From Ali to Tyson, JOHN WIGHT looks at how boxers have used psychology to win fights
The subject of fear in boxing is one that has been traditionally taboo, almost as if admitting to experiencing it is tantamount to a confession of weakness and/or cowardice.
The projection of invincibility has been a vital part of a fighter’s emotional and psychological arsenal since the sport began.
Hitherto, the only prominent figure in the sport to openly discuss the fear that all fighters struggle with as they prepare to step into the ring was Cus D’Amato, the legendary trainer of Floyd Patterson and Iron Mike Tyson.
D’Amato once said: “The hero and the coward both feel the same fear, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Much of the pre-fight hype you see in the run-up to a world championship contest consists of exactly that, two fighters trying to project their fear onto one another.
The best exemplar of this was Muhammad Ali. He was and remains the unrivalled exponent of pre-fight antics, designed to unnerve and shake an opponent’s confidence.
In his first fight against Sonny Liston, who in his day was every bit as feared by his opponents as a young Tyson was in his, Ali succeeded in making Liston believe that he was crazy.
Whether it affected Liston’s performance in the ring, it’s difficult to say, but by convincing Liston that he was crazy and unhinged, a precocious young heavyweight known then as the Louisville Lip won the all-important psychological battle before they stepped into the ring.
Expanding on this theme for a moment, the role of psychology in boxing has never been fully or rigorously explored — surprising given how important it is in a sport which amounts to unarmed combat.
Yes, many professional boxers are not what you might call conventionally intelligent — they aren’t known as a group for possessing a high standard of articulacy, academic attainment or anything suggestive of time spent immersed in books.
Most have never attended university or enjoyed anything apart from the most basic school education. As a sport boxing remains the domain of the poor, those whose life choices are limited.
Yet when it comes to the art or science of psychology many of them have surely attained a level of proficiency equivalent to a PhD.
Ali we’ve already mentioned, but what about a young Mike Tyson, who combined fierce boxing skills with an aura of menace yet to be equalled? The plain black shorts, black boots without socks, the tight haircut, the way he prowled back and forth in the ring during the pre-fight announcements and introductions, all of it combined to create a sense of dread in his opponents.
It filled most of them with the belief that they were going to be defeated before the fight began, placing their emphasis on survival rather than winning.
If you don’t believe me just take a minute to look at videos of some of Tyson’s fights during his heyday in the mid to late 1980s. The unbridled fear in the eyes of most of his opponents as they stood across the other side of the ring waiting to face him was near elemental.
More recently the Klitschkos, who continue to dominate the heavyweight division, have proved themselves masters at dominating their opponents leading up to a fight.
This they do by dictating the venue, almost always in Germany, the terms of the contracts and the enforcement of the rules.
Thus you will have Vitali representing Wladimir in the changing room of his brother’s opponent to watch his hands being wrapped and vice versa. This creates the impression within their respective opponents that they are up against both brothers not just one.
It should also be pointed out the Klitschkos are that exception to the norm in boxing in that they both have doctorates and are academically distinguished, products of the old Soviet system of schools of sporting excellence.
Floyd Mayweather Jnr is another master of psychology. His particular schtick is a gangsta rap persona, wherein he misses no opportunity to flash his money, cars, houses and jewellery in the faces of all and sundry.
Along with the bling comes an undefeated record and an almost unique ability to get under the skin of his opponents with a ceaseless torrent of braggadocio. Prior to the De La Hoya fight back in May 2007, Mayweather clearly had the Golden Boy rattled during their joint promo appearances.
He did the same to Ricky Hatton during the build-up to their fight later in the same year.
Of course, all the psychology in world means nothing without the talent to back it up. It merely helps to give a fighter an edge, which all else being equal can often prove crucial.
Ultimately, in boxing, skills really do pay bills.