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How boxing champions face their fears

Carl Froch
Even elite-level boxers suffer from feelings of anxiety and self-doubt before a fight. Elliot Worsell speaks to five former world champions to find out how they were able to combat their nerves

SPEND time in a boxer’s changing room on fight night and you will come away not only certain there are few environments as tense or nerve-wracking but equally certain the success of a boxer has as much to do with controlling their mind ahead of a fight as controlling their body once the bell rings. It is a terrifying, fascinating experience, both for the boxer and bystander, and merely witnessing it will reveal more about the boxer – and all boxers – than every interview, press conference and pre-fight documentary combined.

In order to survive in a boxer’s changing room, one must master the art of staying quiet and resist speaking out of turn. One must also understand that the boxer, contrary to what their smile and any small talk might suggest, is preparing for a fight and will therefore be riddled with nerves, apprehension and, yes, some degree of fear. This will manifest in various ways and will be easy to detect if one is both quiet and paying attention. Yet, whether obvious or not, nerves and fear are not things spoken about and are still for some reason considered taboo in a sport like boxing.

Indeed, a boxer will often be asked about nerves or fear, either at a press conference or during an interview, and will typically respond the same way every time: “No. Not me.” They say it quickly and instinctively, almost as though to admit to nerves is to reveal a weakness or somehow enhance the power of their opponent. But, in the end, the lie makes little sense, for nerves are universal and something every boxer experiences. Moreover, nerves are one of the few things two boxers preparing for a fight will undoubtedly have in common.

“Early on in my amateur career the nerves leading into a fight were horrific,” said former world super-middleweight champion Carl Froch. “I used to get to the venue and think to myself, ‘Why do I box? Why do I keep doing this to myself?’ Most of the time I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to keep putting myself through the trauma of preparing my mind for a fight. It was the most terrifying thing I did as a kid.”

When he first entered Gedling’s Phoenix ABC at nine years of age, Carl Froch was small, skinny, weak and, worst of all, unsure. His role models in boxing were Barry McGuigan, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, but he also admired snooker player Steve Davis and Nottingham football hero Brian Clough and was clearly keen to keep his options open.

His first fight at 10 was little more than a trial, a taster. It was not perceived to be the start of some great adventure and it was not something Froch particularly wanted to make a habit of doing, either. In fact, by the age of 15 he had found other interests and boxing, this scary pastime, was booted under the bed and soon forgotten. He had moved to Newark around that time, away from Phoenix ABC and all it offered, and experienced no itch to return to boxing until he started watching “Prince” Naseem Hamed on television. Somehow Hamed made a dangerous sport appear almost fun and Froch, now 19, was tempted back.

“When I started boxing for England, I lacked self-belief and put a lot of pressure on myself to win fights and impress,” said Froch, who, as an amateur, won a bronze medal at the 2001 World Championships in Belfast. “I always had the bigger picture in my head: I had to win fights, impress the selectors, progress to the Olympic qualifiers and then qualify for the Olympics and win a medal on television. There was this long process of pressure and expectancy and, for the most part, the pressure was self-applied. I became nervous before fights simply because there was so much riding on success. I didn’t want to let anybody down.”

Carl Froch boxing

Froch, 33-2 (24), turned professional in 2002 and won five fights that year, five the following year, and four in 2004, a year in which he also secured the British super-middleweight title with a one-round demolition of Damon Hague. “As a pro, my nerves settled a bit as a result of winning,” he said, “and self-belief grew along the way. It soon felt like I was treading the same old path each time I prepared for a fight. I knew that I’d been here before and had experienced these same nerves but had still performed and won.

“When you’re a kid you just assume that because you are nervous you’re going to get your a**e kicked. In reality, though, so long as you can handle those nerves, they will only make you fight better.

“Put it this way, after a while I no longer walked around nervously before a fight asking everybody in the changing room how long we had until showtime. Twenty minutes, is it? Okay, let me check my laces. Oh no, my laces don’t feel right. Let me tie them again so they feel like winning laces.

“Fighters go through situations like that in their head before a fight and it only goes away with experience. Thankfully, I got to a point where I could just sit calmly in the changing room and not worry about anything. I’d give a little nod here and there when I needed something, let’s say a bottle of water, and would then ease my way towards a sweat with some shadowboxing or pad work. It became a process I had been through many times.”

