Mental health has long been a worldwide issue, now it's coming to light in boxing.
The pressure of the sport can take its toll on even the toughest fighters. Now, more than ever, it’s important to understand that.
Boxing has a proven positive impact on mental health overall, with regular training and dedication to the lifestyle elevating people’s mood and working as an anti-depressant.
Although, boxers have a different level of expectation. They are always expected to simply show up on fight night and perform at their best to get the job done. But life hits hard and everyone still has their own inner battles going on.
All fighters deserve respect for stepping into the ring, especially at the elite level, with many having to go to dark places mentally in order to fully prepare.
There has long been a machismo stigma attached to boxing. Fighters are often regarded as cold and emotionless – portrayed as mentally resolute to match their strong physical appearance.
But consistently summoning the necessary mental strength and focusing so relentlessly on a task so daunting can become a heavy burden.
Fighters Shining Light on Mental Health
Mental health in boxing has been prominent in recent years, with several high-profile names in the sport shining a light on the topic and subsequently bringing a wider audience to the difficulties that come with it.
Undefeated American star, Ryan Garcia, previously withdrew from a scheduled fight to focus on recovering from his own mental health battle, as he dealt with depression and anxiety.
Two-division world champion, Danny Garcia, also bravely opened up on his personal struggles after returning to the ring with a victory over Jose Benavidez. Visibly emotional in the aftermath of that success, it was a rare post-fight sight for a setting typically filled with celebration and bravado.
Adrien Broner, a controversial, four-weight world champion never far from the headlines, was another to bring focus to the topic. The 34-year-old also pulled out from a previous scheduled fight date, citing mental health problems.
Anthony Joshua was another high-profile fighter to spotlight mental health in boxing, albeit unintentionally. The two-time world heavyweight champion was defeated by Oleksandr Usyk again in their rematch and his post-fight actions were widely highlighted as the result of succumbing to the glaring pressure on his shoulders.
Joshua’s speech and antics caused a widespread fallout. While it’s easy to criticise what he did under clearly concussive circumstances, it was evident from an emotional press conference that the stress involved with such a massive event, and mental adversity he faced, simply became overwhelming.
Dealing With The Pressure of Boxing
Seeing an elite fighter, with a towering 6ft 4in physique and hugely muscular frame, reduced to tears after defeat was further proof that everyone has their breaking point, regardless of physical strength or stature.
Reigning heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury, is another example of this, with his previous struggles with depression and an eventual comeback having been well documented.
Bringing up such matters has long been taboo in boxing, though, because fighters are ‘supposed’ to be tougher than most people. What gets forgotten is boxers are in fact human. They can suffer mentally just as much as anyone else.
Ahead of his rematch defeat in Saudi Arabia, ‘AJ’ spoke openly about dealing with the pressure he constantly feels, similar to fellow superstar names such as Canelo Alvarez.
"Give me all this shit," he stated. "And then in about ten years, you're going to be giving someone else shit as well,” he stated. “I'm going to be sitting there looking at that young kid like, ‘Man, I know exactly how you feel.’
“It’s tough. I just hope that these guys stay strong during these times. You have to be strong-willed, strong-minded. It doesn't last forever. So, if you can just stay strong through these times.
“I think a lot of mental health comes from outside sources as well. Information that you take in and what you hear and always trying to battle the negative and criticism potentially. If that's the case, you have to be so solid inside that it doesn't bother you or affect you.”
Boxing’s History of Mental Health Issues
Recent fight withdrawals for mental health issues were met with a frustrating backlash from the boxing community.
While some fans have outlined this as an easy new ‘excuse’ for pulling from a fight (potentially leaving true withdrawal reasons undisclosed), no cases can be taken lightly when it comes to such an important matter, regardless of the authenticity of the reasoning.
While old-time fighters are often heralded for having a tougher, old school mentality towards prize-fighting than those around today, the sport’s history is sadly rife with tragic endings for so many champions of the past.
Mental health issues have always been involved in boxing, way back in the earlier days of the sport up to today. A quick online search for the number of boxers who have sadly taken their own lives brings up an alarmingly sad figure, with other shocking issues also clearly linked to mental health.
Randy Turpin, a conqueror of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, and Nicaraguan icon, Alexis Arguello, are just two fighters whose lives tragically came to an end by the same hands that made them world champions in the ring; their own.
Open Up and Fight For Mental Health
Oliver McCall’s high-profile 1997 mental breakdown in the ring against Lennox Lewis is another infamous incident of a fighter suffering from the build-up of in-ring pressure.
In this instance, there were other background issues surrounding McCall too, having been involved in rehab and on withdrawal from drugs.
But it all culminated in the former heavyweight champion being halted by the referee for being in no position to continue, mentally, rather than physically being knocked out. McCall was later evaluated by a mental health expert and hospitalised for his ongoing troubles.
Beyond the interviews and training montages, it’s not always clear how a boxer is mentally dealing with an upcoming fight. Physically, on the surface, most fighters appear ready to do business as normal. But, often, there may be a fight going on in their heads before a punch is even thrown.
History shows the tragic impacts that mental health issues can have on fighters and recent events have further highlighted the necessity to speak out. The best way to overcome these problems in life is to emulate what’s done in the ring – fight.
Header image: PA