OF all the reasons to admire Marvelous Marvin Hagler, what stands as a finer achievement than any title or victory he procured was his ability to walk away from his love and, unlike Orpheus in the case of Eurydice, resist the temptation to look back and ruin everything.
That, by virtue of it being such a rarity in a sport like boxing, carries a weight far greater than any championship belt. Not only that, the way in which Hagler turned his back on the sport in 1988, essentially by fleeing to Italy and becoming an actor, is one of the greatest examples of independence and sheer bloody-mindedness the sport has ever seen.
Then again, perhaps it could be argued that in those days it was easier, both to retire and stay retired. In fact, some might go so far as to say only Hagler’s competitive spirit, which burned like never before after losing against Ray Leonard in ’87, would have been a real motivating factor for any U-turn. They might also say that once settled in Italy, hardly a hotbed as far as boxing is concerned, Hagler would have been able to unplug his mind from the sport in a way no retired boxer could today, thanks to social media and how the world, as a result, has grown both larger and tougher to escape. Nowadays, it’s true, whether you’re in Milan or Brockton, Massachusetts, there is no ignoring what goes on in other territories around the world. Nor, whether you are active or retired, is there any avoiding the day-to-day shenanigans of the boxing world, either.
For those who have recently retired from the sport I often wonder how this relentless exposure to it impacts the already difficult transition from fighter to civilian. After all, as with any breakup, the last thing one wants to see every day on their phone is an image from happier times. This only becomes more of an issue, too, when the ex-partner happens to leave their mark on you, either physically or psychologically, the way boxing tends to do to most who court her during an intense and impressionable time in their life. To then see this abusive partner online, both her face and the ease with which she has forgotten, will ultimately trigger emotions they are trying to leave behind and, in turn, leave them stuck, unable to move forward.
What makes matters worse is that boxing, by its very nature, encourages its participants to think they are the centre of their own universe. Despite their training team, much of the hard work is done alone, in silence, with the payoff to come – whether fame or fortune – the only thing that sustains many of them through a ten-week training camp. This, one could argue, creates in a boxer both a selfishness and a hunger for attention, not unlike that of a musician or a writer or a painter, people who take a leap of faith, create in solitude, and then hope at a later date they will find an audience with whom their work can be shared. Boxers, by fighting, get this opportunity as well. They get the opportunity to express themselves and, for one night only, feel like they are stronger and more powerful than any other man or woman walking the earth.
Then, of course, one day they are just like everyone else. Deflated, both physically and mentally, they are sitting at home on a Tuesday afternoon scrolling aimlessly through their social media feed while the rest of the world are getting on with their lives. No longer, despite all they have achieved, does anyone in the real world seemingly care about them or their day-to-day business. The best they can hope for now, in fact, as they pathetically thumb through their timeline, is that they stumble across footage from an old fight of theirs, with comments below it working to either produce a sentimental smile or have them spoiling for an argument.
If not that, they might see posts from fellow fighters, those who replaced them and now stand to receive the limelight and money once set aside for them. These posts they will read with no small amount of envy, in itself a form of self-harm, and they will think, You wouldn’t have lasted a round with me in my prime, mate. In fact, I could probably beat you now. They will then contemplate posting this thought rather than simply thinking it. Someone needs to hear it, surely.
Eight weeks later, they are training again. More importantly, they have told the world they are training again. Just like that, after so many years in the wilderness, held captive and tortured by their own insignificance and the indifference of fans, they have found crumbs of relevance again, albeit only online. Whether they can still do it – compete, that is – is neither here nor there. The important thing is this: people care about them once more. “Look at me, I’m back,” they will tweet. “Tell a friend. Tell the world.”
In truth, though it has always been greeted with rolling eyes, there used to be something rather heroic about a boxing comeback. The good ones brought to mind Rocky scripts and suggested a personal battle against the odds, with the primary aim to prove a point to oneself and any doubters. Yet nowadays, given those ostensibly noble reasons are as good as gone from a returning boxer’s thought process, a boxing comeback is not so much heroic as tragic. Now, rather than to squeeze from their body the dregs of their athleticism before it is too late, one senses that an aching for attention, particularly in a world in which attention is currency, is forever the sole driving force in the minds of these returning boxers. With that attention comes money, of course, which helps the broke ones, but it is still the attention these men and women seek above anything else.
After all, at a time when everybody has a platform and a voice and the opportunity to be heard, how painful it must be for ex-fighters to fade into irrelevance and, unlike before, now watch the world continue in their absence, with constant updates drip-fed to them via their phone. Increasingly, and because of this, these retired fighters then feel the need to continually remind people they still exist and will invariably do so via an array of weird and wonderful methods; methods often so weird and wonderful they will have most not fondly reminiscing but instead concerned for their mental wellbeing. Failing that, they will just announce a comeback, aware that like any abusive partner who gets a kick out of seeing their victim come crawling back for more, boxing will be standing at the door with her arms wide open. She will then say to them, “I told you, didn’t I? You are nothing without me.”