No man tells himself that he will be alright more often than a boxer does. He might not use those words to do it - Ali had his poems, Tyson said stuff like 'I'm going to eat your children' - but they all mean the same thing. Because their bodies are vulnerable and their skills are pregnable and their hearts are breakable, they psyches must be impenetrable, and if they're not convinced by themselves, then no-one else is going to be, either.
It's part of what can make defeat in boxing so devastating. The physical pain and the natural disappointment of sporting loss disappear; destruction of a sense of self is harder to recover from. In the most basic of ways, they're not the man they thought they were. Cricket has its sorrowful burden of suicide, yet boxing might be just as damaged. It's a sport with no structure, so the evidence is anecdotal, but it is everywhere if you look.
There is an unforgettable documentary called Assault In The Ring, which is about a fight between Louis Resto and Billy Collins Jr in 1983. Resto was the underdog, but he won after his trainer, a man called Panama Lewis, removed some of the padding from Resto's gloves, apparently without the fighter's knowledge. Collins sustained a severe beating, permanent eye damage and never fought again. He began drinking heavily and died a year later in a car crash that his family believe was a suicide. Resto was convicted of assault and served ten years in prison.
In 2007, Resto admitted that he knew what Panama Lewis had done. He apologised to the Collins' family, and in some of the most revealing scenes from the film, tried to confront Lewis, a man who still had a strong psychological hold over him.
Resto's is just one of hundreds of stories from the city of boxing, the city of delusion. Ricky Hatton's is another. After losing to Manny Pacquiao he retired, began taking cocaine, drank heavily and sat in his kitchen with a knife to his wrists while his family slept upstairs. His hard-won millions, his beautiful girlfriend, his son, his new baby, the regard in which he was held by his fans, could not stop his depression because they were never what it was about. Perhaps inevitably, he is making a comeback.
Hatton is a pal of Andrew Flintoff. They are a couple of uncomplicated Lancashire lads whose natural joy in what they did inspired something close to love in their followers. Flintoff experienced his own bouts of depression and heavy drinking while captaining England, and he's now taken up boxing. It's for a television programme, but there will still be a fight and he will have to face the moments that all fighters must, when all that's left is the other guy in the ring and the truth about themselves.
In most of the fight PR he's done, Flintoff has been talking up boxing, describing the attritional joys of training, and pulling muscleman poses for his photos. But in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, perhaps because it was with Celia Walden rather than a sports writer, he said this: "I'd swap everything I have now to play cricket again.... That last day (against Australia), it went by so quickly."
What he's missing is impossible to replace, with boxing or anything else. "It made you feel taller, stronger somehow. You'd get this hit of energy like you're a kid at Christmas and you're so excited about the next morning that in bed your legs can't stop running. It was an amazing feeling. And that's one of the things I miss most."
“Part of me still thinks I could play. I haven’t been as fit as this in a long time… The other day they put
game on telly; I was playing in it but I didn’t at any point think it
me. It was bizarre – there was this complete detachment there, like I
watching someone else. I’d reached a point where cricket seemed so
But now that I’m fit again… Well, you start thinking: could I?”
Flintoff's heavyweight opponent has yet to be announced. It's inconceivable that he could face anyone with pedigree; it will have to be a doorman, a cabbie, a part-timer. For all of his training, this is a stunt, and it's happening because Andrew Flintoff has a hole to fill, just as Ricky Hatton has. The great problem is that boxing can be a dangerous place to fill it, not physically but mentally. It's almost certainly not the place for Andrew Flintoff.
And Panama Lewis is still in boxing, too.
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