Mickey Rourke had almost certainly never heard of Phillip Hughes. As the Hollywood star ambled towards the ring in a Moscow concert hall on Friday night dressed in a Stetson hat, his thoughts were probably not halfway across the world in a Sydney hospital where the 25-year-old Hughes had just succumbed to the freak neck injury that has so shaken the sporting world over the last week.
Perhaps forgetting the lessons of his Oscar nominated film The Wrestler, Rourke decided that, at the age of 62, and more than two decades since he last fought as a professional, he would take a step back into a boxing world he considered himself too old for back in 1994. He is now understood to be considering a fully-fledged ring return in 2015.
There is no pretence either here or from Rourke that his opponent – 29-year-old Elliot Seymour – was little more than a scratching post for a man still in serviceable physical condition – but it is what follows next that is of greatest concern.
In 1994, Phil Hughes was five. Busy cultivating the technique that would later enthral and frustrate in equal measure – the idea that he would see his career- and life – snuffed out before Rourke’s athletic ambitions had run their course is unfathomable.
Much has been made in recent days about the relationship between risk and perceived reward in professional sport. The great difference between boxing and other pursuits is that professionalism can be attained without any definitive skill. The dangers are marked and obvious but the reward for placing your life in the hands of chance is that you can call yourself a professional. For Rourke – a man with masochistic tendencies still searching for lost youth – such an exchange is enticing.
Hughes did not make that same deal when he made his Sheffield Shield debut in 2007. His marketable skills were his inventive strokeplay, brilliant hand-eye coordination and an absolute faith in his convictions. Reckless machismo was not a necessary asset.
That is not to accuse the former Worcestershire import of a lack of courage – far from it. But the significance of a death in a sport remembered for a near impeccable safety record is that you feel that the tragic figure has been conned into gambling his life on a game they weren’t aware they were playing.
The on-pitch deaths of Marc-Vivien Foé and Antonio Puerta drew a similarly deep feeling of indescribable sickness from the football community. Neither man had showcased any discernible physical weakness until the moment at which their bodies were found wanting. That was enough.
As then, the impact of Hughes’ passing on the weekend’s sport was subtle but marked. Aside from the public tributes, there were significant attitude changes from the sporting protagonists left behind.
At London’s Excel Arena Dereck Chisora and Tyson Fury had the tantalising prospect of a heavyweight world title fight hanging over their heads by way of reward as they rematched their 2011 British title fight. There could hardly have been more at stake.
In the event, Chisora – broken under the ramrod jab of the taller Fury- was persuaded to call it a day at the end of ten brutal rounds. Despite the boos ringing around the arena at the end of an underwhelming card and Chisora’s well acclaimed unbreakable fighting spirit – the Zimbabwe-born boxer fell on his own sword. Fury came over and offered a bear hug. It was hard not to recognise that some perspective had been found.
At 30, Chisora’s time at the top end of his sport could well now be over. He is not even half of Rourke’s age and does not possess one tenth of his fortune, yet the house is starting to hold the majority of the cash that the Finchley man came in with.
The last year has been marked by brain injuries befalling prominent risk takers. Seven-time Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher spent the best part of nine months in a coma after a skiing accident last Christmas and Jules Bianchi has been in a critical condition in hospital since a freak accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in October. Both incidents were infinitely more violent than Hughes’, yet, at the time of writing, both men are still alive.
If Rourke fails to heed the warnings given by the stories of Hughes, Bianchi and Schumacher and decides not to walk away from his self built Moscow casino, he wouldn’t be alone in making such a choice.
Former England all-rounder Brian Close used to scoff at team mates who were incredulous that the unhelmeted Yorkshireman put his whole body on the line against the most venomous of bowling attacks of the 1960s and 70s.
“How can the ball hurt you?” Close used to mutter. “It’s only on you for a second.”