THE only thing more surprising than hearing that Adrien Broner had pulled out of his latest fight because of a mental health issue is the fact that he has never done so before.
For with a life as outwardly chaotic as Broner’s, and with a personality as erratic as his, the marriage of “The Problem” and boxing has always appeared more like a recipe for disaster than a match made in heaven.
“Saved” by the sport at the age of just six, Broner is now 33, meaning he has spent some 27 years stuck in this, the most toxic of relationships. (I hate you, I love you, I hate you, I love you.) It’s true, if you catch him on a good day, he will speak glowingly about the sport, and the impact it has had on his life, yet, catch Broner on a bad day, and they will seem like bitter enemies, with Broner not averse to saying, “F**k boxing.”
Never, in fact, has one got the impression Broner actually enjoys boxing. It is instead, from the outside looking in, seemingly something he was born to do, or at least raised to do, and now something he does simply because he is good at it. Some will say it’s all he knows and, given how early he got started in the sport, there is more than likely an element of truth to that.
His has been a long career, after all. There are, to date, 34 wins, four losses and one draw on Broner’s 39-fight professional record and he has gone the 12-round distance a total of 10 times. That’s a lot for any fighter, a lot of both rounds and punches, and prior to each of those 12-rounders Broner will have typically gone through a punishing eight-week training camp, which will have included plenty more rounds of sparring, plenty of interviews, and plenty of sleepless nights during which he would have contemplated the fallout of losing.
It has always been difficult, too, to understand Broner’s true motivation for boxing, so superficial and materialistic are his goals. He goes by the nickname “The Problem” but has also occasionally used “About Billions” and has been known in the past to flash his cash and his gold watches and chains in obscene and often shameless attempts to go “viral”. (In Walmart, down the toilet, etc.) That was always considered “Broner being Broner” back when he was undefeated and delusional enough to believe he was going to be the next Floyd Mayweather, yet the image of Broner flaunting his wealth would carry an altogether sadder subtext when defeats started to accumulate and the idea of contentment appeared as elusive to Broner as Mayweather money.
With youth back then on his side, and an undefeated record as his ID, Broner had free rein to dream big and talk s**t and think only of the immediate future. However, in time, as so many boxers sadly find out, the cruelty of the profession catches up on you and your relevance diminishes quicker than your punch resistance.
If at that point your sense of purpose and identity is attached solely to this relevance and the idea of making money and being famous, when it goes, the impact is ordinarily then ten times heavier than it would be if a greater effort had been made to find true contentment and satisfaction on a deeper, more personal level.
That’s not to say Broner did or is doing anything wrong. But the story of a boxer struggling in their thirties as retirement beckons is not one exclusive to him, nor is it necessarily a riddle these days. The only real difference, in fact, is that whereas in the past all we could do was feel sorry for these fighters and curse their misfortune, now we have terms and labels to apply to what it is they are going through and, as a result, a far better understanding of their state of mind.
Years ago, a boxer told me that the hardest part of being a boxer wasn’t the pressure and expectancy leading up to a fight but was instead the deathly silence that would always follow a fight, whether big or small. It would usually hit him on the Monday, he said, and whether it followed a victory or a defeat the feeling of the comedown would for the most part be the same. It would be one of total emptiness and pointlessness, for gone, the boxer realised, was any interest in him, his fight, or his career. He had, by the Monday, all of a sudden been robbed of that: the attention, the spotlight, the validation. Indeed, even if popular, and he was, this boxer’s relevance would last only until the end of their fight, at which point, come Monday, everybody who had previously been invested in him and his fortunes had returned to work and were getting on with their own lives. “That was always when I would get depressed,” he told me. “It was easier to handle if I had won the fight, of course, but the feeling was always the same. I had all this free time but nobody to spend it with.”
They talk of the loneliness of the long-distance runner, but in boxing you get that and then some. You do the long-distance runs, invariably on your own, and you also do all the other stuff that goes alongside it. You diet alone. You make weight alone. You worry alone. Added to that, and to further complicate matters, you then take this troubled, muddled and overactive brain to the gym each day and some days, lucky you, there will be a sparring partner on site who is tasked with punching that brain through a headguard, just so you feel ready for the real thing on fight night.
The recent spate of boxers discussing their mental health, and in some cases using a mental health problem the way they would a physical one to withdraw from a fight, has had many people questioning why this sort of language has suddenly become so prevalent in the sport. They fear that, as with any trend, the issue of mental health could become either an excuse or escape route (from fights, from failed drug tests) for fighters, thus undermining the seriousness of the issue itself. There is a worry, too, that it becomes fool-proof, something that cannot be contested, like the back injuries of old.
Those are legitimate concerns, I’ll admit, particularly in a sport in which white lies are as common as black eyes. Yet, given the current climate and the fact it has been destigmatised to an extent, the rise in boxers expressing their mental health problems should hardly come as a shock. For not only is the subject of mental health now something that is discussed in ways it previously wasn’t, but the very nature of boxing and life as a whole has changed dramatically in recent times.
In boxing, if it wasn’t enough to just prepare mind and body for a fight, boxers must also today sell themselves, and talk themselves up, and put themselves out there in a way they never had – at least not to the same degree – before. That in itself is an exercise designed to drain a mind, strip away confidence, and invite both demons and trolls. It is also erecting a framework of insecurity and anxiety; replacing a safe house with scaffolding.
It has always held a mirror up to life, boxing, and just as the rise in mental health issues in the wider world can be attributed to both its destigmatising and our new and worrying habits, so is boxing influenced by the very same things. We know now, after all, that nobody is immune to it, regardless of their profession or supposed “toughness”. Instead, due to us all willingly or unwilling subscribing to this so-called “normality” of waking up every day and either posting our inane thoughts to a collection of fellow addicts on social media or reading the inane thoughts of these same addicts, the only surprise, in 2022, is that more boxers, and more people in general, aren’t breaking down and tapping out on account of “mental health issues”.
Throw into the equation, in this instance, a troublesome upbringing and a troublesome career and Adrien Broner is someone who deserves, and has perhaps always deserved, a little empathy and understanding, even at his most wearisome. He has acted the fool, yes, and has done some outlandish and reprehensible things away from the ring, but to celebrate his 2013 loss against Marcos Maidana like Christmas morning now seems a little callous and, moreover, to expect to relate to a man with a life like his, and a brain like his, and pressures like his, seems a stretch for even the most arrogant and self-righteous of individuals.
He may have always been “The Problem”, but maybe Adrien Broner, a fighter since six and a father of seven, was never actually the problem.