IN THE epic movie The Shawshank Redemption, do you remember when Brooks, the elderly prison inmate is paroled for release? By the time he gets out Brooks has served 45 years of hard time and he doesn’t want to leave the confines of the prison, which he now regards as his home, so much so that he holds a knife to a fellow prisoner’s throat, intending to kill him so he can be brought up on a new charge that will keep him incarcerated forever.
On the outside, the menial job he is given as a grocery bagger is a complete contrast to the one he held in prison; there, Brooks was respected as an educated and knowledgeable librarian. Long story short, Brooks has trouble readjusting to the outside world after such a long time being away from it and eventually hangs himself.
The question: ‘So what happens now?’ was one that Brooks couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. It represented the unknown and he just couldn’t face it. It is a question many boxers must answer, and it’s one that can induce internal confusion and anxiety. My guess is that many fighters have no idea what the next chapter of their life will look like.
Transitioning once a career, job or lifestyle ends is something that affects almost all of us at some point. It’s the cycle of life and one that athletes encounter sooner than most. They accept that their careers aren’t infinite and that they will eventually have to carve out a new niche or simply find something else to fill the void but it doesn’t make crossing the finish line any easier.
For a boxer crossing over to living a purely civilian life after a career in the ring can be particularly challenging and potentially devastating. When you decide to stop there aren’t any leaving parties and cards filled with well wishes on your future endeavours, no pension to draw or benefits to be had. Whatever condition you’re in, after a career based upon physical violence, has to be endured as you navigate the big bad world. But what are you going to do next? Boxing doesn’t give you the most obvious transferable skills.
The absence of structure and an end-goal can leave you exposed and rudderless. For as long as you can remember the extreme physical and mental highs and lows of boxing have sustained you, your purpose and commitment to your profession, and all that comes with it has been centrifugal to your identity, governing how you think, how you function, and not to mention people’s perception of you. The gaze from watching audiences is exchanged for fitting in and being one of the collective.
These things considered, the fear of sliding into insignificance becomes a real thing. It’s not just about no longer being front of mind to boxing fans, it can be a lot closer to home than that; your personal networks – family, friends, and associates. You question if they see you the same way. When this happens it’s mainly because you don’t feel you’re the same person or see yourself as you once did.
Mike Tyson once fought back tears on his Hotboxin’ podcast while reminiscing about the ferocious fighter he once was. “I miss him,” he rued. Three words that said so much more. Sugar Ray Leonard, sat across from Tyson wearing an expression of concern for his friend, but had an explicit understanding of what he was saying. Before Leonard fought Marvin Hagler in 1987, he was asked by an interviewer why he was coming out of another retirement to take on the best fighter in the world. He answered: “Because the man inside me has spoken”.
Soon after I retired, feeling the need to get back into shape, I went for an early morning run. I was about a mile in when I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sadness so profound that it brought me to a halt. My mind was cloudy, and my legs felt like concrete. I realised that I was going through my boxing protocol, but for no reason. I didn’t have a fight scheduled, there was no day set to start sparring, there were no dates for anything relating to fighting. I turned around and went home, where I could only sit on the stairs struck by sadness and fear. It really was over. I was 35 and considered an old man in the sport, but a young one in the real world.
Like Brooks, the fear of the outside world is a reason why many of us stay in the sport longer than we probably should. I could have hung my gloves up two or three years before, but I had a house to pay for, a family to support. I couldn’t afford to quit. Plus, it’s what I was comfortable doing.
There are less tangible reasons why we boxers struggle to walk away. Along my academic journey into psychology, I’ve learnt that general intelligence consists of both fluid and crystallised intelligence. Fluid intelligence is your ability to process new information, learn and solve problems, while crystallised intelligence is essentially your stored knowledge accumulated over the years. Fluid intelligence naturally declines as we age, damage to the brain caused by thousands of blows only accelerates that decline.
I believe it plays a part in why boxers who have stopped progressing remain in the sport longer than they should. They struggle to process that boxing is not working anymore and they should try something new. I’ve been at this point.
On the flip side you have Floyd Mayweather, the highest grossing fighter of all time and one of the few great boxers to ‘retire’ fully intact and without the obligatory humiliating defeat, still earning huge sums of money for light spars with Japanese kickboxers and social media personalities. It really is Easy Money.
Aside from the wealth and his gargantuan ego, I’m certain there is a psychological theory out there somewhere that breaks down the reason why Mayweather, who has made over $1 billion dollars, can’t walk away for good. I’ll go out on a whim and suggest that, at 45 and having had his last real fight seven years ago, Mayweather still feels most comfortable in boxing protocol. Where his legacy, expertise and faded genius keep him relevant. Running, sparring, hitting pads and heavy bags are symbolic to him, as they were the pillars on which his greatness was built. They are part of his infrastructure.
There are many boxers that have earned a fraction of Mayweather’s riches yet have crossed the bridge into retirement and find their pathway, building even better careers for themselves. For some it’s a seamless process, maybe they understood their limitations early on and knew that boxing could never be the end game. For others it can be more of a struggle. Some, and I’ll include myself here, can become hostage to the idea what they once were and find it difficult to let go.
I do believe retirement should be weaved into conversations with young professionals. We should be having ‘the chat’ with them. Retirement isn’t a dirty word, nor is an impressionable young fighter uncommitted if they think about it occasionally and all that they must achieve before they leave the sport. Just like they are ultimately responsible for winning a fight, they will be solely responsible for when and how they navigate retirement.
*** IN COLLABORATION WITH WAYNE CYRUS ***