I'm a loser baby, but why do you 'kill' me?
What is the best way for a professional athlete to lose?
Traditionally, the very question is met by guffaws. It seems that every competitor is encouraged to cocoon themselves in confidence. The merest hint of doubt in their pre-match press conference will elicit column inches of concern before the first whistle or bell and, should they lose, sage nods from those ‘aftertimers’ who mistake post rationalisation for analysis.
It seems that competitors must compete. Always. Even after they have lost.
But surely this is just the role they feel they must play; the preservation of the ego, protection of an identity so they may live to fight another day.
The façade has been increasingly exposed during these enlightened times in which we are encouraged to talk about anxiety and depression. So many sportspeople have displayed their doubts for all to see. Normally they are retired or at least veterans but they have slipped. The game is up. We know you athletes are all mere mortals, just super talented and determined ones.
I firmly believe boxing to be the most revealing, compelling and storied sport ever invented, partly because the competitors are always entirely alone and partly because it is so gladiatorial. Victory or defeat is often stark, brutal and lonely.
On Saturday morning, I saw an intensely moving boxing documentary. “Cornered,” told the story of Johnny Greaves, supposedly the worst fighter in the UK. He was a “journeyman”, a boxer who is paid to provide a professional test for emerging talent. And then lose.
We joined him as he was closing in on 100 fights, he had won just three.
On Sunday morning, my first waking thought was to catch up with overnight news from Madison Square Garden where multi-belt, multi-millionaire heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua was fighting a podgy pugilist called Andy Ruiz. The Mexican was a late replacement and looked out of shape against the chiselled champion. You could get 25-1 on him at the bookies.
It was one of those sit-bolt-upright-in-bed moments as I read Ruiz floored Joshua four times to pull off one of the greatest shocks in boxing history. I did not move for an hour as I caught up with reports and video of the fight.
I also watched Joshua’s post-fight interviews with IFL and Behind The Gloves on YouTube. His wistful disappointment was tempered by the odd smile. Then I read his gracious tweet about Ruiz’s victory and calling him “champ”. I reposted it, praising his reaction.
Still scratching my head, I needed analysis. A few hours later I downloaded the always-excellent Costello and Bunce podcast to hear the BBC’s boxing sages breakdown the fight. Former world champions David Haye and Carl Frampton were critical of the way Joshua took the defeat. Too much smiling, not enough anger. Did he really care enough? Some on social media even suggested he quit, allowing referee Mike Griffin to wave off the fight by not reacting to his commands after a second knockdown in the seventh round.
Compare this to Greaves, who was ploughing on despite doubt, debt and potential brain damage to try and make that century. He was a self-confessed “half-glass empty” character who derived value in defeat from a few hundred quid in his pocket, backslaps in the bar afterwards and, most importantly, the element of control the square ring gave him. Friends and family suggested Greaves could not fight back against his parents' divorce or life permanently placing him on the precipice of poverty but catching someone with a swift counterpunch offered some sort of comfort. Even if he almost never saw his hand held aloft at the end of the fight.
In one heartbreaking moment, he suggested if he died the next day it would be no concern to him. Clearly, he felt boxing and losing held less futility than scraping by.
Who knows, despite the ever-ready smile, Joshua may harbour similar self-defeating thoughts in the dark days after the bruises have gone. He would not be the first heavyweight champion who saw their personality dissolve after a loss. George Foreman only just emerged from years of depression following a similar shock defeat to Muhammad Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. However, eventually, he did, shedding a brooding persona for a much more genial one in the process. He used it to sell grilling machines and managed to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history when he knocked out Michael Moorer five days shy of his 46th birthday.
Joshua too has monetised his status and personality. Like he has been criticised for being too robotic in the ring, he has copped flak for being too corporate outside it. There are already murmurings that his social media, his entourage and endorsements took his eyes from the prize on Saturday night.
It is just a short walk from there to: “he acted like a good loser because it is good for the brand”.
Personally, I am not having it. Joshua fronted up after defeat on Saturday as he has always fronted up, with humility and smile. While I gather his media appearances have been curtailed in recent times, he appeared on all the channels I expected him to appear had he won.
While boxing is a different beast to football, you would very rarely get such access and graciousness after such a shock defeat in major. But then, for me, the ‘sweet science’ sets a better example of sportsmanship and self-control than the Premier League. Not that I want my son to do it!
Like Ali ‘refused to be champion you want me to be”, Joshua refused to be the loser you want him to be. His vision is longer than that and he is suggesting this reverse will be merely a detour on his ‘journey’.
Happily, Greaves’ journey ended on a rare high. In his 100th and final fight, he outpointed Wiltshire’s Dan Carr. It was at the York Hall, Bethnal Green but I’m sure it felt like a jam-packed Madison Square to Greaves.
The opponent appeared handpicked. Carr had won two of 46 fights at the time. He is still fighting and has since taken that record to three wins in 90.
Six months after the Greaves loss, Carr did win something. He was voted the Best Supporting Boxer at the British Boxing Board of Control’s Southern Area’s awards, held at a posh hotel in London’s West End.
“I think I got it because I’m pretty polite and I never kick up a fuss,” he told the Wiltshire Times.
“Some boxers turn up in the same shorts as the other guy and refuse to change but I bring four or five different pairs.
“Some people moan if they don’t get paid straight away but I just give people my bank details and say ‘do it when you can’.”
However, Carr never made it to the hotel to collect his award. “To start with, the cigarette lighter in my car wasn’t working, meaning that we couldn’t get the sat nav on to help us get there – then, my car overheated”.
So the loser’s loser won an award then lost out on ‘his moment’ to collect it. But he showed a humility akin to Joshua.
Desire is a word much abused by sports journalists. We know it can only be truly assessed by looking into someone’s mind. Of course, early starts, intense practice sessions and extra special diligence provide clues but we don’t get to see that evidence.
So we base it largely on body language and demeanor in public spaces. It is not without merit but it is rarely conclusive evidence.
Joshua lost, offered no excuses, talked as openly as he could and offered seemingly sincere congratulations to his opponent. And yes, he even smiled before re-affirming his decision to regroup and rebuild.
He had many miles further to fall than Greaves but even the journeyman derived some sort of comfort from continual defeat. Just to keep on keeping on was seemingly enough.
Their manner and motives were different but their nobility was just the same.
We should salute them both in defeat.