“Who can fight like a hungry man when the refrigerator’s full?”
These words – spoken by American boxer Bernard Hopkins in the run-up to Ricky Hatton’s 2007 welterweight mega-fight with another American Floyd Mayweather Jr – were supposed to be reflective of a long established boxing truism that there is nothing more dangerous than an underdog with bills to pay and mouths to feed. Hatton, Hopkins suspected, had the hunger to execute one of British sport’s greatest upsets.
But come fight night it was Hatton – famed for his incredible feats of weight gain between fights – whose belly was full, as Mayweather danced ravenously to a comfortable win inside the distance.
Hatton’s reaction to his defeat was severe. Shorn of his sense of invincibility and with an increasingly fraught relationship with food, alcohol and drugs, he slipped into a deep depression and fought only four times more before retirement.
Some four years on from Hatton’s last appearance in the ring, another Manchester based boxer Tyson Fury is enduring his own existential crisis. On Monday, the 28-year-old tweeted his supposed retirement from the sport – before later rescinding the announcement – labelling it “the saddest thing I ever took part in.”
In Fury’s case, however, the source of his troubles is not a malaise caused by a morale sapping defeat – rather a prolonged hangover from his greatest victory.
Last November he walked into the lion’s den and took apart the vaunted Wladimir Klitschko in such surgically effective fashion that one could scarcely believe that this was a man making his first appearance at such an exalted level.
Yet, having done the unthinkable, and faced with a low reward rematch with former champion Klitschko, delays in returning to the ring have been manifold and easy to forecast. Promoter Eddie Hearn suggested last week that Fury would never fight again. He might still be proven right.
Such is the heavy price of defeat in the sport – both to legacy and to health, that, curious as it sounds, Fury’s flirtation with retirement is not surprising.
It’s possible that he’s been disturbed by the tragic passing of the Scottish boxer Mike Towell over the weekend, or perhaps the now retired British middleweight Nick Blackwell whose close brush with catastrophe after his fight with Chris Eubank Jnr in April struck a nerve – Fury was in Blackwell’s corner that night. With two young children and a wife, who are we to demand Fury continue fighting?
His is a sport in which he can’t afford to lose – just a single defeat can wreck a legacy — and serious injury and death are very real dangers.
This particular dilemma is one that echoes through boxing history.
Leon Spinks shot to global attention in 1978 when, at the age of 24, he dethroned Muhammad Ali to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The new king of the division spent much of the next seven months celebrating his most unexpected of triumphs before offering the vanquished Ali a chance at redemption later that same year.
Ali by this stage was a shadow of his former self, however Spinks was unable to win more than four rounds of the completed 15 on any of the judges’ scorecards. The former champion was king again for the third time. Spinks was now a rich man, but his reputation never recovered.
Such was the comfort of Ali’s win that it convinced the severely damaged icon to fight on for three more punishing years. His 1981 retirement came too late to prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease which decimated the second half of his life – a punishing battle than ended with his death in June.
Riddled with debt from bar tabs so old they could have climbed into the ring with him, Spinks crawled on — enduring the last of his 17 defeats to little known Fred Houpe at a small casino hall in Missouri in 1995.
It is this sort of career path that having scaled a mountain, Fury cannot risk.
These personal struggles come at a time when Britain can lay claim to having a wealth of world champions across the various weight divisions, however all but a small handful could walk down a London street without any fear of being stopped for a picture or autograph. Many more fans are bleeding into the UFC and WWE. British boxing is not in crisis, but it still faces losing its biggest character.
Fury, despite the storm caused by his homophobic comments in an extraordinary interview with the Mirror’s Oliver Holt last autumn, finished fourth in the BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year award vote that followed just weeks later – only narrowly missing out on beating the immaculate Jessica Ennis to a place on the podium.
The British sporting public love a fragile hard man. Affection for Frank Bruno endures – the Londoner briefly held the WBC version of the world heavyweight crown after beating Oliver McCall in 1995 — yet continues to enjoy warm support and wide recognition whenever he makes ringside appearances. His 2003 sectioning under the Mental Health Act saw fresh, urgent debate on the link between high level sport and depression.
Fury, it appears, is not yet as fondly known – but he is a name that is never far from the lips of the general public – an extremely rare commodity which boxing promoters all over the country want to bottle. Regardless of whether or not he actually returns to the ring, he will always be offered significant financial inducements to get back into training. This is a dangerous place to be in.
Retirement for Fury should be infinitely more attractive than fighting on unmotivated and out of shape – if serious about hanging up his gloves, an immediate course of action should be to seek reliable financial advice to stop him returning out of need in seven or eight years time.
Those sorts of spectacles – fighting hungry again having once been completely full – are among the most harrowing in this the hardest of professional sports.