Rio Ferdinand’s bid to be a boxer provoked a backlash on Tuesday night after the most successful footballer-turned-fighter warned he could die “playing” at the sport amid doubts about whether he would even be granted a licence.
As exclusively revealed by Telegraph Sport, Ferdinand confirmed on Tuesday he was stepping into the ring for the first time at the age of 38 in an attempt to become a champion in a new discipline.
The former Manchester United and England captain’s decision drew a mixed response from within the boxing fraternity and beyond, with no certainty that the widowed father of three will be allowed to fight professionally.
Curtis Woodhouse, the former Sheffield United striker who went on to become British light-welterweight champion, even posted on Twitter: “This is no joke, you can die ‘playing’ boxing.”
And Barry Hearn, whose son Eddie succeeded him as one of the sport’s leading promoters, accused Ferdinand of being “totally naive and underestimating boxing”, adding: “He could get badly hurt and no promoter is going to sanction that.”
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But Ferdinand said he had considered the risks both to his health and reputation before agreeing to team up with bookmaker Betfair for a project entitled Defender to Contender, the progress of which will be chronicled in a documentary.
“I’ve not gone into this without thinking about the dangers,” said Ferdinand, who is expected to try to enter the cruiserweight division. “You say football’s not that dangerous but we’ve seen footballers who have died on the pitch.”
Shunning comparisons between his move and last month’s Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor cross-code fight, he added: “You think about looking foolish. I have kids watching.”
Hearn told BBC Radio Five Live: “It’s laughable. I like Rio, don’t get me wrong, but this is an advert for a reality TV show.
“If Tony Bellew, David Haye or Anthony Joshua hit Rio Ferdinand, it would probably be prosecutable by the police for using a deadly weapon. He could get himself badly hurt.
“It’s OK if it’s just a bit of fun, making a TV show and making some money. I wish him luck, I hope he enjoys it, but be very careful because it’s dangerous.”
Hearn predicted Ferdinand had a 50-50 chance of being granted a licence by the British Boxing Board of Control, whose general secretary told Telegraph Sport on Tuesday it was “premature” for the former footballer to be talking about applying.
Robert Smith said ex-cricketer Andrew Flintoff – to whose own brief foray into boxing Ferdinand’s adventure has been compared – had trained for nine to 10 months before submitting his own application, and that it was initially turned down.
Richie Woodhall, the former World Boxing Council super-middleweight champion turned Great Britain trainer who will teach Ferdinand how to box, earlier revealed he expected the ex-footballer to apply to the BBBofC within 10-12 weeks.
Smith said: “We don’t expect any applicant to be a world champion or British champion but we need to make sure they can look after themselves.”
Ferdinand revealed on Tuesday he had been approached three months ago by Betfair, which was looking to build upon its sponsorship of Victoria Pendleton’s successful transformation from Olympic cycling queen to Cheltenham Festival jockey.
Pendleton was reputedly paid £250,000 for the year-long endeavour and Ferdinand is expected to receive more for an enterprise that could see him fight every two months and stretch deep into 2018.
Having earlier denied the project was a publicity stunt, he said: “Betfair have an agenda and marketing will be a huge part of that. But their care for my well-being is paramount.
“We are not coming into this thinking we will treat this lightly as a marketing tool. I would be stupid and naive to do that. I would be an idiot.
“I have huge respect for this sport and I will work to give it the respect it deserves.”
Revealing his friend and world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua had offered to spar with him, he said: “I’m not coming in here saying I’m going to be a world champion. I’m coming here saying there are loads of hurdles to get over and I’m going to meet them head on.
“I’m an armchair boxing fan anyway sitting there saying, ‘I can do that. Why is he not throwing a left? Why is he not throwing a right?’”
Ferdinand, who grew up on a London council estate, added: “I haven’t done any boxing but we used to sort out our problems on the estate with a pair of old Henry Cooper-type brown gloves.
“There would be one of us reffing and two of us going at it but I wouldn’t say technique was at the forefront of our minds at the time.
“I’ve had my chin tested by a few size 10 football boots but a boxing glove will be a bit different.”