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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Men who fight

I thought that boxing was a display of pointless violence – but an unheralded prizefighter changed my mind.

Tommy Martin threw the first punch – then a series of hooks and jabs that struck the arms of the Commonwealth super-lightweight champion, John Wayne Hibbert. All eyes strained to follow the boxers as they skipped and shuffled their way around the bright blue ring.

Boxing is controlled chaos. The referee, watchful and sharp in his bow tie, brings the control; the boxers bring the chaos. From the terrace of the Copper Box Arena at the Olympic Park in London, the action seemed remote at first. The men in the spotlight were the size of toy soldiers and their grunts and gasps were inaudible. Only the heaviest blows seemed to make any sound: pop-pop, like rain on an umbrella.

Then the ferocity of Martin’s attacks, of Hibbert’s responses, registered among the crowd. Conversations ended mid-sentence. As the boxers showered each other with their punches, pop-poppop-pop-pop, a shiver of delight ran across the arena. A man to my left started laughing. Another stood up. Just 20 seconds into the fight, Martin was driven against the ropes but broke free, perhaps a little frantically. He raised his gloves. Hibbert, grim-faced, advanced.

Champion from Big Face Art on Vimeo.

Hit someone in a bar, at home, or on the street and you might soon find yourself in jail. Do so in a ring and you could win a belt. For decades, the World Medical Association has called for a total ban on boxing, arguing that a fighter’s “basic intent” is “to produce bodily harm in the opponent”. The New Yorker journalist A J Liebling called it “the sweet science”, but there was nothing sweet in the images of the 25-year-old middleweight Nick Blackwell being carried out of Wembley Arena on a stretcher in March after his defeat to Chris Eubank, Jr; there was nothing sweet about his seven-day coma that followed. The violence of boxing is unapologetic.

Yet a curious thing about the sport is that this bodily harm is inflicted largely without malice. There is little cruelty here, at least in the conventional sense. A boxing match is a test of strength, speed, endurance and strategy. It is not a brawl.

Anomalies are fairly easy to list – such as the 1997 WBA title fight in which Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s right ear – but much of what we might read as anger or hatred in the ring exists, in reality, outside of it. “There is so much hate among people, so much contempt inside people . .  . that they hire prizefighters to do their hating for them,” the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson once said. The fighters perform animosity on our behalf – but do they feel it?

Boxing is ritualised aggression, qualified by the paraphernalia of sport, scored by judges, watched by members of a society in which the state has been granted a monopoly on physical force. Violence, licensed all but exclusively to the police and the army, is enshrined as a civilising instrument: we are appalled when it is wielded by anyone outside of this social covenant and condemn it as barbaric, senseless or criminal. Yet here at the Hibbert-Martin fight, one evening in January, was a carnivalesque exception. We watched men fight for money and we thrilled to it.

I’d first seen Hibbert on TV the previous September. I knew next to nothing about his sport but I was transfixed by the sight of the 30-year-old boxer – his blue eyes sunken in a face grown puffy with bruises – fighting the then Commonwealth super-lightweight champion, Dave “Rocky” Ryan. I initially recoiled from what seemed a pointlessly ­violent spectacle; it all felt oddly wasteful. But something compelled me to keep looking. And the more I looked, the more heroic the men appeared, and the less certain I became of my first impressions.

Hibbert won that fight and took the title. When he announced that he would soon be defending it against an up-and-coming fighter called Tommy Martin, I googled the promoter’s website and bought a ticket.

***

Martin, a boyish, sandy-haired 21-year-old from St Neots in Cambridgeshire, had speed and much of the crowd on his side. Maybe God, too. “I believe everything happens for a reason,” he told a local newspaper shortly before the fight. “I just believe it’s my time . . . It’s just about putting my faith and trust in the Lord.”

Between rounds, he would cross himself. Hibbert sought no such protection – not visibly, at any rate.

Although Hibbert was now the Commonwealth champion in his weight cate­gory (with a maximum of ten stone), the odds were against him. The title fight I’d seen on television in September had ended in unusual circumstances: Ryan had suffered a sudden, unexplained back injury in the tenth round. He froze, no longer able to dodge Hibbert’s punches. Hibbert took his chance and trapped Ryan in a corner, stunning him with a right hook to the head. The referee ended the bout.

Sceptical of Hibbert’s ability to hold on to the belt, the bookies listed Martin, a decade younger and still unbeaten after 13 fights, as the clear favourite to win. “They will be losing a few quid,” Hibbert countered, in a statement to the press. When I visited him at his “spit-and-sawdust” gym in Corringham, Essex, four weeks before the big night, he told me that Martin was a “stepping stone”.

“He’s in my way. He’s there [to let me] get to where I want to get to.” His voice was calm and steady, empty of bravado. This was a statement of fact.

In the weeks that followed, Hibbert declared repeatedly that victory would be his. “Whatever he brings to the table, I have the answer for,” he said. “It will be a short night.” He seemed to believe it.

He had to believe it. Since his professional debut in the summer of 2009, Hibbert had fought 19 bouts, many of them bloody and bruising, and had come out on top in most. Martin entered the ring as a pro three years later at the age of 18, and had six fewer matches’ worth of experience.

