WHEN RE­AL­ITY BITES

The tran­si­tion from boxer to ex-boxer is too of­ten hard­est fight of all, as El­liot Worsell dis­cov­ers

Boxing News - - CONTENTS -

The strug­gle box­ers face when it comes to life af­ter the sport

THOUGH posted from his own so­cial me­dia ac­count, the for­mer British su­per-feath­er­weight cham­pion was never go­ing to write the mes­sage him­self. It would have been too hard. Too hard to think about. Too hard to put into words. It was tough enough, he’d dis­cover, just hit­ting send. “I re­ally didn’t want to do this,” the mes­sage be­gan, “but it has got to the point where I have to. I’ve strug­gled with life af­ter box­ing and messed a lot of things up. I’m look­ing for a job.” Send. The fear, at first, was that the in­tended re­cip­i­ents would deem it a cry for help and cry­ing for help, Gary Sykes be­lieved, was a sign of weak­ness. It was a les­son taught to him by box­ing, and the rules of the game, for bet­ter or worse, stay with a fighter long af­ter the sport, the teacher, has packed up and left. See you and good luck, it’s typ­i­cally at this point a boxer, this breed of half-formed men and woman for whom fight­ing is not only a ca­reer but a life, might re­quire civil­ian in­ter­ven­tion.

“My mate wrote that out for me,” Sykes ex­plains. “He thought I was go­ing down the wrong path. I was drink­ing and turn­ing into a bit of an id­iot. He mes­saged me and said, ‘Mate, if you don’t tweet this mes­sage right now, I’m go­ing to fall out with you.

“I was re­luc­tant, but I thought I had to do it. So, I did. I’m not the clever­est of peo­ple. I should have thought about do­ing that my­self. But I’ve got a bit of pride as well.”

Pride can take a boxer to a gym, it can help win fights, and it can drive them on when in­stinct tells them to stop. Pride, it could be ar­gued, is as cru­cial to a boxer’s suc­cess as speed, stamina, strength and the many other tan­gi­ble at­tributes reg­u­larly an­a­lysed by pun­dits. Un­like th­ese at­tributes, how­ever, it can also be detri­men­tal. It can, for in­stance, force a fighter to ap­proach a fight in a head­strong man­ner, ig­nore the game plan, and re­ceive un­nec­es­sary pun­ish­ment as a re­sult. It can en­cour­age them to take il­lad­vised risks. Worst of all, in re­tire­ment, this pe­riod in a boxer’s life that strips them of rou­tine and recog­ni­tion, it can be the sin­gle at­tribute that comes back to bite them in the most un­for­giv­ing of ways. It can de­rail them. It can si­lence them.

Should this hap­pen, box­ers, as is their cus­tom, will in­vari­ably stick it out, per­se­vere and ‘man up’. Yet one day, and the day comes for all of them, a for­mer boxer will re­alise all that re­mains from their time be­neath the lights are traits de­vel­oped in the gym, honed over the years, that serve lit­tle pur­pose in the real world. It’s then a life away from box­ing

I STARTED DRINK­ING, TRY­ING TO FIND BUZZES FROM OTHER PLACES. I’VE GOT NO FO­CUS. I’VE GOT NO WILLPOWER AT ALL”

be­comes ev­ery bit as per­ilous and lonely as a life in box­ing.

“I thought I was go­ing to be 30 years of age, a mul­ti­ple world cham­pion, and re­tired,” says Liver­pool’s for­mer British su­per-mid­dleweight cham­pion Tony Dod­son, now 38. “How far from the truth was that? When you’re 18 or 19, you think you know ev­ery­thing. Re­ally, though, you know noth­ing. You’re wet be­hind the ears. The re­al­ity of real life is so dif­fer­ent. I learned the hard way.”

It’s the lie with which box­ing tempts all its ap­pli­cants: be good, win some fights, se­cure a ti­tle or two, and you’ll never have to work again. But the truth, of course, is quite dif­fer­ent. The truth needs to come with a dis­claimer or two. It needs to men­tion the role of good for­tune, and it needs to men­tion the im­por­tance of be­ing mar­ketable, find­ing ri­val­ries and pri­ori­tis­ing money over le­gacy. It’s not ro­man­tic, granted. It doesn’t do the boxer’s strug­gle jus­tice. But it’s prefer­able to the lie.

“To start with, re­tire­ment was so re­fresh­ing,” says Sykes, 34, re­tired since a sec­ond-round de­feat to Luke Camp­bell in 2016. “I could eat what I want, I could go out to par­ties, and I loved it. But then af­ter a while I found it re­ally dif­fi­cult. I wasn’t train­ing, I wasn’t get­ting those en­dor­phins, and I got a bit lost. I started drink­ing, go­ing out, and try­ing to find buzzes from other places. It was re­ally hard. I missed it so much. With­out box­ing, I’ve got no fo­cus. I’ve got no willpower at all.

