BOXING never seems far from controversy, particularly when following a fatality. The recent death of British boxer Mike Towell from injuries sustained in the ring highlighted again the darker side of his sport.
He’s not the first. He won’t be the last. It’s a hazardous sport and there is no escaping that harsh fact.
While I don’t follow boxing too closely nowadays, for over 30 years – from spectator to participant to journalist – it played a huge part in my life. Argue as much as you like that more fatalities happen in other sports, but it doesn’t make boxing less dangerous. The fact that the aim and intention is to strike with force, using your fists, at your opponent’s body and head makes it fairly unique. The concern is as much the wear on the central nervous system and the long-term and irreversible damage to the brain as it is the number of men who have died.
I’m not an advocate for its abolition and I don’t know how much stricter medical regulations can become without devaluing the essence of the sport or taking away from the visual attraction which makes it popular and keeps it alive.
But if I had my time again, I am not sure I would choose to box, even though the sport taught and gave me so much.
However, if overcoming and confronting adversity is a fundamental part of our path to growth and self-discovery, boxing is an activity which can certainly accelerate the process. Had it not been for boxing – and what it demanded of me – I possibly wouldn’t now have the self-motivation and focus that has benefited me in many areas of life.
Boxing developed in me the ability to pull back the sheets early in the morning, roll out of bed and get on with what I need to do. Boxing taught me to practice things over and over to get better and to be patient for results. It instilled in me a purpose for maintaining my fitness and health. It helped me to confront fear.
There is no hiding place in that ring. I can’t think of any experience I’ve had in 50 years that compares with boxing for exposing your true colours. When the bell rings it’s you and your opponent. There’s no-one to help. Fight or flight?
It’s a lonely place. But that’s why you train – to fight. You have to learn to rely on and trust yourself or else…
To risk being exposed and possibly humiliated and badly hurt in such a public arena requires bravery and nerve. As a boxer you can learn to shield some of your fears from onlookers, but never from yourself.
It is an art and a skill and practice. It’s also brutal and punishing. The better you get, the greater the risks become.
Through boxing I had some unforgettable experiences, met many incredible people and saw extraordinary events. The photo at the top was taken in 1995, after I’d sparred in Sheffield with Naseem Hamed. The one below it was taken much earlier, when I shared a ring with Herol Graham, another outstanding champion of his day. Those two achieved greatly, but in boxing it’s nearly always at a cost. Few emerge from this sport unscarred.
I saw lives turned around and many left broken. I witnessed amazing joy, but also much tragedy and despair.
That chapter in my life is now closed. It served its purpose. I’ve now moved on. I survived. I feel relatively unscathed. I learned (a lot).
As a strength and conditioning coach, I would recommend boxing from the perspective of physical activity, which is why classes such as Boxercise have become so popular.
Boxing is a stress-release for many, improves the cardiovascular system, co-ordination, speed and elasticity in the muscles.
The type of training boxers typically do for conditioning, like skipping rope, calisthenics, hitting the bag and striking the pads, are also highly effective ways to keep our bodies active and healthy. But I would add that quality needs to precede quantity and that, while these classes are fun and invigorating, some level of aptitude in the basics is imperative before participants become overloaded with the demand for more repetitions.
As for competing, I’d reserve that for those who are serious. As they say, you don’t play boxing.
What advice would I give any aspiring boxer?
1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – even if you are supremely talented. Think beyond boxing. The career span is short and can end in a blink. Be prepared for that reality. Have an idea what you want to do afterwards.
2. Give it your all or else you will pay a price. Don’t cut corners. Boxing is not a sport that rewards complacency.
3. There’s more to life than fame, glory and money. Much more. If you’re going to box, do it for the right reasons and, most importantly, understand the risks.
4. Surround yourself with people who care more about you and your well-being than your success.