“I’ve been involved in much harder fights,” Hibbert said. “I can’t wait to get in there now and do the business.” Yet ­boxing is a risky business, even for old hands. As Joyce Carol Oates once observed of the sport: “Loss, humiliation, shame are only part of the risk – physical injury, even death, awaits as well.”

***

When Hibbert was first marched into a gym as a teenager by his father, he wasn’t quite prepared for what he would find. “I was a young lad in a little village, Horndon-on-the-Hill, and causing a bit of mischief,” he told me. “My dad sort of thought that boxing would be the right thing for me to do. You know? Give me a bit of discipline.”

What he felt, he said, was fear. “Going into a gym was quite intimidating – the trainers in there, everything, the smells. There were some lads, the lads around town, and they would dig you out a bit. It weren’t the nicest thing.”

Soon, however, Hibbert was able to get “the hang of it” and learned to “love training, love boxing”. He smiled at the memory and seemed to nod in agreement with himself. He was right to have persevered. But I was struck by his ability to work through his initial fear – a rational fear of violence and pain – and then to turn it into something he loved.

Outside the glare of ring lights, Hibbert was no-nonsense but not brusque; he was thoughtful and gave little impression of aggression. His movements were controlled, as those of sportsmen often are, and he answered my inexpert questions with patience. In short, he was dignified. Sitting at ease in his gym, with photographs of Mike Tyson and other champions glaring down from their frames on the cold, concrete walls, he projected none of the aggression that he had spent nearly two decades of his life training for. I asked him if he enjoyed boxing. “Yeah, I do like getting in there and having a bit of a fight,” he answered, with what looked like a guilty grin. “It’s in you, you know?”

But the will to keep fighting when confronted with physical danger is not entirely innate. Endurance of this kind is honed – it can’t just be dared or forced into existence. Before winning the Commonwealth title last September, Hibbert had twice been beaten by Ryan. Their second fight in May 2015 was furious, with relentless combinations of punches hitting their targets on both sides. Hibbert was felled after half an hour or so in the ring. A similar stoppage seemed likely in their third encounter: halfway through the match, Ryan dug his fist into Hibbert’s solar plexus and brought him to his knees. But the challenger collected himself. He got to his feet and kept pacing, parrying and lunging at his ­opponent until the bell rang.

I asked him what had given him the resolve to continue after that sixth-round blow. “It did hurt,” he said, recalling the shaky moment – the way he had staggered and struggled for breath, sweat gathering on his brow. Then he shifted in his seat and told me a story that was clearly important to him; he would return to it repeatedly during our conversations. “Dave Ryan was winning the fight but I’d promised my two children, especially my little girl, that I’d bring [the Commonwealth belt] home for her,” he said. “She loves that rainbow belt. She ain’t got a clue what it’s about. She just wanted it ’cause it looked nice.”

Hibbert is a family man and I believed him each time he resurrected this theme: that he drew strength to fight from the thought of his children, Lexie and Connor, aged six and three. (I wondered about his interests outside boxing. “Family!” he informed me.) It pained him to spend so much time apart from them. “They go through a lot,” he said, “because you spend your life in the gym. Sometimes, you get home – say, if you’re training three times a day – and you know you’ve got it going again the next day . . . but your kids just want to play with you.”

He visibly softened. “My little girl wants me to help her do her homework. Not that I’m very good at that – she’s cleverer than me already. But you’re tired and you need your rest . . . There’s a lot of things that go on that people don’t see.” His wife, Kerrie, who he met at a local pub a decade ago, comes to each of his fights.

Hibbert’s first name is actually Wayne. John was his grandfather’s name. He adopted it when he registered for his pro licence, to honour the man who had pushed him, who had shouted, “Come on, boy, let’s get it going!” whenever he was “a bit wayward . . . knocking about round the streets”. The original John would sit ringside at the gym, smoking away at his pipe, proud of his grandson. He died eight years ago, without witnessing Hibbert’s rise up the ranks of the sport. Later, I noticed on his shiny, blue-black shorts the word “Granddad”, above a picture of a golden crucifix and a pair of angel wings. On the front and back were “Lexie” and “Connor”.

Yet the love of family alone could not explain Hibbert’s resilience: his “heart”, in boxing parlance. There must have been something else, something harder. Hunter S Thompson once wrote of pursuing “the edge” – the liminal space between deadening security and the danger of a literal
death – and I thought I could sense something of this impulse in fighters. To walk habitually on such a precipice, surely some deep, evolutionary instinct for self-preservation must be negotiated, if not negated altogether. How was this possible? Few fighters win every bout and even a victory can prove damaging in the long run. Injury is part of the job description.

When I pressed Hibbert on this, his look of focus returned. “That’s what a lot of people say: ‘How can you just get punched?’” He seemed almost bemused by the question. “You just don’t think of it. It is what it is. I’ve done it for so long now. It’s what I know. I don’t know anything else.”

