“SILENT pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Alfred Hitchcock once remarked to François Truffaut, having made nine of them before becoming the first British filmmaker to embrace sound in 1929.
It was Hitchcock’s belief that silent films best represented the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra and that the advent of talkies merely facilitated storytelling shortcuts and all-round laziness. Essentially, Hitch reckoned talking was cheating; that actions spoke louder than words.
In boxing, the silent assassins, men like Vasyl Lomachenko, Terence Crawford and Gennady Golovkin, represent boxing in its purest form. Their stories emerge from the brilliance of their movement, or a look, and have not a thing to do with anything they say or how they behave. Such is their ability, we don’t need to be told. We see it.
Yet this, too, is a dying art, as evidenced by the sudden need for boxers to act up, generate noise, develop personas and make outrageous comments in the name of attention. Video cameras are everywhere, even on phones, and the age of the talkies is upon us. The stage has never been bigger. The attention span of the audience never shorter.
These days the heavyweight division, in particular, has about as much subtlety – and depth – as a Michael Bay blockbuster. In leading roles, you will find Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, larger-than-life entertainers whose comfort zone is controversy, while support arrives in the form of bitter rivals Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte, as well as a host of extras willing to do away with niceties for a shot at relevance.
For a time, they were exciting, this cast of characters. Exciting, that is, until we realised the script from which they were reading was shared, passed around, and that their goal was the same: talk a good fight but avoid a good fight – for the time being at least.
As they focused on building franchises rather than classics, Andy Ruiz Jnr came along and sorted them out. In June, he punished the leading men for their self-indulgence and stalling and made off with three of the four heavyweight titles. He hardly uttered a word in the process. He simply smiled and said thank you. He brought it back to fighting. He invited others.
Now, another heavyweight whose silence is both unusual and soothing is Daniel Dubois, a mild-mannered 21-year-old from London whose performance last Saturday (July 13) against Nathan Gorman acted as a guttural scream in the ear of anyone not listening. That night it took fewer than five rounds for us and Gorman to realise the only thing more painful than Dubois’ shyness are the punches he throws. In that time, he not only became British heavyweight champion but recalibrated our expectations of what it means to be a modern-day heavyweight.
“I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anybody,” Dubois’ trainer Martin Bowers told Boxing News this week. “And I’ve never heard him raise his voice or get angry.
“I remember driving through the West End with him once and there were cars weaving in and out of traffic and cutting us up. It was taking too long to get where we wanted to get, and I said something like, ‘Come on, for God’s sake! There’s too many f**king people round here!’
“I then turn to Dan, expecting him to be the same, frustrated that we’re stuck in traffic and late. But he goes: ‘Yeah, but they all serve a purpose, don’t they?’
“Now I’ve got something to believe in,” continued Bowers. “He’s a big lump but he’s got a really nice way about him and brings you back down to earth. He’s a real nice boy. He don’t want anything.”
They all serve a purpose, Dubois says, and he’s right. Which is why, when lauding the new British heavyweight champion’s rise to prominence, and admiring his low-key brand of violence, we should first appreciate the work of the loudmouths who helped pave the way.
These heavyweights, after all, built the platform and captured the audience. In a post-Klitschko world, they made heavyweights attractive again, dangerous again, and allowed men like Dubois, 12-0 (11), to go about their work quietly in the background and not have to pretend to be something they’re not. They did the talking on his behalf. The selling on his behalf. The hating on his behalf.
In recent years, David Haye and Tony Bellew hated each other but then became friends. Dillian Whyte and Dereck Chisora hated each other but then became friends. Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder hated each other but then became friends.
Fun while it lasts, this ability of boxers to bury the hatchet having shared something personal and gruelling (as well as lucrative) is one of the great upsides of the sport. Yet, equally, rom-com narratives exist only because of all the talking and selling beforehand. (Had they not sold their hatred in the first place, there would be nothing to patch up, no story arc to complete, no happy ending. Oh, and no gold at the box office.)
With Dubois, you get none of this. No script. No exposition. You get straight to the point – straight to the fight scene. It should be dull and frustrating, yet, conversely, it’s what makes Dubois so fascinating.
