AS far as life-changing punches are concerned it looked innocuous. Enzo Maccarinelli posted a double jab and then thundered in a right hand. Mark Hobson moved to duck beneath it only to be caught on top of the head. The Huddersfield man dropped, rose unsteadily and the contest was waved off.
But the wounds ran far deeper.
Hobson was trapped in a tornado, confined in a downward spiral that saw him sink to the absolute brink of a desolate gloom that threatened to engulf him. It would be a year before he boxed again – retiring on a victory and after winning the British cruiserweight title – but by then things were not the same. He knew the game was up.
The spell from 2007 to the present day led him down dark, lonely corridors.
The world around him collapsed. He was a bystander watching his life change.
He jarred from one disaster to the next. There was a marriage break-up, addictions to gambling, sex and drugs, and it culminated in him betting everything on one game of rugby.
That this once very good fighter tells this story on a cold winter’s day in the North of England and not a beach in Malibu or from a sky-rise apartment in New York gives you a rough idea of how it went.
But even that doesn’t tell the full story.
After the Maccarinelli loss the British Boxing Board of Control informed Hobson of irregularities with his brain scan. They were not, apparently, severe enough for him to stop boxing, but they did need to tell him things were not as they were.
One more bout followed, so too the chaos.
“After the Maccarinelli fight, which didn’t seem like much of a punch, my life just got out of control, really badly,” he admits, with a sense of impending shock at the story he is about to share. “Within three weeks I was taking mad risks. I was shagging around and I never did that. Never.”
He wonders, in his own words, whether he was “just being a bit of a dick.” But he has subsequently heard about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and has started to put pieces together. CTE is punch-drunk syndrome. The stereotype is that too much brain trauma leads to slurred speech, causes one to walk with a stagger and pick up some uncharacteristic mannerisms. But it is deeper than that. Some sufferers experience mood swings, depression, impulsiveness and they make poor decisions. The physical symptoms were not present – and Mark is worried about them coming in the future – but he did not recognise himself anymore.
“It has massively, massively affected me,” he says. “It started before I ended boxing. I got madly addicted to all sorts of things. It was such a big thing. No one around me knew what was really going on. They just thought I’d had a knock to the head.
“The only time I’d ever heard of CTE was listening to a Joe Rogan podcast. So I started researching into it and I was looking at all the effects of it about addictions and how it changes your personality and as I’ve read about it I’ve thought, ‘F*** me’.”
He has traced his neurological issues back further than the big Welshman Maccarinelli. He recalls, after a violent spar with Sheffield’s brilliant Clinton Woods, driving back from Sheffield to Huddersfield he pulled over. He did not know where he was, where he was going or where he had been. There were a few more similar instances.
When Maccarinelli knocked him down, he couldn’t move one of his legs. Then the gripping yet desperate descent began. “I’ve just gone on a wild party and I’ve started acting like this crazy wildman,” he confides. “I’m doing some things that are completely out of character, completely out of character. I never knew all this s***.
“It splits my marriage up completely. I lost everything. I had a big house all paid for, lost it in the divorce. I got a hundred and twenty grand out of it. Anyway, obviously I’ve just gone on a mad party then for a year.
“And then it all starts making sense. All this s***, me forgetting where I’m driving, forgetting everything, becoming really quick to lose my temper, my personality was completely changing.
“I got so heavily into everything. I was a guy who never took a drug. I became a drug addict, a gambling addict, a sex addict, everything. I was self-medicating on cocaine. I’d go out, I never thought about depression ever. I thought I was the happiest guy in the room. The only time I was happy was when I was getting high but I was so f****** depressed and it was just a continuous cycle. And I would get further and further into it, the more s*** I was taking.”
A trip to Las Vegas was probably the last thing he needed, but with his divorce settlement pocketed, off he went. He took £2,000 spending money and within 40 minutes he was heading to an ATM needing more. Promoter Eugene Maloney had planted the gambling seeds. He had taught Hobson that if you had two things – the stake and the patience – you couldn’t lose. It started with £10 on tips here and there. Then came Vegas. With the £2,000 lost, five grand then came fluttering out of the ATM. On one hand of cards, Hobson gambled it and won. Ten grand went on the next game. He won twenty. His winnings reached as much as seventy grand. He returned to England £45,000 up, plus the divorce settlement. The Sin City success was catastrophically successful. You can hear as he regales the story that this is not going to end well. Trouble and tension linger in the tone of Hobson’s voice.
“So I’ve come back and started gambling in thousands,” he explains. The £10 stake game is long gone. Then the Rugby World Cup starts and Hobson doesn’t even follow the sport but one company is offering even money on handicap betting and he’s in. He’s all in.
