As a boxer or ex-boxer, it’s time to address a very important issue, says Derek Williams
FOR ANY boxer or ex-boxer who reads this article, I ask, when did you first become aware of your mental health, or felt you needed help to preserve it? It’s not a loaded question, it’s just an enquiry into whether you tended to your mind and its wellness anywhere as much as you did your body, during or after your career. As a former professional boxer and now a wellbeing counsellor, I ask myself this question a lot.
It can only be a good thing when high profile names in the sport like Frank Bruno, Tyson Fury and Ricky Hatton voluntarily disclose mental struggles they’ve had in and outside of the sport. Their revelations help to humanise boxers, unlock their unseen vulnerabilities, and demonstrate that resolution and healing can be found in dialogue and advocacy.
The extreme highs and lows of winning and losing in this sport, the fight to optimise your career window, the struggle to make money that at the very least justifies all the sacrifices you’ve made, and the exposure to potential brain injury and cognitive impairment, induces a tremendous amount of stress on the mind and body.
My mental health came into focus when I lost my European title to Jean Chanet in February 1990 and then lost the rematch three months later. I was a huge favourite going into both fights, so much so in the first one that it was verbally agreed that I would take on my arch-rival, Gary Mason, six weeks later in a triple-title showdown; a fight I was supremely confident of winning.
I held every conceivable advantage over Chanet, who was essentially a respectable journeyman at that time. He was an under-sized heavyweight, with modest power and a susceptibility to cuts, but had enjoyed surprising success against UK heavyweights leading up to our first fight. But I had him for pure talent, height, reach, strength, and power – even common opponents (he had already lost to two men that I had beaten convincingly). Yet, none of these ‘aces’ prevented me from turning in what I regard – up until this day – as the two worst performances of my career.
Curiously, I wouldn’t or couldn’t throw punches with my usual volume, force, or accuracy throughout the 24 rounds against an opponent who was right in front of me with little defence, mobility, or power. Chanet didn’t even have to raise his game to secure the biggest win of his career, as I remained stuck in first gear, watching him, goggle-eyed, unable to react, as he waded away unspectacularly. It felt like I’d had an out of body experience.
Worse still, I had no answers as to why I had performed so direly. No disrespect to Chanet but in my mind and those of my team and supporters, the first fight was merely an aberration, and one which I would set straight in the rematch.
However, my performance in the rematch was possibly even worse. This time the aftermath was one of emptiness. I knew that I needed introspection, that getting answers to all the questions that I was asking myself, was going to be an internal thing. But my self-belief and ego struggled to withstand a second, consecutive loss to the same fighter, and one I thought that I was better than. Doubts that I had never had before flooded my head. The devastation at seeing the derailment of my career in a dark Parisian blind spot overwhelmed me. I thought my time as a serious contender was over before it really began.
The famous American psychologist, Dr Paul Ekman, described six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Each emotion was a touchpoint for me – apart from happiness – after losing in France. I was incredulous at losing to Chanet and fearful of what was next for me. I recognised some of this in Anthony Joshua’s behaviour during his outburst in the ring after losing to Oleksandr Usyk for a second time. It appeared to be out of character for him, but emotions can and do start before our conscious mind is aware of them and Joshua would’ve had little time to consider rationality.
After that second defeat, I knew what was coming, I suspect Joshua did too. I had to face the widespread ridicule for losing to a fighter I was expected to beat, not once but twice. It was intimated that my mental fortitude didn’t match up to my ability and therefore I should be written off as a genuine contender. I was just 25. I internalised much of what was said about me. There were no meltdowns or spiralling in my personal life, but those defeats destabilised me; I just didn’t know how much.
A loss in the ring always means a future loss for the fighter, financially and in terms of marketability. Losing meant that the fight with Mason had disappeared and was unlikely to be resurrected. On top of that I was concerned that my manager and promoter, Mike Barrett, no longer had enough promotional cache to create the opportunities that were needed for me to get back into contention. I had already been disappointed that as the European champion, I had to travel to France to fight a challenger with 10 defeats in a circus tent.
Little did I know that those reverses to Jean Chanet defined the rest of my boxing career. I returned to the ring a year after the rematch with a good win, defending my Commonwealth title against the dangerous Jimmy Thunder. I felt like myself again; the recovery from the disaster in France seemed to be complete. But I was still rankled by what had happened in those two fights. I saw them as a personal stain and spent a lot of time attempting to make sense of it.
Three fights later I lost to Lennox Lewis. The emptiness and my disenchantment with the sport grew, but most worrying was my curious inability to win fights, even against opponents that on paper I should’ve beaten with something to spare. Fight night had become an albatross around my neck. It wasn’t quite stage fright, but the real battle had shifted to my mind rather than with my opponents. I began fights by waiting, expecting this strange feeling of listlessness to come over me and then I’d almost muddle my way through them, at half-speed. Losing this way affected everything. How could it not?
Would it have helped to speak to a professional? Probably. One of my old trainers, Winston Spencer, remarked during this period in my career: “You are your own psychologist”. I agree with him but now I know a single mind doesn’t have all the answers. Boxers step out of a natural comfort zone to compete in an unnaturally dangerous environment. I implore them to get equally uncomfortable investing in conversations with their personal networks and professionals during the tough times.
*** In collaboration with Wayne Cyrus ***
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