He is not telling you he hates someone, nor promising to deliver on some half-arsed threat. Instead, he is content to show you, shunning the temptation to run his mouth or utilise a persona to conceal insecurity or doubt.
“I don’t like all that stuff,” said Bowers. “Boxing is really brutal and it’s hard game. You don’t want it to be the way it’s been lately. It is show business but it’s not show-off business.
“Every day they come to the gym they have to pull their socks up, get in the ring and do some really hard graft. All sports are hard, but boxing is a special game. It’s particularly hard.”
Any time a fighter says they would like to do their talking with their fists, you fear for them, for it typically represents step one on the path to anonymity; a path steeped with periods of inactivity, off-TV fights, paltry purses, early retirement, a day job and, ultimately, regret.
You fear for them today more than ever. Today, in this era of pay-per-view fights and fast food interviews, it’s all about over-the-top personalities, manufactured rivalries and cheap, processed beef. These are the buzzwords, the currency, and only special fighters buck this trend and still make a success of it.
To do so, the special few need to be more than just committed. They need to be good. Really good. They also have to shout loudly when it matters – in the ring, with two fists – and be able to stand behind their highlight reel, offering it up as both shield and CV. “This is me,” their eye-catching performances need to say. “Take it or leave it.” Like a master director, they will refuse to say much more because there is no need for any further explanation.
Of all the newcomers who fall into this bracket, Dubois is by far the best-equipped to pull it off. In his case, knockouts come naturally, in a way words don’t, and his very appearance lends itself to intrigue. When sitting in silence, for instance, brooding and bored, he remains a compelling character to observe. Then, when opening his mouth, there is a sense each grunt and mumble reveals something about him, even if it’s little more than a hatred for attention and human interaction.
Basically, Dubois brings back some mystery at a time when the name of the game – in boxing, as in life – seems to be shameless overexposure. And for that we should be grateful.
“He’s got the Bruno effect,” Bowers explained. “The public are going to like him because he’s not rude, he’s not arrogant and he’s not trying to show off.
“But he’s also got that Tyson effect. Once he puts those two gloves on, he’s a competitor. He’s a terminator. He’s coming to get you. If you want a fight, he’ll have a fight. You have to stop him wanting to have a fight. You have to really pull the reins in.
“He shows no emotion. We’ve been everywhere for sparring and everyone has tried putting it on him, but he never gets flustered. He’s got ice in his veins. He shows nothing – good, bad or indifferent.
“He’s also very honest and he’ll tell you the truth. He did that face-to-face thing with Nathan before the fight and they were asked to give each other points out of ten. Nathan put five down, which is fair enough, but Dan put a naught down for Nathan. I thought, Bloody hell, what are you doing? I nearly fell off my chair laughing. But that’s Dan.”
Though this face-to-face was filmed, and they were accompanied by a TV presenter, Daniel Dubois’ reluctance to play Daniel Dubois – boxer, heavyweight, monster – was so strong it threatened to undermine the point of the show altogether. Refusing a handshake was one thing, but more revealing were the frequent glances away from Gorman and Steve Bunce, the looks over his shoulder, the looks to people off-camera. The mannerisms of a child waiting for school finish, they showed him to be fed up, distracted and antsy to escape and play.
Quickly, it became clear Dubois was built differently to Gorman and other heavyweights we have seen in similar positions, that is, sitting at a table in a dark room, cameras on. Unlike the rest, there is no seamless switch from human being to machine and back again; no switch from boxer to actor and back again. There is, in fact, no indication Dubois wants to talk to you, play-act with you, build a rivalry with you, or even make money with you. To his way of thinking, if he isn’t fighting you, it makes no real sense for him to be in your company. (At least not when throwing punches is forbidden.)
“I just let him be himself,” his promoter, Frank Warren, told BN. “I think he’s a very cool, calm and collected young man and he does all his talking in the ring. In fact, when he’s in the ring, it’s not talking, it’s shouting. He does the business every time.
