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In covering the Olympics for BBC Radio, it’s been my privilege to speak to all sorts of sportsmen and women. Once again, I’ve been reminded that boxers never give bad interviews. The latest one to impress me no end has been Karriss Artingstall, who won bronze in the featherweight division, missing out on a bout for gold after losing on points by a whisker in her semi-final. Artingstall, from Macclesfield, left school at 15, took up boxing, joined the army, where she’s a gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery, and eventually became an Olympian. Ben Whittaker, the light-heavyweight from the Black Country, wanted not only a gold medal but also to become mayor of Wolverhampton. Sadly, he lost in the final to Cuba’s Arlen López, something on which he wasn’t putting a brave face. “You don’t win silver; you lose gold,” he said. “I didn’t perform good. He’s a class operator but I’m very disappointed. I feel like a failure … I’m sorry for making you wake up and see me let you down.”
These are gifted amateurs but, as with the pros, there’s always a handy turn of phrase, some straight talking and a fascinating backstory. Of all the athletes I’ve been lucky enough to speak to – be they footballers, cricketers, golfers, tennis players or whoever – boxers are generally the most rewarding company. Outside the buildup to, and immediate aftermath of, big fights there’s a noticeable sense of thoughtfulness and peace about them.
The first boxer I ever interviewed was Richie Woodhall, the former world super-middleweight champion you’ll now hear commentating. It was 25 years ago that I spoke to him for a business programme called Working Lunch. It was a feature about how people in different walks of life managed their finances. He spoke with startling eloquence about the challenges of being a kid suddenly paid big money, and having to be careful not to squander it before getting a tax bill a year or two later. The responses to that interview from our audience were all the same: what a remarkably intelligent young man that boxer was.
The truth is that they, like me, had generally low expectations of boxers. And why wouldn’t we? After all, we generally only ever see them either behaving pretty childishly at weigh-ins or engaged in the brutality of the fight itself. Outside of this circus, it turned out, they are different creatures altogether. Why is this? I suspect one answer is rather simple: all the aggression in their bodies is expended in the gyms and rings in which they train and fight. But there is something more profound going on, too. I recall Woodhall explaining, all those years ago when, I soon realised, I knew nothing about boxing, that the one thing you could never do in the ring was get angry. “Once you get angry,” he told me, “you’ve had it. You’ve got to keep your head.”
I just spoke to Woodhall again, and he’s clear where boxers get their sense of peace from. “It’s all about self-control. It takes an enormous amount of self-control to manage your emotions when punches are raining down to you. Very few people have that level of self-control; it goes against all your natural instincts. It’s something boxers have to learn, or they’ll never be boxers. And when they have learned it, they take it on into the rest of their lives.”
The boxing expert Steve Bunce takes a similar view. “Boxers simply have very little to prove away from the ring: no inferiority or short-man problems; no need to test their bullshit manhood. They do all of that four and five nights each week. They are the last to throw punches, the first to stop fights.” And interestingly, of Woodhall he says: “Richie is the mildest man in the world. I saw him up-close amateur and pro and he was a nasty fighter. But I bet he’s not used his fists without gloves since he was about four! Nothing to prove.”
Covering Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, I got to know Mike Costello, a peerless commentator on boxing and athletics. He’s endlessly fascinated by the transformation in the personalities of the boxers he knows so well. “There’s tension during the early part of fight week, but on the day of the weigh-in it’s as if they pull down a mask that changes their character. Close to the fight, a day away, and that nice bloke you’ve known disappears and the beast emerges. I haven’t known such a stark contrast in any sporting buildup that I’ve worked on.
“They are special people, complex characters who, as [the legendary boxer] Roberto Durán once said, go to really dark places and yet come out the other side as some of the most decent people you could meet. And I’m lucky – I’ve met a lot of them.”
If you never get to meet a boxer – and perhaps wouldn’t want to anyway as you can’t bear the sport – then there is a moment after every fight that might possibly convince you that the likes of Costello, Bunce and I aren’t merely punch-drunk with love for the whole business: it’s the embrace that follows the bell marking the end of the bout. One moment the contenders are apparently intent on inflicting real harm, the next they’re locked into a loving clinch no less fierce. It’s a sign of sporting respect on a different level than you might see between players at the end of a tennis or football match.
“Yes, that is a special moment,” says Woodhall. “It’s about respecting someone no matter what’s happened in the fight or the buildup. And it’s truthful; there’s no bullshit. And that’s magical, that is.”
Love or hate boxing, there are surely lessons in life here for all of us: by whatever means you choose, expend every ounce of aggression you have in you and do so in a controlled and mindful way. Keep calm and collected, no matter what blows life lands on you. And when your particular fights have been fought, embrace your foes to forgive and forget, and move on.