“My life has re­ally gone down­hill since I re­tired. I never put any­thing in place when I was box­ing be­cause my par­ents never re­ally gave me good ad­vice when it came to in­vest­ing my money. You never think you’re go­ing to lose.”

It’s bizarre to com­pre­hend a one­time boxer los­ing fo­cus and willpower, but re­tire­ment, by its na­ture, is one mon­u­men­tal re­lease. It’s a re­lease from work and from all the feel­ings, emo­tional and phys­i­cal, once as­so­ci­ated with this work. A boxer will lose other things, too.

“I miss the feel­ing of rou­tine and the ex­cite­ment of win­ning,” says Dod­son, whose last fight, a vic­tory, was in 2016. “I do not miss di­et­ing and I do not miss get­ting punched in the head, though. I do not miss sac­ri­fic­ing ev­ery­thing that is en­joy­able to try and suc­ceed in a sport

where you have a very, very, very slim chance of mak­ing enough money to live a com­fort­able life. For what I’ve sac­ri­ficed as a hu­man be­ing, and given what I’ve achieved, it re­ally wasn’t worth it.”

Some miss it more than oth­ers. Je­sus Chavez [in­set], for in­stance, a world cham­pion at su­per-feath­er­weight and light­weight, main­tains he’s as happy in re­tire­ment as he was when pur­su­ing box­ing gold. He feels this way be­cause, one, he achieved his goal of be­com­ing a world cham­pion, and, two, he flour­ishes in re­tire­ment as a case man­ager for a restau­rant in Dal­las, Texas, where he helps dis­en­fran­chised youths.

“It’s called Cafe Mo­men­tum and what we do there is em­ploy kids,” says Chavez, who last boxed in 2010. “My work is what I re­ally en­joy right now. I have a case load of, like, 13 or 14 kids I look af­ter. They are trou­bled kids and they come from de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties.

“It’s a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. I help the kids with what­ever is­sues they may have: go­ing to their PO (pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer), run­ning er­rands. We help with hous­ing, med­i­cal in­sur­ance and so on. We try to look out for them. This restau­rant helps them and gives them a sec­ond chance.”

Less of a job, more of a pas­sion, it seems to have also of­fered Chavez, 45, the chance to move on. “I don’t fol­low box­ing at all,” he ad­mits. “I watch a fight here and there, but that’s it. It’s in my blood, so there’s no way I’ll ever dis­card it from my life, but I’m not a mas­sive fan. I don’t miss any­thing about box­ing. I never re­ally en­joyed fight­ing. I know I sound two-faced when I say that be­cause if I didn’t en­joy fight­ing – which I re­ally didn’t – what made me the most of­fen­sive fighter in the sport?” Pride, per­haps. Last year, Tony Dod­son’s pride was nip­ping at him and con­tin­u­ally re­mind­ing him of its pres­ence. It kept him in a state of de­fla­tion and de­pres­sion on the liv­ing room sofa, and for months he fes­tered there, putting on weight – mind and body – and rue­ing ev­ery­thing that led to that point. But then one day, out of the blue, the old ‘War­rior’ swal­lowed it. He for­got all about his box­ing ca­reer and what could have been and in­stead ap­plied to be­come a dif­fer­ent kind of fighter.

“It was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for me to try and im­ple­ment the struc­ture from box­ing to fire­fight­ing,” says Dod­son, who’d pre­vi­ously worked for Crosby Fire Ser­vice’s street in­ter­ven­tion team. “Let’s not for­get I’ve been box­ing since I was six. All I’ve known is struc­ture and rou­tine.

“I was sit­ting around turn­ing into a fat b ***** d. I went up to 16st 8lbs. I had a car crash and got com­pres­sion dam­age in my wrist and I ba­si­cally sat on my arse and got de­pressed. I couldn’t punch for 15 weeks. It was like some­one was up there telling me fight­ing wasn’t for me any­more. “Thank­fully, be­cause I was work­ing part-time for the fire ser­vice, I knew when they were go­ing to start re­cruit­ing and I ap­plied. When I got con­firmed in Fe­bru­ary, I had to re­tire [from box­ing]. I’m get­ting more money in the fire ser­vice. I feel blessed. Fire­fight­ers are con­sid­ered heroes. Peo­ple look up to you. We drive around and peo­ple are wav­ing at us and ask­ing if they can have a go on the ap­pli­ances. Peo­ple are in­fat­u­ated with fire­fight­ers. We have peo­ple who ac­tu­ally hang out at the sta­tion and take pic­tures of us as we come out.” Dod­son, a fully-fledged fire­fighter in Crosby, was re­cently on the top deck of a ship fight­ing a fire at five o’clock in the evening and thought not once about his days punch­ing peo­ple. Be­cause fire­fight­ing, he un­der­stands, is the ul­ti­mate kind of fight­ing. It’s self­less fight­ing. It’s fight­ing spared the hype and the un­der­cur­rent of greed and ego

