This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine last month
HE’S head over heels the new champion, just not in the way you’d expect. Not in the giddy, loved-up, metaphorical sense. He’s head over heels in the dangerous sense. The more literal sense. The wrong way up, on his way down, I-told-you-not-to-do-that-but-you-did-it-anyway sense.
From this vantage point, this handstand position, blood rushes to his head and his arms and legs tremble. His world is upside down. The boots of his gym mates are in his eyeline, which means he’s oblivious to faces of fear, and his blue gloves, touching the canvas, are all that prevent his neck from snapping.
“Over-egged it,” someone suggests, and he has. He’s over-egged it, he’s past the point of no return, and what follows, everyone knows, is the inevitable wobble-panic-collapse and the humiliation of said process.
Alas, down goes Ryan Burnett.
“He thinks he’s [Vasyl] Lomachenko,” says Adam Booth, Burnett’s coach.
The boxer attempts the handstand again and again and does so not because he thinks he is a Ukrainian super-featherweight with gymnastic capabilities but because he is back in the gym – the first week back since becoming a double world bantamweight champion, no less – and energised by a newfound appreciation of life, creativity and fun. He is embracing acts deemed playful and childish. He is embracing being 25 years of age. He is embracing the fact he is alive.
It’s why he smiles, even when he falls, even when he comes perilously close to breaking his neck. It’s why Booth, knowing the real reason his boxer acts the fool between punch drills, stands behind him at one stage, offering support, and holds his legs in order for Burnett to steady himself and turn an attempted handstand into a series of press-ups.
Oh, yes, context: four days previously, on the Monday, Ryan Burnett believed he was about to die.
It started with hill sprints. Lots of them. Too many of them. Too many done too quickly. Adam Booth, he recalls, warned him of the danger. He told him there were no points to be proven, not to him, not on a day like Monday, not in a month like January, and not when Burnett had only just returned to full-time training and was nowhere near fighting shape. But still the Irishman went for it, each sprint quicker than the one before, each ill-advised burst of energy ushering him towards exhaustion, nausea, the edge.
Then, finally, after sprint number eight, it happened. Blood rushed to his head, his arms and legs trembled, and the vomit travelled up through his throat to form a puddle on the ground. Booth, of course, saw it coming. He’ll listen to me next time, he thought. There was a tut, a sigh, a roll of the eyes. But it was amusing at first.
Only later, as they drove home, did the episode, initially a lesson, become significantly less funny. There was more vomiting, that was now expected, but scarier were the sensations Burnett, overworked and paler than Irish pale, started to feel in his fingertips, hands and eventually his arms. “Pins and needles,” he told Booth as the coach sat in the driver’s seat.
After that, Burnett’s hands locked up like pincers and his body battened down the hatches as though squeezed into the harness of a roller coaster.
“I can’t move,” he said.
Booth glanced in his direction. He asked him to move his hands. He couldn’t.
But it didn’t. Instead of passing, the pins and needles spread to Burnett’s face and grabbed hold of him there, too. He was permitted to say, “Take me to the hospital,” but the words, rather than spoken, tumbled awkwardly from an open mouth.
Panicking, Booth slammed his foot down on the accelerator, asked for more words, more movement, but wouldn’t receive much of either until a leg cramp blindsided Burnett and caused him to instinctively grab the muscle with the very same hand he was only seconds ago unable to open, let alone use. It was akin to a system reboot. It meant hope was restored.
Once home, Booth put his fighter on the couch and, slowly but surely, his body settled down, the blood started to flow, and Ryan Burnett was back. Back to something like normal.
“Because I pushed my body so much there wasn’t enough oxygen in the blood,” Burnett, immediately rushed off for tests, said. “All the oxygen had gone to my brain to keep my brain okay and there was no oxygen in my body. I pushed myself beyond my body’s limit. It was scary. When you’re sitting in a car and you can’t physically move your hands or arms, and then you can’t speak, it’s terrifying.”
Rather than opponents, Ryan Burnett is currently fighting his own demons, his own reflection and his own personal stopwatch. He’s also fighting misconceptions, one of which is the fanciful idea that a WBA and IBF world bantamweight champion – the same belts held by Anthony Joshua at heavyweight – must surely be a rich man, rolling in it, without a care in the world.
“People look at Joshua getting millions and think that’s the case in every weight class, but it’s not,” Ryan says. “The lower you are in weight, the less money you get. It’s sad but that’s just the way it is.”
The second misconception Burnett fights is one that pertains to the notion that a world champion, any world champion, will invariably go soft and slow down upon reaching the top of the mountain and preparing for the descent.
“They say you become a world champion and then take your foot off the gas, but I nearly killed myself on Monday,” he stresses. “I trained that hard. I know I’ve still got the drive. I know I do because of what happened on Monday. That was my first proper session back as the two-time world champion. I know the foot has not been taken off the gas.
“I always say to myself, ‘What can I control?’ The only thing I can control is how hard I train. An opponent might be more talented or skilful than me, but they will not be fitter than me and they will not outwork me. That can win the fight.”
Adam Booth, aware of the need for control, now calls it The Hospital Button. Don’t push The Hospital Button, he will say. Work up to The Hospital Button, but don’t, whatever you do, under no circumstances, push The Hospital Button. It’s gallows humour, their way of coping, but works as a recommendation all the same.
Burnett, after all, is no stranger to hospital. He ended up there following his last fight, a 12-round decision win over Zhanat Zhakiyanov in October that added the WBA bantamweight title to the IBF version already in his possession.
