With last night’s loss for Ricky Hatton my mind was brought back to an article I wrote about Scott Harrison – who was also sentenced to 4 years in jail a few weeks ago for the incident mentioned below – and boxing in general. Retirement often leads to self-destruction amongst elite athletes who are so regularly from an incredibly tough background who have used boxing as a form of escapism. Hatton himself has famously suffered with severe weight gain, alcoholism and drug addiction during his previous retirement. We can only hope he doesn’t slip in to that well-worn pattern once more. This is the original article published in the Warwick Boar newspaper in 2006:
“If you are anything like me you would think that boxing is a sport for idiots with more muscles than sense and more masculinity problems than muscles. A typical response is this from American ex-heavyweight Tony Galento when asked about the most famous bard in the world, “Shakespeare? I ain’t never heard of him. I suppose he’s one of them foreign heavyweights. They’re all lousy. Sure as hell I’ll moider de bum.” Now Galento wrestled an octopus and boxed a kangaroo as publicity stunts for his fights. He also attempted to make some money by boxing a 550 lb bear, as a stage attraction. This same man later went on to do stand-up comedy and appear in such classic films as “On the Waterfront” and “Guys and Dolls”. Hilarious, yes. But his story was one of the more colourful and happier among a long list of tragedies that engulf this violent spectacle.
In the news currently is Scott Harrison, who was arrested on 6 October in Malaga, in what was merely the latest in a series of troubles for the Glaswegian World Featherweight champion. His downward spiral has involved bouts of depression, alcoholism, assault and fraud, before he was even put in prison in Spain. The current WBO champion was arrested in May for similar offences to his recent crimes and he then spent time in the Priory Clinic in London in a bid to beat his alcoholism and depression. His descent into trouble seems to be gaining speed and there are plenty of cases that say his travails against it will fail to improve with time.
Many boxers have problems learning when to give up. This is clearly the case with my favourite boxer – purely by the fact that he is the only one with a fantastic Lean Mean Grilling Machine – George Foreman. While many remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with Muhammad Ali – whose own problems from boxing are well-known – in 1974, he continued his career until 1977 when he became very ill after a fight. This prompted him to become a born-again Christian and retire. He came back in 1987 with success and in 1991 lost a title decision to Evander Holyfield at the age of 42. In 1994 he even managed to win a world title at the age of 45 – becoming the oldest ever Heavyweight champion. He retired after losing controversially to current WBO World Heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs in 1996, but planned to make another comeback in 1999, at the age of 50, however, negotiations fell through and the fight never happened so he retired – again. Even so, in 2004 he announced he would be making yet another comeback, luckily his wife stopped him. This is a man who has five sons – all named George due to his bad memory – so who knows when he will forget the bad memories and climb back into the ring yet again.
Unfortunately, not everyone has a wife to stop themselves from making foolish comebacks. After winning the World Heavyweight title in 1992, Riddick Bowe could not control his weight, became uninterested in training and began to behave erratically. His press conference brawls became so expected that his opponents insisted they be conducted from behind bullet-proof glass. His infamous fight with Andrew Golota resulted in disqualification for Golota for repeated low blows in the seventh round – despite his supremacy – and chaos causing riot police to take over as many were injured. The rematch just five months later was dominated by Golota again but his illegal blows were spread to the back of the head and headbutts as well as low blows – it took him until round nine to be disqualified. After the fight Bowe had slurred speech and rumours were that he had brain damage. He retired enlisting in the US Marines for one week and in 1999 kidnapped his wife and children, eventually serving 18 months in prison for it. In 2005 he was declared bankrupt and subsequently made a comeback. Boxing commentators report that Bowe has mental problems and severe brain damage but his lack of money is prolonging his career.
His story is similar to that of everyone’s favourite ear-nibbling rapist, Mike Tyson. In 1986 Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever at just 20 years old and he became the first heavyweight to hold all three major belts at once in 1987. After losing to James “Buster” Douglas in 1990 in one of the biggest shocks of all time, his career and life went downhill. In 1992 he was gaoled for rape and after serving three years of his six year sentence, was released. He even regained two of the belts in 1996 – one against Frank Bruno which forever consigned Bruno to the realms of pantomime – but in 1997 he bit both of Evander Holyfield’s ears, including tearing a large chunk out of one, and was disqualified. Tyson attempted to fight anybody who got in his way, including the crowd and was suspended. Many controversial fights occurred between another nine months in prison for assault, followed by a positive test for marijuana. Fights, including a one-sided contest with Lennox Lewis, carried on due to financial struggles. He is now signed up to fight for a Japanese martial arts organisation and admitted, “My whole life has been a waste – I am a failure”.
While these people clearly have problems in the present and the future, the most tragic cases are those who we can already see to have suffered. Berbick experienced mood swings and claimed to have spoken with God at 16. He was the man who ended Ali’s career before losing his title to Tyson a few years later. It was after Tyson that things got worse. In 1991 he was accused of forcing a gun into the mouth of his manager and in 1992 he was convicted of rape and served 15 months. He was later deported for violating parole. He continued fighting until he was 45 in 2000 when he was diagnosed with a blood clot in his brain and his licence was revoked. In October 2006, he was murdered by his own nephew over a land dispute.
Not all tragedies need be so depressing, though. Michael Watson, the incredibly talented Middleweight collapsed after a world title fight with Chris Eubank and incredibly went 30 minutes without oxygen. He spent 40 days in a coma and after six brain operations was not expected ever to talk or walk again. His story is an inspiration as in 2003 he walked the 26 miles of the London Marathon after six days. Eubank and his neurosurgeon were there to finish the race by his side. These boxers are just a few of those with huge problems but there are many boxers who never develop such difficulties in their lives. I cannot help but feel some empathy for these people who through monetary need or desire, carry on fighting. Only the truly special, like Watson, have the mental fortitude to battle back and I hope that Scott Harrison does not follow the well trodden path of Bowe, Tyson and Berbick. Is this a sport for idiots, the misguided or the truly brave? I think there is a case for all three; it is up to those involved to decide which they want to become.”
Let me say at this point that I am a BIG boxing fan (here is a photo of me at the 2012 Olympics watching Anthony Joshua) but all too often their lives end tragically.