I DON’T FOL­LOW BOX­ING. I DON’T MISS ANY­THING ABOUT IT. I NEVER EN­JOYED FIGHT­ING”

MY EX-GIRL­FRIEND USED TO TELL ME I WASN’T A MAN’S MAN. ALL I KNEW WAS BOX­ING”

that per­me­ates. In re­tire­ment, David Starie, a fel­low su­per-mid­dleweight, chose the same path and Dod­son, ex­tin­guish­ing fires along­side for­mer am­a­teur boxer Neil Suku, now knows why.

“I get it now,” he says. “If you’d told me this when I was fight­ing, I’d have said, ‘No, they’re only do­ing a bit of fire­fight­ing.’ But I know now what we ac­tu­ally risk and how danger­ous a job it is. It’s so self­less.

“When you’re go­ing into a build­ing that’s ab­so­lutely pitch black, and you can’t see in front of your face, it’s a thou­sand de­grees, and your life is on the line, you know the dif­fer­ence. You can’t get any braver than that. In the ring, you’re be­ing brave, but you know it’s un­likely you’re go­ing to get se­ri­ously hurt. In a fire, you’re go­ing into the un­known. A fire is one nasty moth­erf**ker. It can turn in a sec­ond.”

Gary Sykes’ so­cial me­dia mes­sage, mean­while, the one he never wanted to write, re­ceived an out­pour­ing of good­will and a job of­fer. “I got a job 10 min­utes later,” he says. “I’m now lay­ing gran­ite work­tops. It’s just to keep me go­ing at the mo­ment. I’m not a man’s man. My ex-girl­friend used to tell me that all the time. All I knew was box­ing.”

Ask for­mer box­ers about re­gret, things they’d do dif­fer­ently if given the op­por­tu­nity, and the ones able to relin­quish pride will rat­tle off a long list. Dod­son and Sykes are no ex­cep­tion. “When I was younger, I could talk clearer than I can now,” Sykes con­cedes. “I did a graphic de­sign course and a part of me wishes I car­ried on down that road and didn’t box. I put all my eggs in the wrong bas­ket.”

Sykes’ first post-box­ing job was in CAD (com­put­eraided draft­ing) de­sign. He liked it ini­tially, be­cause it rep­re­sented a clean break from the fight game, but then his “head started to go”, and his at­ten­dance suf­fered as a re­sult. He was drink­ing, he’d split with his girl­friend, and the box­ing gym con­tin­ued to call. He wanted help but wouldn’t dare ask for it. “It’s been hard, but I’m pos­i­tive I can sort it out,” says the York­shire­man, who now in­tends to com­plete a level three per­sonal train­ing course.

Dod­son, on the other hand, is still fight­ing in one sense but is now fu­elled by the sort of con­tent­ment some re­tired fighters will spend decades try­ing to dis­cover. “The per­son I owe all of this to is my fa­ther, Eric,” he says. “It’s the foun­da­tions he se­cured for me as a hu­man, as a per­son, as a son, that have made me make th­ese de­ci­sions and go for things like a job with the fire ser­vice. If he hadn’t put the struc­ture in place, I wouldn’t have the men­tal­ity I’ve got. I wouldn’t have gone for it.

“He al­ways said, ‘Tony, you’re bril­liant at fight­ing, but you’ve al­ways got to think about the fu­ture. The fire ser­vice is a mas­sive and re­spected or­gan­i­sa­tion and if you could get in­volved there when you fin­ish box­ing it would be great for you.’ He told me it would suit me down to the ground. He was right.”

Grounded. For as long as a boxer’s ac­tive, it’s a po­si­tion they are taught to avoid. In re­tire­ment, how­ever, it’s of­ten the key.

Photo: AC­TION IM­AGES

IN PLAIN CLOTHES: Sykes is strug­gling with the box­ing af­ter­life

Pho­tos: AC­TION IM­AGES & STACEY VERBEEK

WHAT HAP­PENS NEXT? Dod­son ad­mits he slipped into de­pres­sion and put on se­ri­ous weight as he tried to an­swer that ques­tion

OUT OF THE FRY­ING PAN: Starie be­lieves his new pro­fes­sion is more danger­ous than box­ing

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