George Groves, Froch’s great rival, is another retired super-middleweight champion who believes that controlling nerves has as much to do with experience and process as anything else. He too suffered nerves as an amateur and he too discovered that new experiences and leaps into the unknown would, even as a pro, sometimes cause a flare up. However, in time, having headlined arena shows, grown accustomed to grudge matches, and eventually filled Wembley Stadium, Groves found himself able to tame his nerves and perform.

“The bigger the fight the more nervous energy you experience,” Groves, 28-4 (20), said. “But, so long as you can still sleep, rest and eat, it shouldn’t be a problem. Everybody is going to feel a little nervous going into a big fight, but it’s okay so long as it doesn’t impact you in the ring. You want to be nervous and you want to be excited, but you don’t want to feel out of your depth. And you’ll only feel out of your depth if you’ve been thrown in deep or lack experience.

“I’ve been fighting all my life, so I know what it feels like to step into a ring in front of thousands of people and fight somebody. Once you’ve done it once or twice, you start to relax and feel at one with it. You’re still nervous and excited, but you don’t panic, because you’re not out of your depth. You know you belong in there and can hold it together.”

A lot of the time it was not the opponent or the occasion itself that troubled Groves in the final hours before battle. It was instead his knowledge of the past and the perfectionist’s approach he had to preparation. “When you’re in the changing room warming up, you’re enjoying the moment, but you’re also thinking to yourself, ‘F**k, I’ve got a big task ahead of me now’,” he said. “There’s an unknown element to it and that’s what keeps you on edge and stops you enjoying the moment. You don’t know what’s about to happen. But, if preparation has gone well, you have absolutely no doubt in that changing room on fight night.

George Groves boxing

“If you’ve been injured, missed a few runs, or cheated on prep in some way, then, yes, you will experience doubts. Little things will start to bother you and you’ll become agitated. You’ll already be thinking about who to blame for all these little things that have gone wrong, though obviously you keep it to yourself.

“I’ve had times when I’ve walked around the changing room, almost talking to myself, saying, ‘You’re bigger, you’re faster, and you’re stronger. He isn’t better than you in any department.’ I went through all the clichés and would say that to myself every time I boxed. I didn’t need to hear it from anybody else. If I could say that sort of thing and truly believe it, I’d be in a good place.”

Steve Collins, the former WBO middleweight and super-middleweight champion, is another advocate of getting the preparation right, both physically and mentally, to combat inevitable pre-fight nerves. As tough as any fighter in recent memory, the Irishman would refuse to entertain the concept of being hurt, much less defeated, because he knew it was this, the fear of defeat, which kept him awake at night.

“We all get nervous, it doesn’t matter who you are,” Collins, 36-3 (21), said. “But I always tried to work out what it was that made me nervous. In the end, I realised that what really concerned me wasn’t the pain, getting cut, or the gruelling nature of a fight, but was just the idea of losing. I didn’t want to lose, simple as that. I’d put myself under so much pressure not to lose that I didn’t care what I had to go through in order to win. I always said to myself, ‘You’re only coming out of the ring one way, and that’s not on a stretcher, it’s stone cold dead.’ I couldn’t entertain the idea of losing and just walking out the ring having not tried.

“By the time a fight came around I knew I was going to win because I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t win. I trained harder than anyone else, I was as tough as anyone else, and I was as determined as anyone else. That makes you a hard man to beat.

“Nobody could knock me out. I just wouldn’t accept being knocked out. If somebody hit me and hurt me, I wouldn’t show it. Over time, I didn’t even think about the shots hitting and hurting me. It just became a part of the fight. So even when I was hurt, it was as though I didn’t even realise it.

“The idea of being knocked out never scared me. I’ve lost minutes and rounds in fights but the machine that was inside me – my heart, my guts – would never stop. It was always there ticking at the same rate.”

Though at the time they would never admit it, occasionally the threat of an opponent is enough of an issue to generate nerves and instil fear in even the most assured world-class boxer. They will, after all, for two months be thinking about this person, training to fight this person, and imagining beating this person when the time comes. It is only natural therefore they will grow both sick and wary of their presence.

