FOR every winner there is a loser, and for every loser there is a lesson. Within every lesson, meanwhile, there is a reminder that great fighters rise up from the debris and that much of boxing’s appeal is rooted in the compelling nature of its defeats. As Joyce Carol Oates put it, “Boxing is about failure far more than it is about success.”
A loss can happen quickly or it can be prolonged like torture. It can be incredibly painful or it can be so swift it reduces the experience to something as blissful as an impromptu mid-afternoon nap. It can be embarrassing. It can be empowering. It can expose limitations and it can expose torsos, stripping a boxer of what was once around their waist. It can be unexpected and it can be greeted by silence. It can, if you’re a journeyman accustomed to losing, be just another night’s work, not far off an art form.
There are numerous ways to lose in the boxing ring and the sight of a boxer losing is so commonplace we often only think of it as the ying to the winner’s yang. The cover image of the victor, wrapped in gold, stood in the middle of the ring posing for photographers before commenting on action replays, counterbalanced by an unseen image of the loser, for whom replays exist not on television but in their mind as nightmares, exiting the ring and solemnly traipsing backstage.
But what really happens to these boxers after a loss? And how does it really feel to lose? Not lose like a journeyman, but really, truly, badly lose; lose in a high-profile fight in a sold-out venue; lose when they weren’t supposed to lose; lose so quickly the humiliation hurts more than the punches. How do those defeats feel?
David Haye was never supposed to lose to Carl Thompson in 2004. It was a calculated risk to take the fight – in light of the fact Haye was just 10-0 and Thompson boasted power and the greater experience – but made sense on account of Thompson being 40 years of age, presumed to be on the slide, and Haye, 23, carrying the cocksure swagger of a man for whom the result and life itself was already written.
Which is what made the eventual outcome, a fifth round stoppage in favour of Thompson, all the more shocking for us, those familiar with the script, and for Haye, the lead actor, whose lines we assumed were rehearsed. It wasn’t delivered before of a sold-out crowd (in fact, Wembley Arena was half-empty that night), nor was the defeat a particularly hurtful one. But that wasn’t the point. For Haye, exhausted rather than bashed up, no defeat could be worse than one he didn’t see coming.
“I’m fine,” he said afterwards, propped up on a bench in his changing room, both legs stretched out in front of him, a doctor by his side. “I’ve just got a massive f**king headache, that’s all. It’s probably the worst headache I’ve ever had. It feels like someone’s attacking my brain with an axe. It’s killing me.”
Haye spent that Friday night in hospital, the result of this head pain, and was then grabbing fast food from a drive-thru the following afternoon. An afternoon, on the face of it, like any other.
“I just felt like s**t in there,” he said. “My legs were the problem. They felt so heavy and slow. I couldn’t lift them at all by the third round. I had no life, energy or bounce in them. As soon as my legs went, I couldn’t get in position to throw my shots. I tried getting on my bike and outboxing him, but it wouldn’t happen. I was never hurt.”
A couple of days later Haye went on holiday, on his own, to Gran Canaria. The plan, he said, was to, “sit by the pool and think for a week or two,” which, by all accounts, he did. He first relaxed, then got serious, and then refocused on a career that would eventually lead to world titles as a cruiserweight and heavyweight. He also wrote a 3,000-word statement and a poem.
“Boxing is a sport,” the poem began. “Sports are there for us to play. Playing should make us happy. Happiness is a chemical reaction in the brain. Boxing damages the brain.”
David Price was never supposed to lose to another Thompson, Tony Thompson, when the pair boxed in 2013. The plan, we were led to believe, was for Price, winner of 15 fights in a row, to add the scalp of Thompson, a seemingly faded American, to his resume and then push towards world heavyweight title honours.
But that never happened. Price was cuffed around the ear by a hook and the fight was over in round two.
“I’ve always been accused, and rightly so, of probably not believing in myself,” Price said. “I get in the ring and hope I’m going to win. I have little doubts. That night was no different.”
It was a step up in class for Price, no question, but one he was expected to navigate without tripping. Trip he did, however, and it wasn’t until he lost to Thompson a second time, five months later, that he accepted he’d got it all wrong.
“Being honest, the jump to Tony Thompson was probably a little bit too far,” Price told Chris Walker following his fifth-round loss. “Seven months earlier he was fighting Wladimir Klitschko for the world title.
“There was no doubt I was getting moved quick and I was okay with it at the time because the momentum I’d built up made me feel like I could beat anyone. But I was caught and that was that.”
Only it wasn’t. Thompson, decked in round two in the rematch, later failed a drug test, which served to smudge the ink on the result and leave Price, a man also knocked out by Erkan Teper, another drug cheat, incensed.
