Sport Jim White
One of my favourite sporting films is Blue Blood, Stevan Riley’s 2006 documentary about the annual university boxing match between Oxford and Cambridge. It is a lovely piece, full of insight and thoughtful observation. Plus, it contains a scene that makes me chuckle every time I think of it.
Riley’s cameras follow the Oxford University Boxing Club for a year. Early in the term, a young philosophy undergraduate turns up in the gym. A bookish sort, he has the look of someone who might struggle to remain vertical in a strong breeze. But he has a plan: he is determined to demonstrate his theory that pain is all in the mind. As a thinker, he says, he is certain he has the mental capacity to outflank any hint of physical discomfort. And he’ll prove it by going into the boxing ring.
Eyeing him up and down, the coach is reluctant. But the lad is nothing if not persistent. And eventually the coach is persuaded to allow him to have a sparring session. Trussed up in protective headgear, the lad is put up against an experienced regular who is quietly told to go easy on him. Within no more than ten seconds, the regular has landed a swift right-hander on our lad’s nose. Immediately, the boy stops fighting, puts his gloved hands to his bruised face and, through involuntary tears, blubs out his pain with the immortal line, ‘Ow, that really hurt.’
I was reminded of that sequence, watching footballer Rio Ferdinand announce he was aiming to become a professional boxer, at the age of thirtyeight. Backed by bookmaker Betfair, his efforts will be followed in a campaign called Defender to Contender, with the idea that, within a year, he will challenge for a national cruiserweight title.
It is a follow-up to the hugely successful stunt the company pulled off last year, when it sponsored the Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton, a novice horsewoman, to take up jumpracing, with a view eventually to ride at the Cheltenham Festival. In a sport fraught with peril, Pendleton did brilliantly, after no more than twelve months in the saddle completing the most challenging course in National Hunt in one piece, a proper competitor.
Yet, dangerous as jump racing is – and as AP Mccoy, who managed to shatter every bone in his body during his magnificent twenty-five year career will attest, it can be very dangerous indeed – pain is an unlucky side-effect, not its very purpose. Despite some fierce provocation, no horse has yet been known to thump its jockey. Its function is not to separate a rider from their faculties. Boxing is different. The object of the sport is to inflict hurt on your opponent. Sufficient hurt, if properly applied, temporarily relieves them of consciousness – hurt known to have significant, long-term consequences.
Now, unlike our philosophy undergraduate, Ferdinand looks the part. A gym obsessive, despite retiring from professional football three seasons ago, physically he is in magnificent shape. But he has never boxed. He is trying to become a professional, pitching himself against young men schooled in hard knocks, capable of hitting with the force of a small saloon car. As Conor Mcgregor, the Irish mixed martial artist, discovered when he lost his debut boxing match to Floyd Mayweather Junior in August, boxing is pretty difficult.
A man who has lost his wife and his mother to cancer in the past 18 months, Ferdinand has faced profound emotional pain. But being hammered in the eye is very different. He may need direction post-retirement, he may be full of anger at his loss, but ‘Ow, that really hurt’ is but the start. Frankly, you fear for his safety.