In that fight, just as he did on the hill, Burnett pressed The Hospital Button. He went beyond the call of duty. He bravely locked horns with Zhakiyanov, a crash dummy Kazakh, knowing it was the surest way to beat him, and showed a resilience that belied his cherubic features and natural inclination to box and move. He knew The Hospital Button could be pressed only so many times in his career, and in his life, but the chance to become a unified world champion at the age of 25, within just 18 fights, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“Physically, it was really, really hard for me,” Burnett says. “There were times when I got hit and I really had to dig deep. But I mentally prepared myself for it, so it didn’t feel as hard as it actually was. That pushed me through the hard rounds.
“I knew he would come forward brutally and take a shot to land a shot. I knew how strong he was. I sort of expected the fight to play out how it did.
“I didn’t, however, expect him to be so forceful coming forward. It got to the point where I could see him gritting his teeth, knowing he was going to get hit, but not caring so long as he was able to land one. That was right from the get-go. That’s what made me bite down and start trading with him.”
There was a price to pay, just as there is whenever Burnett reaches for The Hospital Button, contemplates pressing it, weighs up whether it’s justified or not, and then applies sufficient force.
“I didn’t feel good, if I’m honest,” he says, which is a boxer’s way of saying that en route to the changing room they discovered their ability to hear, something typically taken for granted, was disappearing by the second. “It felt as if someone had stuck two fingers in my ears.”
That was enough to alert the doctor and require the new champion, a man whose exploits were being roundly celebrated on the television broadcast and in pubs all around Belfast, to spend much of his evening in hospital. There were CT scans. There were things poked into his ears. At one point he looked down and noticed the water in the toilet turn red and realised the body shots of Zhanat Zhakiyanov were the reason.
“That frightened me a bit,” he says. “People don’t realise that after a fight, when everyone is celebrating my win, I’m actually in a hospital p*****g blood and my fiancée is stood beside me crying her eyes out because she thinks there is something really wrong with me. You win the fight, you get the world title, but the cameras don’t show you getting rushed out the stadium on a stretcher and put in the back of an ambulance. It’s scary, but it comes with the territory.”
For his efforts, his trauma, his pain, Burnett walked away, eventually, with not one but two world championship belts. He looks at them every day, he says. Won’t let them out of his sight. Today, he carries them downstairs in cases, one in each hand, like a mobster armed with tommy guns, and takes great pleasure in placing them on the ostentatious dining table in his coach’s family home.
“After the Lee Haskins fight I had his IBF title, and I said to Adam, ‘I wonder if they’ll let me keep it tonight,’” he explains, having unclipped both cases. “But they didn’t let me. I went home without the belt. It was my first world title and I didn’t even have a belt. I was gutted.
“So, when I won the WBA belt, I didn’t tell anyone. I just got Zhakiyanov’s belt and took it. They came to the hotel the day after and I gave it back. I had to really because it had his name and picture on it.”
The belts are just tokens. Shiny, personalised, weighty tokens. Burnett tells himself this whenever he stares at them and whenever he stows them away either in a bedroom in his coach’s house or a bedroom in his fiancée’s parents’ house in Belfast. Mementos. Rewards. Things. They are reminders of battles won, sure, but, when loaded into a suitcase, signify nothing more than the need to check out.
“I’m within touching distance of owning my own house and that is my goal,” Burnett says. “I said at the start of the year that by the end of 2018 I will still be world champion and have my own home and be mortgage-free. I’m very close to that.
“I’ve been travelling between Belfast and here for the past six years and during that time I’ve been living out of a suitcase. I’m always in someone else’s house. I’ve never had the security of knowing I have somewhere to live and it’s mine and I’m safe there. I can’t wait to have my own wardrobe and be able to put my own clothes in it and know that this time next year my clothes are still going to be in that same wardrobe.
“I’m in this game to put a roof over my head. I don’t need millions of pounds or fame. I just need a home and for my family to be comfortable. So long as I’ve got that, I’ve won. I’ll be happier than Anthony Joshua even if he has 10 times the amount of money I have.”
Much of what he owns is upstairs. His landlord, meanwhile, otherwise known as his coach, joins him at the dining table, takes a seat, and is momentarily hypnotised the same way everyone seems to be momentarily hypnotised by the sight of world title belts. He has seen them before. Like Burnett, he knows every little detail and difference. Yet overfamiliarity won’t dilute what they mean to him and his fighter, nor downplay the hard graft and sacrifice they have come to symbolise.
“Win another one, get some more money in the bank and f**k off,” Adam Booth says, a plan rather than command.
“Yep, that’s me,” says Burnett. “Get my house, get my belt, and fill up my bank account.”
“You’ll have the house after this next one, won’t you?”
“It’s three-bedroom,” Booth tells me. “He’s going to assign a bedroom to me, so I can go round there and he can tell me not to wear my trainers indoors.”
Burnett laughs. “We’re buzzing because we’ve got a date for it. The work finishes on July 1, so it seems real now. I’ve been down there every day looking at it.”
Booth tells his lodger to go to his bedroom and get some sleep. The day’s second training session is scheduled for seven o’clock and Burnett, more than anyone, needs his rest.
“I’m going to watch Friends,” he says. “Lara [fiancée] was telling me to watch it for ages but I never did. I then tried one episode and now I’m addicted. I’ve got 10 years’ worth of episodes to get through.”
Booth watches Burnett saunter off, then motions for him to return.
“Are you leaving those belts there?” he asks.
“Can I? I want everyone to see them.”
“No, you can’t. Take them back upstairs.”
Ryan Burnett closes the first case and then reaches across the table to close the second. He does as he’s told.