Boxing: Can we really expect ‘vanilla’ role models from boxing?

Fury2George Foreman once said; “Boxing was the sport to which all others aspire.” Oh how the sport’s followers love to trot that line out. The average fight fan yearns for boxing to meet Foreman’s validation. On occasion it does, too often it is merely wistful nostalgia.

Tyson Fury’s ascension to the throne in Germany rekindled that debate once more as boxing was pushed to the front of the news agenda. The insatiable media circus gorged on throw away answers the newly crowned champion variously uttered on the role of women in society and his views on the bible’s ‘teachings’ on homosexuality and abortion. Their haste was unsavoury, but then the media machine has no time or need for consideration, for balance, for context. Currency is the only, well, currency. And the thing it loves best; a shit storm, was created.

To this end, the 27-year-old’s views are being judged against a curious benchmark, his presence as a contender for the entirely subjective premise of a ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ awarded by the BBC. Fury thoroughly deserves the short listing he received by any measure, whether sporting or as a personality contest, but over 80,000 signatories believe he should be removed from the list in light of his reported views. Irrespective of the absurdity of that challenge, one wonders whether the implied expectations of a role model for children, and society in general, could ever sit comfortably with the characters found within the oldest sport of all, boxing.

Certainly, modern convention for role models appears to be an overwhelming sense of subservience, humility and gratitude.  Media trained ‘minionship’. Mention the sponsor, praise the boss, tow the line and stick to sport. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Where are these widely acknowledged rules? What is good, what is bad? Where is it written down? It seems everyone has read it and understood it and yet nobody seems able to show me an original source? On what basis are these judgements of people made? As someone wiser than me said  about the struggles of football genius Paul Gascoigne; “but at the end of the day, he’s just a daft lad from Newcastle, he just happens to be great at football.” Why do we expect so much of our champions and heroes?

Role models need to be neutral, beige, vanilla.

In a sport built on dedication, self-belief, resilience, bravery, skill and the willingness to sacrifice almost everything in order to achieve; populated often by those from the pits of poverty and frequently uneducated, do we truly expect to find such one-dimensional automatons?

Why do we need our sportsman to subvert to our, supposed collective requirements? To conform. Must sportsman be muzzled in public; can we realistically expect them to remain word perfect, politically correct with the intensity and persistence of the media’s attention?

And if a role model is to encourage impressionable youngsters to access the widely acknowledged positive influence boxing has, via action, self-control and discipline, from whom can greatest inspiration be drawn? Ali or Holmes? Hamed or Woodhall? Tyson or Klitschko? Which is to demean none of those great fighters, but the most inspirational are rarely the vanilla option.

Once in a boxing gym, anywhere in the world, they will not find food for ego, they’ll not find political or religious division, they’ll not find rejection because of the colour of their skin or holes in their shoes.

They’ll find kinship, discipline and reward for hard work. The very things Tyson Fury found twenty years ago. I agree with his own response to the question of his suitability as a role model (posed by BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine);  “I am a great role model, I come from a working class family and I’m heavyweight champion of the world, which shows any kid, it doesn’t matter who you are, that you can achieve anything.”

I suspect those words will not be reported widely.

But they should be.

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