Sport Jim White


The Oldie - - NEWS -

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.

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