***

By the ninth round of the Copper Box fight, the judges’ scorecards were even. Hibbert had dominated the first five, walking through Martin’s attempts at combinations and forcing him against the ropes time and again. Yet a solid right to Hibbert’s side had emboldened the younger boxer, who made the most of the champion’s defensive lapses in the seventh round. Martin threw a hook. He drove back his opponent. Hibbert began to squint. His left eye was swelling badly and his nose was bleeding.

With just three of the 12 rounds left, the pace slackened for the first time. Both boxers were exhausted and they stared at each other, hesitating. As the eleventh began, Martin’s comparative inexperience was showing. He was now throwing single punches, which Hibbert countered with swarms. One of Martin’s attacks connected. Hibbert pounded back, pop-pop-pop.

In their corners, the trainers looked on. Their heads moved with those of their charges. They shouted and waved their hands. In the minute-long intervals between the action, they applied Vaseline to cuts and delivered bullet-point lectures on strategy. Mark “Sach” Bates, Hibbert’s lead trainer, gave advice on how to exploit Martin’s habit of falling back and standing with his gloves covering his face. Then the bell announced the fight’s final three minutes.

Instead of marching straight into combat, Hibbert gave his opponent a brief hug. It was a surprising, touching gesture. Then he raised his fists and charged into Martin, all merciless determination.

Ninety seconds was all it took. The 21-year-old challenger dropped to his knees after Hibbert’s machine-like pounding had pushed him on to the ropes once again. As the referee started the count, Martin’s eyes drifted to his corner. His trainers stared back. Then he tilted his head in Hibbert’s direction, but the champion just hopped on the spot, readying himself for another push. “Seven, eight . . .” the referee bellowed. Martin didn’t hear it. When he finally stood up, it was too late. The fight was over.

“You just don’t think of it,” Hibbert had told me: he was able to face the punches because he could banish the thought of the pain they would cause and the consequences they could have. “You just don’t think of it”: he was able to fight Martin and make an enemy of him for this one night by banishing the knowledge that they are, in his own words, “pretty close”. Shortly before the match, Tommy had called Wayne his “best friend in boxing”.

They had been sparring partners as ­Hibbert trained for the Dave Ryan fights last year. Martin was ringside to watch his friend win the Commonwealth title; he was “over the moon” when Hibbert’s victory was declared. But all of that was irrelevant in the run-up to their own fight. “Boxing gives you discipline and respect [for your opponents]. They’re in the ring to do their job and I’m in there to do mine,” Hibbert explained. “But losing would set me back financially and ruin things for my kids. You’ve got no friends when you go in there. They’re your enemies.”

So: “You just don’t think of it.” But Hibbert did think of it. He couldn’t help it. From early on in the fight, the two boxers would fist-bump each other in the intervals between their 180-second battles: an expression of “hang in there” that was at odds with the jabs and hooks that followed. Their embrace in the final round was only the most open gesture of a friendship that couldn’t quite be denied, even in the midst of physical conflict.

The chime of the final bell faded. Hibbert jumped up in joy – or maybe it was relief – and acknowledged his fans. Then he walked over to Martin and consoled him. The younger man looked up at him, almost in tears. In the post-match interview, Hibbert insisted that, although he had won, Martin had hurt him badly, a strange compliment in any other circumstances but a generous one here. Martin leaned over and kissed him on the side of his head before thanking the referee and Jesus Christ for keeping them safe.

***

“You discipline your mind. That’s the art of training,” Hibbert told me as we sat in his Essex gym. “It keeps your mind active.” Yet boxing, to him, was ultimately “a business”. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to provide for your family,” he said. I asked him how much he makes. “I don’t really wanna say,” he replied, but added: “Hopefully, my next few fights might get me a house paid for, or most of it, anyway.” (While world heavyweight champions such as Tyson Fury can earn purses of over £3.5m, Commonwealth title fights in Hibbert’s category are far less lucrative. Other boxers have received about £30,000 for comparable bouts.)

He did not romanticise the sport, something that writers find oddly difficult to resist – Ernest Hemingway even took it up as an amateur and built a ring in the backyard of his house in Key West, Florida. Hibbert spoke of his years as a manual labourer, laying floors, with almost as much fondness as he described his boxing career. It was
work, that’s all.

But work of this sort, which takes for granted the risk of severe injury, seems to confer on its practitioner an aura of strength that goes beyond the merely physical. Talking to Hibbert as he trained at his gym and as he rested at his London hotel on the morning of the fight, I was reminded of Ruskin’s thoughts on mountain climbing. In a letter to his father in 1863, he wrote:

“. . . if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration . . . whereas if you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently rash and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and better man, fitter for every sort of work or trial, and nothing but danger produces this effect.”

***

My impression of John Wayne Hibbert was one of solidity of character. I suspect that he is not alone among boxers to have this trait, forged, perhaps, by the tempering of the will that is necessary for such an extreme occupation.

The morality of the sport has been much debated but, in the same spirit as we can condemn wars but honour the soldiers who fight them, I think the bravery and the glory of boxers are beyond dispute. And there I go – romanticising it, when it’s strictly a matter of business. It’s work, that’s all.

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue