Talking Boxing

Interviews, opinions, features and news from the greatest sport in the world!

January 4, 2017

Dangerous: A column by Ian Probert

Crying to the Sky: Should Ex-Boxers Receive Support For Their Depression?

by Ian Probert

Just over a year ago I decided to make a return to writing about boxing after a 25-year break. I won’t bore you with the reasons for this but the decision was mainly due to depression that I was suffering from. The admittedly bizarre idea was that in returning to my past I would somehow be able to make sense of my present and in doing so have some sort of future.

In seeking to lose my own depression, however, what I found was yet more depression. Depression, it became apparent to me after interviewing dozens of retired prizefighters, was endemic in boxing. I shouldn't really have been that surprised: after all, we’re talking about a sport of extreme highs and lows. A pastime in which the euphoria of success is matched in equal measure by the despair of loss. A profession whereby the current heavyweight champion is unable to defend his title because he is too depressed. Read that last sentence again: Tyson Fury, the heavyweight champion of the world, successor to Louis... Marciano... Ali... is currently unable to fight because he is suffering from depression. Incredible.

Which is why I wasn’t phased when only last week the former IBF light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton gave a lurid description of his own battles with depression. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today Show he told listeners: 

"I tried to kill myself several times. I used to go to the pub, come back, take the knife out and sit there in
the dark crying hysterically."

Disturbing as the 38-year-old’s words were, they would not be unfamiliar to anybody who follows boxing. Hatton’s trials and tribulations are well documented.

On the BBC website the following day Hatton made an impassioned plea on behalf of boxers who suffer from this debilitating disease. (And when I say debilitating I speak from personal experience):

“More should be done for boxers," said the Mancunian.

"Footballers have an agent who looks out for them and a football club that gets behind them.

"Whereas boxers, it's like once your time has gone it's 'on your way' and move on to the next champion coming through.”

Hatton, of course, is quite justified in bringing up the old chestnut of post-career support for fighters; boxers certainly should have some kind of back-up system to help them make the traumatic adjustment that retirement entails. But by the same token why shouldn’t ex-footballers enjoy the same privilege? Ex-cricketers? Ex-sprinters? Ex-bank managers? Ex-nurses? Ex-window cleaners? What makes boxers any more deserving of support than people from other walks of life?

Well the obvious answer to this question takes us back to my earlier point about the highs and lows inherent to boxing. But don’t people who aren’t boxers also suffer highs and lows in their lives? Ask a boxer this question and he will probably maintain that his highs and lows are on a whole different level to what others experience. Ask a plumber what he thinks about such a statement and he might well tell you that would give his right arm to experience such a high just once in his life.

More importantly, who would pay for such a scheme? Who would fund the cost of providing support for the thousands of ex-boxers living in this country? 

This isn’t the first time I’ve debated this. In the pub it usually only takes a couple of seconds for someone to suggest the obvious: the boxers themselves should cough up the readies. Fair enough – but how would this work? ‘Take a portion out of their purse after each fight...’ is generally the response to this question.
Let’s explore the mechanics of this suggestion: what we’re talking about is that after every fight a sum of money will be deducted from the boxers’ purse and put into some kind of fund. 

Time for some bullet points:

• How much money should be deducted? A fixed sum or a percentage of the purse? Given that the majority of boxers earn less than me, while at the same time the fortunate minority earn untold millions how workable is this? In effect, you will be asking boxing’s superstars to basically bankroll the sport’s also-rans. How will a Floyd Mayweather-type figure take to supporting a thousand Kristian Laights? He’d have to get rid of that fancy ice chamber for a start.

• Who will collect the money for this fund? Whether you decide that it’s the BBBofC or an independent body set up by ex-boxers such an undertaking requires manpower. Offices are required, secretaries, accountants, computers, etc. etc. How will this be funded? Easy – why not take a little more from the boxers’ purses.

• How will the fund be distributed? Will it take the form of a pension, automatically handed out to any ex-boxer or will the boxer have to have some sort of written evidence that he is suffering from an illness that had been caused by boxing? 

This in itself brings up a whole host of other problems. In the case of depression, for example, how can a boxer convincingly prove that the disability was caused by the giving and receiving of punches? Won’t we find ourselves in a situation where practically every retiring boxer automatically puts himself on the sick list in order to get his share of Mayweather’s purse shavings? 

Furthermore how many bouts must a fighter have in order to qualify? Should the fund apply only to pros or do amateurs also get a look in? How can we stop a Robert Maxwell type-figure from marching in and stealing the cash?

In the end, as in all things, it’s probably the case that good sense is the only way forward. Boxing doesn't need after support – what it really needs is pre-support. It needs managers, agents and boxers themselves to begin planning for what is eventually going to happen to them.

I’m not really one to talk because I’m 54 and have no pension. But then I didn't have a support team when I was in my twenties willing to tell me that things are not likely to get better – they’re sure to get worse. 
Back then if somebody had told me to keep a little of my earnings aside for that inevitable rainy day I’d have told them to stuff it. Which is exactly what I did and precisely why I’m sitting here on a cold January morning: a middle-aged man writing a gratis article on depression in boxing while trying unsuccessfully to stave off his own depression.

“More should be done for ex-boxing writers," said Probert.

"It's like once your time has gone it's 'on your way' and move on to the next boxing writer coming through.”

Ian Probert’s latest book mentions depression in boxing a lot and is available here:  https://goo.gl/iIB7Bb