The cold truth of the hard knock life

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Living in the moment: Chris Eubank (r), pictured in action against Carl Thompson.

Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Ricky Hatton and Riddick Bowe. All came from virtually nothing to become multi-millionaire world champions yet all suffered extreme falls from grace. 

Boxing is an exciting but dangerous and dark sport. It’s littered with rags to riches tales and in equal measure, riches to rags.

The pressure of fighting at an elite level is arguably more stifling than any other sport.

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Pain is certain, the risk of serious injury never far away, but simply there is no hiding place from the fact that one punch can change your career. It requires not just physical toughness but mental fortitude because ultimately, you battle alone. But what happens when the bell tolls for the final time? 

Filling the void created when a lifetime of commitment and dedication to being a champion comes to an end is arguably the biggest fight they face.

It’s a situation that can force many retired boxers to slide into a spiral of depression, financial ruin or ill health as they struggle to cope with life after the ring. 

Slipping back into the community is no easy task and like their careers in the ring, they’re often alone to fight that battle, too. 

Chris Eubank knows that challenge all too well. As one of the most successful boxers in modern British history, his story reads like many of those who have reached the top.

From impoverished beginnings he became king of the middleweight division during the 1990s but after retiring in 1998 he had his fair share of money troubles, eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2009, owing £1.3 million (Dh7.3m) in unpaid taxes.

Speaking to Sport360 in Dubai, the former two-weight champion shed light on why so many fighters experience such hard falls in retirement.

“Boxers struggle to adapt to normality after boxing and that’s why they fail,” he said.

“Filing your tax or doing your accounts, being disciplined about your finances is not something we’ve ever done or been taught to do.

“And there’s no surrounding yourself with the right people in boxing to get that type of support. The right people don’t exist. My son Junior [current WBA interim middleweight champion], has a really unique position because his father has been used and misused. I can see all the negatives in boxing and steer him away from them. But it’s business and there are no gentleman when it comes to money.”

He added: “The people that are looking after you are working and you are a tool to them – even though the tool or the boxer is the nucleus. He really is the boss in boxing but he is made to think by the people who are managing him and promoting him that they are his boss. The boxer usually has a great deal of trust for these people, but they shouldn’t have, because it’s a business and that’s why so many run into trouble because they’re simply not prepared.”

Some pugilists are more fortunate than others. For Chris Eubank Jr he has the guidance of his father to ensure he is prepared for the struggles boxing can bring.

Amir Khan, Britain’s former undisputed light welterweight champion is only 28, but unlike many of his peers he is already looking beyond the pain game.

“Boxing is a short career. It’s so often 10 years and then bang, over,” he told Sport360°.

“There are a lot of fees – sanctions, training camps, trainers, equipment and taxes. After that you’re only left with a bit. How long can you live off that unless you invest your money wisely?  I never want to be in the position of one day being broke.

"But I’m a lot wiser. I have great advisers, they put me on the right path. If I didn’t have them and I was given a million pounds and told ‘do what you want with it’, I would do what any young lad would and go out and buy a Lamborghini. I’d spend it on silly things. 

“But I have learned from mistakes other fighters have made.”

You don’t have to look far for tangible proof of the issues boxers face, yet Khan’s attitude is one that very few follow. 

For the likes of Tyson and Holyfield, who were rumoured to have earned $400m and $250m from the ring respectively, the falls can be as hard as the knockout punches they delivered. Drugs, alcohol, cars, lavish homes, divorces and child support left them broke once their careers came to an end. 

Eubank believes these flaws and inability to retreat into a normal life is due to the nature of the sport. 

“Boxers don’t think about the future, how can they? They can’t think about the future because they live in the now,” the 49-year-old said.

“In the now, the mindset that you have is the right one for the sport because if you were thinking strategically or sensibly then you’d be sensible enough not to step into the ring because it’s too dangerous.

“When you look at someone like Tyson, you say ‘here was a force of nature’, he was so flawed but if he wasn’t then he wouldn’t be able to do the things he did in the ring.

“You can’t have someone doing the impossible in one sense and then being normal in the other. Boxers are never going to have the mind of an accountant or someone who is grounded, by definition he has to be crazy and that’s why we see these failures.

“On the outside people struggle to see how we can be so magnificent in one area and useless in another.”

So can the trend be curbed? It’s difficult to see how. Boxing’s governance is so proliferated that the support structures simply aren’t there and that ‘each man for himself’ mentality runs through the sport from top to bottom. 

In team sports you’re dealing with large organisations and leagues, who have a duty of care so clearly absent here. 

Kevin Iole has been reporting on combat sports for the best part of three decades and he believes there are, though, a couple of ways to ensure boxers keep out of trouble when they’re finished.

“Boxers in the main are coming from low social-economic backgrounds so they’re not always the brightest,” said the Yahoo Sports writer. “I mean, one of the proposals I heard is to take some of what fighters earn and put it away for them but they have to agree to that.

“Not too many are going to want to do that. They are thinking ‘I just went through this brutal camp, came through a gruelling fight so I want to buy a Bentley’. 

“But what should be done to aid them in retirement is to train them as referees or work as commissioners or inspectors. Who better than a former pro to know what to look for in a fight, right? 

“At least then they’ve got a chance to work and to replace the discipline of training. That, though, comes down to the individual and the managers around them.”

It’s not just money that is cause for concern when the bright lights fade because one of the biggest issues boxers face is in regards to their health.

Chronic traumatic brain injury occurs in approximately 20 per cent of boxers and the motor, cognitive, and/or behavioural impairments do not usually present themselves until the fighting stops. 

Just look at Bowe for example. In 1998, he kidnapped his own family and assaulted his estranged wife Judy in an illogical attempt to reunite them under one roof.

30 million dollars is Khan’s rumoured net worth.

This personal nadir landed him in prison but at his sentencing hearing, his attorney asked the court for leniency. Why? Because the argument was that Bowe’s judgement was clouded by taking too many punches to the head. 

And that’s hardly surprising given various studies have put the force delivered by a blow from a trained boxer at anywhere from 204kg to over 635kg, enough to accelerate the head to 53 times the force of gravity. 

“I’ve covered boxing for 30 years and I’ve literally come across thousands of boxers that I speak to and even guys who are still active with the slurred speech and you can just tell they’re not quite the same anymore,” Iole adds.

“That’s where I think regulation must be stronger because bodies have to be willing to say no to fighters and at the moment, they don’t.

“We as fans complain if fights get stopped too early but there is no title, no amount of money that is worth putting your health on the line. I would rather see a fight stopped too soon and not too late and unfortunately in some places you still see the latter.”

Boxers enter the ring in nothing but trunks, trainers and gloves. They’re naked to the world, every bruise, every swell and every drop of blood is there to see. 

The physical damage can make those on the outside shudder but at least it’s visible.

Many suffer in silence because once you take away the discipline, structure, competition, as well as the adulation and celebration, not much remains. 

It’s as if a major piece of themselves has gone missing and it means they’re more naked outside ring than they ever were in it.

Boxing and the money it can bring often masks feelings of inadequacy. 

Fighters get into the sport to bolster self-esteem and transform themselves from a nobody to a somebody. 

But one day they can be invincible and the next a loser, that often can be the hardest blow to take. 

We associate boxing with bravery, courage and strength and rightly so. What’s clear, though, is walking away from the ring is still much harder than it ever was walking into it because often it’s then that the real fight begins.

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