“You shouldn’t try and change these guys. Anthony Joshua is a quiet guy. Joe Calzaghe wasn’t a shouter. I don’t like them being something they’re not. Be who you are. The public aren’t fools. They’ll sense you aren’t being genuine and sniff you out.”
Instead of calling him a young man, some have labelled Dubois ‘simple’, suggesting his monosyllabic approach to media interrogation is not so much a choice as a reflection of little going on upstairs. This, however, not only does Dubois a disservice but misses the point entirely.
Because, if anything, history tell us it’s the overthinkers who tie themselves in knots and eventually stumble. It’s the overthinkers who burn so much nervous energy before and during a fight that they reduce themselves to an exhausted, quivering wreck the moment adversity grabs hold of them. It’s the overthinkers who think they are better than they are, whose confidence is never quite as unwavering as it seems.
In boxing, simplicity is clever, the recipe for success. And it might explain why Dubois and boxers of his ilk appear so relaxed on fight night, when first walking to the ring and when giving and receiving punches. Overawed by the occasion? Never. Not when keeping it simple; not when guided by a mind as empty as a heart.
On Saturday at the O2 Arena, Dubois was deadpan. Dead behind the eyes. He was the perfect machine for a job like that: the imposing build, the equally imposing demeanor and the thousand-yard stare. Warmth and joviality at a time like that is out of place, unwelcome and dangerous. Coldness, on the other hand, this trait vilified in everyday life, usually gets the job done.
“Sponsors send him T-shirts for him to wear and he doesn’t even take them out the plastic bags,” said Bowers. “I ask him about them, and he goes, ‘I didn’t even open them.’ He’ll turn up in the same training gear all the time. I’ll say, ‘Come on, Dan, why don’t you wear some of the sponsor’s gear?’ He goes, ‘Oh yeah.’
“He doesn’t mean any disrespect by it but he’s not in the game for that stuff. He’s got one thing on his mind: that world title. He’s like a moth to a flame.
“He ain’t running about doing other stuff and getting distracted. He ain’t fashion-conscious or interested in anything. He just wants to get on the train and come to the gym. He then walks back up the road and gets back on the train or his dad picks him up. He likes to watch his brother and sister go training. He’s just a nice boy.
“Listen, if he keeps his feet on the ground, which I’m sure he will do because he’s got a good family unit behind him, the British public are going to warm to him and I think we’ll have a really good role model for boxing.
“I think it’s going to be a really nice journey. It’s going to be violent and everything you want it to be, but we’re not going to have tables flipped over and that negativity that sometimes surrounds people.”
Refreshingly, Dubois doesn’t have to tell you he’s humble or wear the word on a cap or T-shirt to convince you he is. Humble, to him, is not a selling point but a permanent state of mind. It is the reason why rather than training in seclusion, or using PR goons as conduits for his personality, Dubois can be found at Canning Town’s Peacock Gym sharing the floor with journeymen, young prospects, amateurs, city boys and those for whom a championship fight is a battle against their expanding waistline and the more natural urge to whittle away hours in the pub.
Frankly, Dubois, at just 21, could be the role model British boxing has been looking for: the most reluctant of role models, the one shy and awkward, the one hiding. When youngsters his age tend to be belligerent, unnervingly cocksure and fighting to be seen, Dubois would prefer to fight – which is to say, practice and master his art – than be seen. It’s an example others should follow; an approach heavyweights should fear.
“What you see is what you get,” said Bowers. “I don’t want to talk bad about Anthony Joshua because he has achieved a lot and done so much for this sport, but I do think he was a little too manufactured and a little too media-trained. It’s not real.
“Even when he does his training things, it’s all too precise. When we do our training things, we’re loose and doing our b*****ks. It isn’t the perfect form because we’re all tired. It’s real. He’s fighting. He needs to be a fighter. Fighters are real people. They have to be.”
Daniel Dubois is real. Too real, perhaps, for a division flogging a fantasy and for fans demanding reality TV star behaviour from one-track prizefighters. But he is certainly real, both in terms of power and personality, and if you take the time to listen, you’ll hear the sound of silence and remember that it’s golden.