“Jermain Taylor was probably the worst it got as far as nerves,” recalled Froch, who boxed Taylor in 2009. “I thought my heart was going to explode at one point during fight week. I was lying on the bed with [wife] Rachael and trying my best to control my breathing and not think about the fight. She then turned to me and said, ‘Carl, what the hell is that noise?’ My heart was beating extremely fast and my breathing had almost turned to a kind of quivering. It made a really strange, disturbing noise. I struggled to slow my heartbeat down to return my breathing to normal, and that was all due to the fact I found myself thinking about the fight.

“Looking back, Taylor represented my first world title defence and was a guy I had watched for years. I’d seen him twice beat the legendary Bernard Hopkins. This was also my first big fight in America, and that alone brought about lots of new, unknown elements I had yet to encounter. I remember thinking, ‘Am I actually good enough to beat Taylor?’ It was horrible.”

Robin Reid, also a former WBC super-middleweight champion, put off studying footage of Henry Wharton, a man he boxed in 1997, until two weeks before they were due to fight, so afraid was he of what he might see. No longer a fan, he now had to imagine Wharton as a prospective opponent, a danger, and had consequently been ignoring the Wharton videos scattered around his television for as long as he could.

“I stuck the old VHS tape in the player and remember sitting on the couch shaking with nerves,” Reid, 42-8-1 (29), said. “I was more nervous watching him than I was when I fought him, and I don’t really know why that was. Reality kicked in, I guess. Most of the fights I had on tape ended with him chinning someone with a left hook, so that certainly didn’t help my nerves. He was a big hooker and his power seemed to always be there, even if he was getting hammered. That was another thing that shook me up, the idea that I could be beating this man up for round after round and he could still clean me out with one shot.

“When he fought Mauro Galvano for the European title, he was having his head boxed off, but Galvano was cut. The ref went up to Galvano and said, ‘Look, it’s a bad cut, you’ve got one more round.’ But instead of doing the sensible thing and coming out boxing and jabbing, Galvano then tries to stop him in the fourth, walks into a Wharton left hook, and is on his back. The fight’s over. Wharton was dangerous for every second of every round and that fact alone made me nervous.”

The cruellest element in all this, perhaps, is that while experience and success will reduce nerves to an extent, boxers also know that pressure and expectancy, by-products of success, will be doing all they can to bring about new anxieties and fears. As is their tendency, big fights bring big pressure and life, too, has a habit of providing additional mental hurdles for a boxer long before they get around to worrying about the opponent looking to render them unconscious on fight night.

“I remember feeling really nervous because everything I’d trained for was on that one night,” said Joe Calzaghe, 46-0 (32), of the night he defeated Chris Eubank to win the WBO super-middleweight title in 1997. “How nervous? Well, put it this way, I normally get in the ring at 12 stone 10 [pounds], but that night I was 12 stone four. I was a bag of nerves and that nervous energy had made me lose weight.

Joe Calzaghe

“It wasn’t just about winning the world title, either. I needed to win the fight so that I could afford to pay my mortgage and look after my son, who was around four months old at the time. Everything was riding on that fight and, in many ways, it was about more than just the fight. If I won, I’d be able to move to the next level and make better money. If I lost, the journey would almost be over before it had begun. I hadn’t felt pressure like that before and I haven’t felt it since.”

Calzaghe’s nerves began to subside the moment he nailed Eubank with a left hand and put him on his backside inside the opening 15 seconds of the fight. It was then he battled different issues: overexuberance, recklessness and tiredness. But the nerves at least backed away, as they have a propensity to do once the bell rings and the first punches are thrown and landed.

It is, at that stage, too late to overthink or worry, and certainly too late to turn back. At that stage, with the fight in progress, everything happening to a boxer starts to feel normal and the ring becomes the place in which they feel most comfortable.

“I remember against [Jean] Pascal I walked out there early doors and threw a double-jab, right hand that backed him up to the ropes,” Froch said. “He then invited me in and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t require a second invitation, especially so early in the fight, and jumped on him immediately. You crave an opportunity like that to shake the nerves from your body and he gave it to me on a plate.”

In retreating to the ropes that night, Jean Pascal believed he was demonstrating his own conviction and lack of nerves and using this blasé approach as a weapon. What he failed to realise, though, was that in acting this way he had inadvertently liberated a nervous man and, in turn, uncaged a monster, a reality he would learn in due course.

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