A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for, to see the bad guys get beat.’
– Sonny Liston
With only five days to go until the controversial Bellew v Cleverly PPV show, the Sky / Matchroom publicity machine has been thrust into overdrive. Advertisements proclaim it to be a ‘stacked card’ and a ‘massive night for British boxing’ while the contrivance that is the ‘Gloves are Off’ reached new heights of awkwardness.
Throughout boxing history, one of the most cherished ways of selling a fight has been to cast it as a battle between good guy and villain – white hero Jim Jeffries v black scoundrel Jack Johnson, all-American star Joe Louis v Nazi swine Max Schmeling, principled Muhammed Ali v brutal George Foreman, even family man Marcos Maidana v flashy braggart Floyd Mayweather – we could carry on all day.
For this reason fighters are often asked to play the part of the anti-hero to sell tickets or boost interest. Sonny Liston, quoted at the start of this article, played this role throughout his career. Adrien Broner is perhaps the best modern example. It’s a simple reverse-psychology tactic, rather than watching to support you, fans will be attracted to the fight in the hope of seeing you lose – for promoters and TV companies, as long as punters pay their money, its job done.
With this particular promotion and with the arena already sold out to supporters of both men, the task to attract as many casuals as possible seems to have fallen on the shoulders of Tony Bellew, who repeatedly snarls and tells us that he hates Nathan Cleverly and wants to hurt him. When questioned as to the reasons for this, however, Bomber is generally unable to say anything even remotely convincing. “Things have been said…he just rubs me up the wrong way…I don’t like his face etc etc”
Perhaps sensing that his early efforts had not quite boosted audience figures enough, Bellew ramped things up a notch last week on the Colin Murray Talksport radio show. The interview got a bit tasty when the ubiquitous Steve Bunce stepped in to ask Tony a question and Bomber reacted with unbridled hostility.
Steve Bunce is a journalist who seems to attract polarised opinions. Speaking personally, having met him and been on his TV show on BoxNation, I have a lot of respect for his passion and dedication. The problem here seems to have arisen because last year Steve was critical of Bomber’s world title challenge against Adonis Stevenson, in which the scouser was TKO’d in the 6th after boxing the first five rounds on the back foot. Having promised before the contest to take the fight to Stevenson and put him under pressure, Bunce’s view was that Bellew had failed to deliver.
Tony expressed his indignation by saying something along the lines of, “You’ve said things about me I don’t like. I’m a fighter, you’re a writer, I get in there and take punches, I get up from knockdowns, I fight with broken hands. All you do is talk about boxing, you don’t fight and I do so shut up.”
This set me off because its something I hear very often. Fighters frequently come out with this line when a writer or broadcaster says something they don’t like. Boxers have said it to me in the past. (Although I did dabble a bit in some white-collar stuff in my twenties and thirties I can’t claim a wealth of fistic experience.) Darren Hamilton, former British Light-Welterweight champion who I’ve met and is a really nice bloke, says this kind of thing quite often, as does Paul Smith (British Super-Middleweight champ) and numerous others.
Being honest, this attitude is something that really irritates me. It is of course true that professional boxers put their lives on the line and in doing so are making their way through an extremely tough business, but ultimately, they have chosen their career because they like it and want to do it. If taking punches, getting cut and concussed are not risks they are happy to take on a regular basis, they are completely free to pack it in and do something else. Without question, fighters deserve respect. But no matter how fragile their egos might be, they don’t deserve exemption from criticism.
By the same logic Steve Bunce is perfectly entitled to say, “Look Tony, I’m a broadcaster, you’re not. I have to fill up air-time and make live shows with unexpected gaps run as smoothly as possible, based on ever changing instructions from the producer. I’m under enormous pressure to be as interesting / knowledgeable / witty as possible at all times. You don’t understand any of that or how it works so you can shut up as well.”
Anyone who is in any sort of entertainment business, such as professional sport, has to accept that people will analyse and criticse what they do. I recently spent 8 months writing a book, for example. When people disagree with parts of it or find fault (which fortunately hasn’t happened very much so far) am I entitled to fly off the handle? Can I shout “I wrote that book while holding down a full time job, with a baby at home keeping me up at night, sitting in the kitchen with a laptop and a fucking headache until 2 in the morning when I had work the next day, all because I wanted to tell an untold story. You haven’t done those things so piss off!” Can I? Or should I be more mature than that and accept that I have produced something for public consumption and therefore people are perfectly entitled to react to it freely and say what they want about it?
In my two short spells in the white-collar world, I gained an insight into boxer psychology. The emotional and psychological strain of training, dieting and competing is very high. Doubt and loneliness can gnaw away and drag many boxers into depression. There are different ways of coping but one, perhaps the easiest one, is to convince yourself that you’re special. It was a trap I almost fell into myself. I remember getting up at 6 am for morning runs before work, in the park at dawn, with frost on the ground and just a few crows for company. I would look at the dark bedroom windows of the houses across the road with scorn – all those fat and soft office workers cosy in their beds. How superior I was doing my sprints, with breath pluming from my mouth and frozen fingers!
But it was just an illusion, a way of kidding myself, of driving myself on. The truth is I wasn’t special or worthy of particular praise or admiration because I chose to practice a sport that involved getting punched in the face. I wasn’t living by some noble warrior code that normal mortals don’t understand. I was just a guy doing something he had chosen to do. The rest of the world, still snoozing beneath their duvets, couldn’t care less. And why should they? They have their own problems, their own choices, their own paths to follow.
Boxers, whether they like it or not are subject to the same processes as everyone else, they deserve respect, but if they want it, they need to give it too. Throwing a tantrum every time someone says or writes something you don’t like, or using the “I’m a fighter and you’re not” line just shows that you think you’re entitled to special treatment. If anything it diminishes, not enforces the aura of gladiatoral mystique and creates an impression of a silly, self-centred kid.
Yes you’re a fighter. Props to you. Now please stop whining about it and fight.