“So I thought, I’ve got a fair bit of back up here,” he begins, referring to that golden pot as though nothing could go wrong. “I’ve got this money from Vegas, I’ve got my hundred-and-twenty grand in the bank, like Eugene Maloney said, I’ve got the stake. So what I did was I’d bet on the favourite. I put a thousand down on the favourite and the handicap. If that lost, next game, I’d back the favourite again. I put two grand down. If that lost, four grand. If that lost… I thought, ‘The favourite isn’t going to keep on losing. It’s going to be win-some, lose-some’ – which is what happened. I’m about eight grand up from that. Then I went on this run. I lost the first one. Grand down. Lost the second. Two grand. Lost the third match. Four grand. So any profit I’d made I’d eaten into it. Anyway, I thought ‘I’ve got the stake. Keep going’. So I put the eight grand down. Lost it.
‘I’m doing some things that are completely out of character, completely out of character. I never knew all this. My personality was changing’
“So now I’m thinking f***, because I’m supposed to be buying a house in a month’s time. F***. Keep going. What do I do? Do I pull out and lose all that money I’d won or do I go on. ‘F*** it. I’ll go for it’. I put sixteen grand down. Lost that bet. So now I’m panicking. I thought, ‘Listen, I’m going to have to go for this’. Thirty-two grand down. Lost it. I’ve lost. I have one more bet. It was New Zealand and someone else, I can’t remember who they were playing, but this is how it went down. I’ve got sixty-four grand on this one bet. My house, everything I had left from boxing… It’s all riding on this bet. They had to win by about 50 points and they’re 54 points up in the 78th minute [in an 80-minute match]. New Zealand are on the other team’s tryline and ready to score. The other team intercept the pass. They run the entire length of the f****** pitch. Scored a try.”
Everything was gone.
“Just as that try went down, my kids walked through the door. I’m on my knees. I’m going, ‘Oh no. Oh God no. Noooooo. F***. I’d lost everything. Everything. And my kids are going, ‘Dad, what’s happened? What’s happened?’ They’re seeing me in a blind panic.”
Hobson was in the gutter. He had blown his nest egg and their future. “Do you know what happened?” he asks, with a rhetorical sigh. “They disallowed the try because it was offside. I got everything back. From there, it stopped. I stopped gambling in big money. It was like someone was showing me, ‘Look at this you little f****** c***. You’ve lost it all but we’re going to give it ya back. You’ve got one more chance here, you p****’. It took a while. You don’t just one day say you’re going to stop gambling. It takes time to stop all this s*** but I never, ever bet like that again. Never, ever, ever, ever did I risk that st again.”
He had been scared into going straight, but still figures the ravages of boxing have prompted deteriorations in his temper, decision-making and other characteristics. He thinks not enough is known about the long-term dangers boxers face, and he is convinced “95 per cent” of his damage was accumulated in the gym, sparring with Woods, David Haye, Tyson Fury, Tony Bellew, Johnny Nelson and Neil Dawson. The last name gets a special mention.
“He used to come up and he just loved a war and we used to get into mad gym wars and this was a regular thing,” he recalls. “I used to have this gypsy guy I sparred with named Henry Brewer, real hard case. He used to come down and we’d just knock the s*** out of each other and we thought that was good training. But how else can you train for boxing? You’re training to hit people hard and to get hit hard and you need to do it. It toughens you up. There’s no easy way out of it and there’s no easy way to address it. I used to spar with Johnny Nelson a lot and there they’d do body sparring and I couldn’t get my head round it. I thought, ‘What’s the fucking point?’ And when you go to Brendan Ingle’s there’s a sign on the wall, ‘Boxing can seriously damage your health’.
“Shut up, Brendan, I used to think. Do you know what I mean? But he was right. They were right.”
Mark, who all through his career and to this day works as a debt collector for city councils, has developed several coping mechanisms to help with his temper, his memory and his behaviour, including pre-written texts he will read over and over depending on how he is feeling.
And while fighters might miss the buzz of combat, Hobson’s stark reality check when he nearly lost it all means he is no longer searching for an illicit high, rather he seeks normality.
“Do you know what?” asks the father of three. “I used to get post-fight depression, really badly. You’d be building up to these fights for ages and when it was over I used to get so down in the dumps. I remember when I won the British title they had a bit of an afterparty at the local pub for me and I went there and I don’t know if it was all the headbutts I caught from Rob Norton and I was probably suffering concussion but everyone was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so miserable?’ And I didn’t know. I used to be like that for days after a fight and then you build up and it’s such pressure building up to them it’s all you think about. But when it’s over it’s like, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ Fighting must have been a buzz because I chased that buzz for so many years afterwards and I could never find it, really. But boxing? Yeah. It’s f****** crazy.”