A Zen Master.
It’s a made up phrase really but according to Wikipedia it refers to someone who can demonstrate detachment and control in stressful situations.
Ryan Burnett, from what I observed at the SSE Arena in Belfast on Saturday night, is a Zen Master.
He was back home boxing in Belfast as a pro for just the third time, the SSE Arena was packed with an expectant home crowd and, under a lot of pressure to deliver, the 25 year old performed like a man with a dozen world title fights under his belt.
Boxing ability is one thing, the ability to handle pressure and expectation is another, and when the two coincide then you have a rare athlete indeed.
I went to see him in the gym eleven days before the fight and it was an interesting trip. Going to gyms is always great if you do my job because you get the chance to observe and discuss on the fighters’ turf, on their ground and as a result they’re always just that bit more relaxed than they would be in the more formal setting of a press conference. And if you can get there before fight week then all the better as the night itself is just that bit further away and those testing last few days of dropping weight haven’t yet arrived.
I was curious to get an idea of what a body attack from a bantamweight world title challenger felt like so asked to don the body belt and get in the ring. Adam Booth was happy to oblige and looked on with great amusement as his man gave me a good battering. And I do mean a battering. The power generated by someone about two thirds my weight was absurd really but thankfully there was no pain, the belt did its job. I don’t even want to think about what it would have been like without it.
I’d spoken to Burnett before briefly but only at weigh-ins which, for the reasons outlined above, are never the best time, so I hadn’t really discovered what he was like. After a few questions about camp etc. I asked him how he would deal with the pressure of boxing in front of the home crowd and that was when it got really fascinating.
It would, he said, simply be a question of turning over from his conscious mind to his sub conscious mind. This would allow him to remove all emotion and unhelpful external interference, and would be implemented by him turning off all the senses that he did not need in the ring such as hearing, taste, smell and touch and just leaving the one that he did need, his sight, active. Once he’d done that he could just let his boxing flow. So what about between rounds I asked him, he needed to listen to Adam in the corner surely, he’d need his hearing for that? Yes, he said, but between rounds he could just switch his hearing on and then at the end of the minute’s rest dial it down again, he didn’t need it when the fight was actually in progress.
Now, if someone had sat opposite me just a couple of years ago and claimed to be able to do this I would have listened respectfully but privately I’d have been extremely sceptical that anyone actually could. But the more I’ve read about the psychology of sport the more I’ve become aware that there are people who can do this; they’re unusual, but they do exist.
There’s a little book called Zen and the Art of Archery: Training the Mind and Body to Become One which I’d read fairly recently. Cus D’Amato used to give it to all his fighters to read and although it speaks about the practice of Archery it can be applied to any sport or pursuit really. It talks about how novice archers obsess about the moment of release, how they become fixated with working out when they should loose the arrow and let it fly. There must be a formula surely? A certain amount of seconds at full extension before you shoot maybe or a certain amount of breaths, or blinks of the eye? Inevitably people overthink it and become gripped by tension, at which point any chance they have of accurately finding their target is hugely diminished.
So what’s the answer? Well the answer is that there is no quick, easy answer, that there is no formula involving seconds or breaths or blinks. It all comes down to dedication to your craft. If you practice and practice and practice with the reward being the act of practising itself then at some point in the future you will reach a stage at which what you are doing is so ingrained, is so natural that releasing the arrow will cease to be a conscious act, it will just become something that happens; you won’t have to release the arrow, it will release itself.
This, I think anyway, was what Burnett was talking about. “I do not fear” he said to me “the man who practises one thousand kicks but instead the man who practises the same kick one thousand times.” He was quoting Bruce Lee and it made sense. He has been boxing so long (since the age of 4), practising, religiously, the same things, the right things, over and over again, and experiencing and envisioning all different pugilistic scenarios repeatedly to the point where whatever comes his way in the ring he feels confident that he can produce the answer without even having to think about it. The bell goes and you can let your boxing flow, as he put it; the punches will throw themselves.
So I was open to the idea that a sportsman can achieve that kind state (I think you would have to call it a state) even in an environment as incredibly emotional as a boxing ring but decided that I would reserve judgement on whether Burnett was one of those people or not until June 10 when I would see him under the lights and in front of the cameras with a world title on the line and a dream to be realised.
And on the night he proved that he was, that he is. He was detached and controlled and didn’t show a flicker of emotion, except giving glimpses that he was enjoying himself, until the fight was over and then the emotion came out. He handled the pressure, he handled the expectation, he handled his opponent and he handled the fight, cuts, head clashes and all.
Now all of this does not mean he is the only one that can do this or that he cannot be beaten. Whilst a Zen Master may be able to turn his emotions on and off, his pursuit of excellence, with all the hard work, constant practice and repetition that it demands, cannot be, that can never be neglected. The training of the body and mind must continue, it’s a twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year vocation. But then so is boxing. Fighters often talk about how what they do is not a lifestyle, it’s not something you do nine to five, it’s a religion and it requires fanatical devotion.
So I’d say that there are more Zen Masters in boxing than in any other sport; the level of obsession required to be successful in the latter demands that you possess at least some of the ingredients to achieve the status of being the former.
Becoming one and remaining one isn’t easy though, if it was everyone would be doing it.