“I’m my own worst critic,” he said. “So, initially, I thought it doesn’t matter, I lost. But then I spoke to a lot of people about it and they said, ‘Look, it shouldn’t be classed as a fight.’
“Even though I’m going in there believing I’m going to win, they’ve got an edge psychologically. They believe they are invincible. I have to tell myself it made a difference.”
In May 2014, George Groves was the favourite in his own mind but a narrow underdog with the bookies ahead of his rematch with Carl Froch. The odds hardly mattered to Groves, so convinced was he that he had ‘The Cobra’s number, nor did they matter to anyone who had watched the Londoner manhandle Froch for the majority of the eight-and-a-half rounds they spent in one another’s company in November 2013. Out with the old, in with the new, the Wembley Stadium rematch, many felt, represented a changing of the guard.
But it didn’t work out like that. In a bout full of tension, Groves outboxed Froch in parts, moved more than he did in their first encounter, and then, in round eight, didn’t move enough and found himself in line for the mother of all right hands, a cross so powerful it not only caught him on the chin and knocked him off his feet but, in an instant, shut down everything: his body, his mind, his hopes and dreams.
Groves, afterwards, sat in his away changing room, eyes to the floor, and attempted to digest the setback as 80,000 people fled down Wembley Way. He was then told, by his mother, that he ended the fight on his feet and should therefore feel proud; that he was winning; that, over the course of two fights, he showed he was the better boxer. Groves smiled. “Thanks, mum,” he said, “but that doesn’t really mean anything right now.”
Groves had lost before. But never like this. Never on this stage, on this scale. Never to someone he truly despised. Never to someone with whom he’d forever be synonymous; someone he would never again get the chance to beat.
“It’s that reality check that keeps you grounded,” Groves said of the loss. “Grounded in the sense that you ain’t anything special. You’re not the greatest fighter. You’re not the cleverest guy out there. You just might have been clever for that one moment in time. That doesn’t mean you won’t be again. But you can’t always be three steps ahead of everyone else.”
Groves didn’t hide. Far from it. He sat on the sofa of his apartment in Isleworth, alongside then-coach Paddy Fitzpatrick, and decided to watch the knockout punch not once, not twice, but a total of nine times in a row.
“I feel I can look at it for what it is now,” he said. “He hit me with the best shot of his f**king career and it’s embarrassing and annoying for me that I’m the c**t he hit with it.
“If you asked him to do it again, though, he’d never be able to. The stars wouldn’t align and that shoulder would’t be open when I try and hook. Ultimately, you drill everything in the gym, but, to a certain extent, you’re always winging it in there. I did the wrong thing at the wrong time. I still think I was unlucky.”
By the Monday, two days after the loss, Groves was on the phone to his promoters begging them for another fight. By August, he was on his way to California to spar Gennady Golovkin, the most terrifying puncher on the planet. Finally, as months passed, Groves, the current WBA world super-middleweight champion, found comfort in the notion that things could have been a whole lot worse.
“I remember before the (James) DeGale fight and both Froch fights I had this great fear of being wiped out in one round,” he said. “It was a haunting feeling, something I couldn’t control. I feared getting knocked out straight away. They’d say I was out of my league and I’d never be able to remove that humiliating defeat from my record.
“So, if I look at it that way, I’m now thinking, thank f**k I didn’t get knocked out in the first round in front of 80,000 people. That’s always a f**king panic before any fight.”
Amir Khan was never supposed to lose to Breidis Prescott in 2008, let alone do so inside 54 seconds of the first round. But he did and it shocked the world. Worst of all, it seemed to confirm suspicions that the 2004 Olympic silver medallist was fragile and would therefore fall short of fulfilling his potential. At least that was the narrative at the time, some 11 years ago.
“You always think nobody will beat you,” Khan said. “I was no different. I didn’t think anybody could beat me as a teenager and then, when I was older and stronger, I thought I’d be the best ever.
“Even though I got beaten badly against Prescott, I still had that belief. I still thought I’d become a world champion. I just saw the loss to Prescott as a bump in the road.
“Some people suffer a defeat and it destroys them. You see that time and time again. It finishes them. They’re never the same. But I’ve always used my defeats in a good way. I ask myself why I suffered the defeat and it helps me to improve. I’ve always tried to change something after a loss.”
Khan sucked it up, reinvented himself in Los Angeles, and within three fights had beaten Andreas Kotelnik to lift the WBA world super-lightweight title, a belt he’d successfully defend five times.
The best of them do that, you see. They change. They learn. They get better. A defeat, rather than finish them off, adds rings to their trunk, pages to their story, depth to their personality. It makes an endearingly flawed human being of men and women who strive to be anything but.
And perhaps, for a boxer, that’s what’s so scary about it.