By Elliot Worsell
AT school, it seemed almost unacceptable for either boys to get good grades or for girls to break a sweat. It was mainly for this reason the boys neglected to do their homework and took pride in failing exams and the girls, brighter but just as prone to herd mentality, excused themselves from doing PE, then spent lunchtimes gossiping in groups rather than chasing balls in the playground.
That is, perhaps, a sweeping generalisation, but there has certainly always been something rather unfashionable about the pursuit of excellence, particularly if the pursuit requires effort and dedication on the part of the one pursuing it. This is true of schoolchildren, for whom the only thing less cool than a parent is trying hard, and it is also true of boxers, specifically ones who have reached a level of fame and wealth they believe trumps anything else they can possibly receive from the sport. It is from these fighters you often hear the following: “Titles and respect won’t put bread on the table,” and, also, “They call it prizefighting for a reason.”
Both those statements are rooted in a degree of truth, of course, yet typically said with a sense of superiority that, without meaning to, serves to undermine the efforts of boxers not as rich and famous who would still love to be defined by championship belts they can park on a mantlepiece and show off to relatives. In other words, while it is true that every boxer would indeed love to make lots of money and become a household name, that is simply not a reality for the vast majority of them.
For these boxers, titles do mean something and hard work remains a necessity. For these boxers, maybe not as blessed or as well-backed, there is forever value in taking tough fights and winning tough fights, as well as in winning the belts they receive along the way. Would they, if possible and if asked, voluntarily trade in these cherished belts of theirs for millions of pounds? Yes, quite naturally, they probably would. But that isn’t a question asked of them in the days and weeks that follow what they consider a significant and gratifying personal achievement.
What is more, even for the boxers who bathe in cash and often look down on those who don’t have access to it, there is still value in titles and legacy, despite what they say. Take Tyson Fury, for example. While not the only one, he has in recent times been determined to constantly tell us it’s all about the money, this boxing lark, and has taken to doing so because he is making more of it now than he has at any other stage in his professional career. However, to believe his words, and to believe that money is all that matters to someone like Fury, is to know nothing about the fragile ego and insecurity of most so-called prizefighters. For whether they care to admit it or not, the money, although the thing that ultimately supports them, is not the thing in retirement they will be asked about by fans or by people on the street. Instead, there will be other things. There will, in the case of Fury, be mention of Wladimir Klitschko, and Deontay Wilder, and now Francis Ngannou and that left hook of his he tasted in round three.
That’s possibly why Fury, full of brio beforehand, cut a rather sheepish and forlorn figure both during the Ngannou fight and immediately after it. Far from his mind, rest assured, was the ungodly amount of money about to hit his bank account, nor was he busy thinking ahead to the holiday he would book as a result of this sizeable cash injection. Such thoughts would have to wait until he got home, unfortunately, long after Fury, victorious but humbled, had fielded questions pertaining to what had happened and, during the inquisition, accepted his new role. Because now, though he had won the fight, he was suddenly the fall guy. He was the butt of the jokes; the man in the memes. He was no longer the greatest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali, as a few cheerleaders ambitiously claimed pre-fight, nor even categorically the best heavyweight of his own era. Instead, thanks to Ngannou and thanks to his own propensity to take his eye off the ball, Fury had discovered firsthand the importance of legacy at a time in his career when he was proudly and publicly stressing its irrelevance.
In now coming around to the idea, Fury will have to accept that for as much as Klitschko represents legacy and Wilder represents legacy, so too does Ngannou and what happened in Riyadh on October 28. This Fury may learn the hard way, too; that is, learn only when his career is over and it becomes a talking point he is unable to avoid. He will then, like so many boxers in retirement, realise that money is all well and good, but unless you make enough of it to fully extricate yourself from the boxing scene altogether, you will, in the eyes of those who remember you, only be as good as your last fight and only be as good as the fight, or incident, that in the end defined you.
That’s not to say Francis Ngannou will define Tyson Fury. In fact, chances are, he won’t. Yet the idea that rich and famous boxers will make enough money to flee the sport forever is nothing more than a fallacy perpetuated by high-flying boxers with no concept of the afterlife. It is they, after all, who dream of becoming movie stars or politicians or running their own clothing line during the good times. It is also they who believe the money will never run out and that boxing, for them, is little more than a stopgap or passing phase; the leg-up to superstardom; the beginning and not the end.
Usually what happens, though, is that they waste their money and therefore come crawling back. Either that or their egos, which rarely shrink, ensure their lack of purpose and identity in the real world becomes such a humbling and sobering thing to have to confront that a return to boxing in some capacity becomes almost inevitable, vital. It is then at that point, when providing commentary, or punditry, or doing the dinner circuit, or hosting a podcast, a boxer’s legacy and reputation precedes them and rediscovers its value. It is then at that point money, something dangerous to pursue in lieu of respect, is all of a sudden not the be-all and end-all, nor the thing that makes anyone take them seriously.