacking spectators. Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq, not someone known for his temper or his speed, sprinted into the crowd to attack a megaphone-armed fan who had been hurling abuse at him during a One Day International with India in 1997. A rough reported translation of what was apparently being chanted at him was: "Hey Fatty, stand straight, you fat, rotten potato".

Cricket's most famous fight erupted between Australian fast-bowler Dennis Lillee and Pakistan batsman Javed Miandad in 1981. Lillee appeared to block Miandad from attempting a quick single and, after a heated debate, Lillee adopted a boxing stance while Miandad raised his bat as a weapon before the umpire intervened.

Dennis Lillee, left, and Javed Miandad nearly come to blows in a test Match in 1981 ©Getty Images
Dennis Lillee, left, and Javed Miandad nearly come to blows in a test Match in 1981 ©Getty Images

However, this pales into insignificance compared with an incident in a domestic final in India in 1991 between North and West Zone. Raman Lamba scored 180 and had been engaged in a simmering feud with bowler Rashid Patel. Patel eventually snapped and, after bowling a beamer - an illegal ball which does not bounce - straight at his opponent's head, he grabbed a stump out of the ground and chased him to the boundary. Cue a crowd riot and stones being thrown onto the pitch.

Lamba, incidentally, tragically died after being struck on the head by a ball while fielding close to the bat during a match in Bangladesh in 1998.

Another good 1990s fight came in horse racing, when top jockey Kieren Fallon acquired the nickname "the Assassin" after hauling rival Stuart Webster off his moving horse in 1996 - an incredibly dangerous thing to do - after a mid-race bust-up. A subsequent weighing room incident in which Webster was left with a broken nose has never quite been cleared-up, but Fallon took legal action against those who published Webster's claims that he was attacked again. 

Other Olympic sports have also endured their fair share of fights.

Given the intensity and proximity of the peloton, it is unsurprising that cycling features prominently. Italy's Gianluca Brambila and Russia's Ivan Rovny were both disqualified during stage 16 of the 2014 Vuelta a España after they managed the impressive feat of throwing punches at each other while still riding their bikes in a breakaway.

Nineteen years earlier, the same race had provided a more orthodox showdown when Venezuela's Leonardo Sierra and Spain’s Ramón González Arrieta each climbed off their bikes to throw punches and kicks following a crash. They then re-mounted and recommenced racing before being thrown out at the end of the stage.

In taekwondo, we had Cuba's Ángel Matos, a Sydney 2000 Olympic champion, who was banned from the sport for life eight years later in Beijing after he kicked Swedish referee Chakir Chelbat in the face after being disqualified for taking too long during a time-out.

Cuba’s Ángel Matos attacked a referee during the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Getty Images
Cuba’s Ángel Matos attacked a referee during the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Getty Images

In badminton, there was a spectacular fight between Thailand's former doubles partners Bodin Issara and Maneepong Joongjit when playing against each other at the 2013 Canada Open. Following a warning from the referee for a verbal altercation earlier in the match, Issara chased Jongjit onto a neighbouring court during a change in ends, tackling him to the ground and viciously punching him several times to leave him needing two stitches.

Athletics has also had many moments where tempers have gone beyond boiling point.

Ethiopian distance legend Haile Gebrselassie was punched in the back of the head by Kenyan Josephat Machuka after passing him in the final straight of the 10,000m at the 1992 World Junior Championships in Seoul. Gebrselassie won gold and Machuka was disqualified.

I vaguely remember an incident in the British European Trials cross-country running in 2007 when Scottish runner Connor McNulty punched English rival Simon Horsfield during the junior race. It was rumoured that the phrase "jock c***" may have been uttered to provoke the blow. Horsfield fell and dropped out soon after while McNulty placed fifth - a qualifying position - before being ejected.

French Olympic medallists Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi Benabbad came to blows in spectacular fashion after finishing ninth and 11th at the Monaco Diamond League in 2011. Headbutts and punches were both thrown under the full gaze of live television coverage before both were suspended.

Television images showing Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi Benabbad coming to blows in 2011 ©YouTube
Television images showing Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi Benabbad coming to blows in 2011 ©YouTube

Fighting is of course terrible and a blemish on the noble world of sport in its fruitless crusade to build bridges as an anchor of stability in our troubled times and so and so forth…

That is the theory, at least. In reality, we love a good scrap and a fight or row is one part of the rich tapestry of sport which, as it always has, typified all the bad about humanity as well as the good.

Authorities will rightly continue to clamp-down and punish harshly, but the red-mist will still descend and sporadic eruptions will continue.