IN her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Irish author Sally Rooney wrote: “Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way. I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things – having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself. When I put it like that, I think: that’s it? And so what? But the fact is, although it’s nothing, it makes me miserable, and I don’t want to live this kind of life. When I submitted my first book, I just wanted to make enough money to finish the next one. I never advertised myself as a psychologically robust person, capable of withstanding extensive public inquiries into my personality and upbringing.

“People who intentionally become famous – I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it – are, I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease. There is something wrong with them, and when we look at them and learn from them, something goes wrong with us.”

This passage, written by Rooney but delivered by her protagonist, returned to me when watching the first two episodes of the BBC documentary Stable: The Boxing Game, a slick and enlightening account of the daily business at Shane McGuigan’s boxing gym. Specifically, it came to mind towards the end of episode one, when Barry McGuigan, Shane’s father, spoke with typical candour and insight about the perils of fame. “There’s no doubt about it, fame is a drug,” he said. “If you think that it’s not, you’re lying to yourself. Because it is – it is a drug. You want to be successful. You want to please people. You want people to go, ‘Wow, look at how good that was!’ That gives you a buzz.”

McGuigan, like Rooney, experienced and continues to experience fame as a by-product of his success in an individual and, at times, incredibly lonely profession. It was, one can be sure, neither the goal nor the dream back when Barry started out in boxing, yet history would suggest fame was not only always a distinct possibility but that it would, depending on his handling of it, represent one of McGuigan’s greatest opponents and obstacles.

That, indeed, was the message the documentary was aiming to convey when raising this very point. At the time, while listening to McGuigan, we were watching Adam Azim, a fiercely dedicated 19-year-old prospect, driving to a bar to meet some friends. In the car, Azim, now 11-0 as a pro, said to the camera: “Every time I’m going anywhere, someone’s spotting who I am. A lot of people are taking pictures while I’m sitting down or doing something, you know? It’s getting a bit worse now but eventually it’s going to get even worse. But I’m ready for that. I just want to set an example.”

Dedicated: Azim in the gym with his trainer, Shane McGuigan (Boxxer/Lawrence Lustig)

To some extent there is no stopping the inevitable and Azim’s words, said at the tender age of 19, could be attributed to any other young fighter who once also vowed to use fame in the right way. It is, alas, one of those things, like childbirth or grief, on which you cannot really comment with any sort of authority unless you have experienced it yourself.

For Azim, someone who has yet to break beyond the borders of the boxing world, it is easy to listen to others and their cautionary tales and promise never to get ahead of himself and suffer the same. Yet it is often the case that boxers are predisposed to falling down similar holes, despite seeing them approach and knowing what can be found down there. This is perhaps true for many reasons. Among them, though, is the fact that boxing is an individual sport and therefore its participants want and expect all the adulation to be theirs rather than shared. Typically, too, the boxers tasked with handling this adulation and the fame that comes as a result are young and immature and, in most cases, uneducated. Conditioned to throw textbook punches they may be, but controlling emotions, resisting temptation and dealing with people are not necessarily lessons anyone learns in a boxing gym.

In there, the gym, boxers tend to be alone; alone with their thoughts, alone with their fears. If lucky, as shown in Stable, they might be surrounded by coaches and fellow boxers, but even then the company is largely manufactured; predicated on their success as a boxer and their status in that room. In other words, by nature boxers are climbers – rankings, records, and purse money – and are better at connecting with punches than with people in the real world. At every turn, after all, they are reminded that boxing is the loneliest sport and to trust no one. They tell themselves, moreover, that they are the best. The strongest. The fittest. The most powerful. They then look for confirmation of this from those who surround them – never the ideal foundation on which to form a relationship – and usually receive it, particularly if compliments lead to favours, ringside tickets, or a taste of fame.

As for the trainer, meanwhile, this leaves them conflicted. On the one hand, success and fame is precisely what they covet and want for their boxer, yet, on the other, the more they get of both the more likely it is that the boxer becomes disfigured and alien; far removed from the boxer and human being with whom the trainer first connected. Not true in all cases, no, this still tends to be the reason why the relationship between a coach and a boxer runs its course and why the praise of others – outsiders, sycophants – becomes, in time, more appealing to a boxer than the praise of the one person whose opinion should matter.

“You’ve seen all the hype around Adam, and now he’s going to be pushed towards being a pay-per-view star and a global star,” said Shane McGuigan. “I don’t think he’ll be able to walk down the street without getting stopped. But he’s 19 years of age (at the time of the documentary), so it’s down to me to slow everything down a fraction.”

Ordinarily you would expect to hear such caution in relation to either a prospect meeting a future rival or receiving their first title shot. However, today, given the way of the world, the battle to keep a fighter grounded has, for the discerning boxing trainer, clearly never been tougher. With so many ways to learn what the world thinks about you, and with it so easy now to believe you are remotely significant or special, winning this battle has also never been more vital.