Boxing: A sport of humans, not robots; chin up Tony Jeffries

I met British Super-Middleweight champion Paul Smith at the weekend, Paul and I have exchanged opinions, messages via various internet methods for a year or two but there is no facsimile for meeting someone in person. True, Paul proved as generous and humble with his time as the virtual discourse had suggested he would but putting the flesh to the on-screen skeleton of that connection reminded me of two things.

Firstly, boxers are completely different to the rest of us and secondly boxers are exactly the same as the rest of us. Yes, they make sacrifices and pursue a profession with greater inherent risk than virtually any other occupation you care to mention – their bravery is beyond debate –  and yet paradoxically, boxers remain as likely to suffer injured pride, vulnerability and emotional turmoil as the rest of us. The sport makes egos and bruises them too.

It was amazing how swiftly the conversation with Paul turned to the content of various boxing forums and the opinions ventured by their dedicated readers. Paul has been a regular at these virtual lounges for a long time, choosing carefully when to bite his lip rather than type and observing a self-imposed code of conduct with regard to potential opponents and those who seek to undermine his ability, performances and horizons.

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt nor irritate. Paul, despite his rugged demeanour and status as a British champion, is human after all.

I was further reminded of this neglected reality, that fighters are human beings not robots, when I saw Kevin Mitchell and his young family enjoying the same Charity football tournament at Canvey Island as contemporary Paul Smith. His failed bid to topple Australian powerhouse Michael Katsidis still fresh in the mind of all who saw it and presumably Kevin’s too. His preparation for that contest was adversely affected by a litany of issues, some of which are in the public domain and some only a select few will ever be privy too but even Kevin himself conceded domestic problems had hampered his readiness both physically and emotionally for the biggest night of his life.

Fans expect more of course. They expect devotion to duty, duty being prizefighting not fatherhood. This is why Katsidis was applauded for isolating himself in Thailand despite the arrival of a new baby, why Hagler was canonised for his monastic zeal and why those who seek to sustain home comforts are sneered at as weak and undeserving. I appreciate the aspiration of fans; that their idol will fulfil their potential without hindrance or distraction but I’m suggesting we expect too much of fighters.

Fans allow narrow-mindedness to cloud their perspective. They become fascists to the boxing cause. Expecting robotic results from drone, Robocop fighters. Bemoaning any deviation from the extremism they believe delivers the results they predict and presume. The preservation of the unbeaten record has encouraged this idealistic, myopic view rejecting as it does the notion of an ‘off-night’, the acceptance of imperfection in a quest for the greater good.

On Friday night, the combination of new media, fan short-sightedness and the false reality of an unbeaten record claimed another victim. Sunderland’s Tony Jeffries had an off-night, restricted by injury, faced by an in-form, awkward back foot fighter and with a beaurocratic oversight forcing him to fight for two rounds longer than anticipated. He will, when hindsight offers him clearer perspective, be relieved to have escaped with the draw he did.

Inevitably, the boxing forums brimmed and frothed. Even the more valued opinion questioned, reasonably, the trajectory of Tony’s improvement since turning professional but inevitably, the commentary on his performance escalated, or perhaps degenerated to the derogatory and unhelpful. Many believed Tony had been intoxicated by his own regional high-profile and had lost his way, his sense of purpose and direction. An avid user of many of the social network tools at his disposal Tony will be sub-consciously aware of several thousand ‘followers’ or ‘friends’. His ticket selling prowess will further confirm his popularity but one wonders just how real, or perhaps helpful all of that virtual backing really is.

Fighters are emotional creatures, whether electing to shut-out the world as Joe Frazier used to or feeding off their energy in the way nemesis Muhammad Ali did. Their modern contemporaries have so many channels for connection to fans its possible to wonder whether even Ali could have eschewed the negativity that can be generated behind faceless user names in internet forums were he punching for pay today.

Every fight, every round, every result or proposed match up is discussed in minutiae, slaved over, dissected. As Paul Smith said, its hard to ignore it because you know there are fans on there defending you and it doesn’t seem right to leave them to it. Following Friday’s draw, Boxing Scene’s excellent Terry Dooley has elicited the most sense from the key parties but Jeffries himself still felt compelled to video blog his own thoughts on the match and the aftermath. Jeffries may be advised many things over the next few weeks as he seeks to unravel precisely why he has not progressed as so many good judges suggested he would. Personally, I’d advise him to remember he’s a human not a robot, off-nights are an inevitability as he progresses and perhaps to keep his communication with his ”fans’ to first person, face to face contact.

He may fight more relaxed, fight with a mind free of the expectations he imposes on himself and the apparent fear of imperfection the twittering classes engender as a result. Which is exactly the type of isolated, anonymity he thrived in as an amateur where Amir Khan and latterly James DeGale and Frankie Gavin absorbed most of the attention.

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