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Mental health in boxing: Fighting the longest, hardest fight

Recent attempts to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health issues can only be positive for the sport of boxing.

Tyson Fury Media Workout Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images
Lewis Watson is a sports writer from London, UK, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He has been a contributor at Bad Left Hook since 2018.

“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.”

Sure, it may be a little reductionist, a little trite, to lead into such a sensitive topic of mental health with a quote from a Hollywood movie, however, this infamous Rocky quote subtly underlines the plight of hundreds, thousands, millions of people across the world struggling with what goes on between their ears.

There is no exception to this rule in boxing; in fact, mental health issues are predicted to be prevalent in our sport more than others on a comparable level. Think of the fundamental associations made with boxing. Fighters, expected to be the “tough guys” of the sporting world, unaffected, unstirred, unmoved by any emotional or psychological troubles that may attempt to counter their perceived strengths.

We are forever praising our heroes for their bravery inside the ring. Whether it be a long-gruelling twelve round war or rising from the canvas when all appears to be lost, boxing forces us to prioritise resilience above anything else - something unique to our sport.

As fans, we can switch on and off our interest in a fighter quicker and more frequent than our beloved sports teams, eradicating previous losses with their packed schedule of twice-weekly fixtures. Typically fighting a handful of times a year - or once or twice at the highest, inactive level - 36 minutes of action is all we are exposed to, with the gruelling months of work building up to this climax all done behind closed doors out of the public reach.

Sure, we get crumbs of insight into training camps, supplemented by sporadic interviews inciting narrative surrounding the upcoming bout, but typically, a fighter’s life is a lonely one. From the adrenaline-fuelled highs of fight night follow the inevitable lows of the days, weeks, months afterwards; a win or a loss often strangely irrelevant in their altering of emotion following a fight. This is a sweeping generalisation, yes, but supporting research is a further eye-opener.

The statistics are alarming. Research - from leading UK mental health charity, Mind - has shown that one in four of us will struggle with mental health issues each year, with suicide remaining to be the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In England, one in six people reports experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week, with reports from both England and Wales suggesting that approximately only one in eight adults with a mental health problem are currently receiving treatment.

This is research taken nationwide across the UK, however, if we consider a sport so heavily male-dominated like boxing, the numbers are magnified. Studies have shown that men are far less likely to discuss mental health issues than women, and although this stigma is slowly being tackled, the problem in boxing becomes amplified.

Tyson Fury has been a strong advocate for mental health in boxing over the past couple of years, taking the mantle from a long line of fighters attempting to break the mould of the mental make-up of your typical boxer.

The difference with Fury is that we are experiencing his ride of emotions with him, whereas previous fighters have surfaced their issues in retirement, with Ricky Hatton and Frank Bruno doing fantastic work in retrospect to combat outdated opinions. Hatton outlined his experiences whilst talking to the media on Mental Health Day last year:

”It’s very hard to describe it unless you’ve been there yourself. It’s just totally depressed, no motivation, not the will to even get up in the morning. You know you need help, but you don’t want to tell anyone. You’re in bed crying every day. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

”I’d like to think so, I see it as much as my job now (to help others). People think because you’re successful and you’ve got a few pounds in the bank that you’ve got nothing to worry about but that’s not the case. I think if someone like myself comes out and admits it, more people will come forward. I do a lot with Frank Bruno, he’s the same.”

Fury’s experiences weren’t too dissimilar. Speaking to Joe Rogan ahead of his fight with Deontay Wilder at the end of the last year, the ‘Gypsy King’ alluded to feelings of emptiness with addiction being a huge catalyst:

”I didn’t care about nothing. I just wanted to die so bad. I gave up on life but, as I was heading to the bridge, I heard a voice saying: ‘No, don’t do this Tyson. Think about your kids, your family, your sons and daughter growing up without a dad.”

”I’d wake up and think, ‘Why did I wake up this morning?’ And this is coming from a man who won everything. Money, fame, glory, titles, a wife, family and kids – everything.”

It’s an important distinction to make in the story of Tyson Fury. Mental health issues don’t discriminate. Fury had done it all, he has climbed the impossible mountain and achieved all he could have ever dreamed of in the sport he has dedicated his life to. He wasn’t losing fights, struggling financially, or being plagued by injury; it struck when many would believe it to be the most unlikely time.

Steps are being taken in communities to tackle this evolving problem at a young age, however, funding still remains sparse. England Boxing piloted a ‘Box In Mind’ initiative last October in association with Mind charity, in an attempt to “raise awareness of mental health within boxing, with the aim of reducing the stigma associated with mental health, and encouraging people within the sport to feel able to open up and get help if they are struggling.”

Looking to be rolled out to the whole of England following a second pilot next month, the project involving workshops and one-on-one professional tutoring is a big step in tackling mental health issues as early as possible amongst young, aspiring fighters.

Matthew Williams, England Boxing’s Club Support Officer for the North East who is leading the Box in Mind project, expressed his belief in this initiative: “I am very proud to be doing this important work and strongly believe that together we will make a real difference to many people in our sport that are currently suffering in silence.”

”Silence” is the crux word in that statement. Fighters unwilling to talk about their troubles allows a snowball of emotions to materialise, with a dangerous sport like boxing providing too big of a risk to participate in not fully fit. “Fully fit” means injury free; we need to start describing injury as more inclusive of mental health in order to further eradicate this stigma moving forward.

A fractured arm, a torn bicep, or suicidal thoughts on the eve of fight night: all three could be just as detrimental to a fighter’s career and life if they chose to fight on.

This platform shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the Twitter-obsessed, short attention spanned, inpatient culture of modernity that we currently reside in, a community like ours at Bad Left Hook should be cherished; the reach of these articles should be utilised.

We all have a responsibility in aiming to eradicate one of the most ignored issues in boxing. From the top to the bottom rungs of the boxing ladder, help is needed to convince fighters that speaking out is ok; admitting you’re not ok, is ok.

I’ve had close personal experiences with this topic in the past with family members feeling the full force of depression. It hits you harder than any punch you are likely to face in the ring and can keep you down longer than a Micky Ward left hook to the liver.

We need to dismantle the robot that is the professional boxer, and allow fighters to understand their thoughts, feelings and troubles - more importantly, make them aware that it’s crucial to talk.

Fighters have control over what goes on inside the ring in their careers, but it’s the story of what goes on outside the ropes that can often define them. At times it may seem an impossible mountain to climb, but with support and understanding in the sport, the path begins to clear. For many, tackling mental health issues will always be the longest, hardest fight.

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