sports gazette

Tyson Fury and Boxing's Mental Health

Published: 4 Oct 2016

As Tyson Fury's chaotic career takes another turn for the worse, Sports Gazette looks back at his recent career and examines the state of mental health in boxing, asking whether we should offer the controversial boxer any sympathy.

The tempestuous saga that is Tyson Fury’s boxing career has taken another twist as the much-maligned world heavyweight champion claimed he was retiring from the sport in classically foul-mouthed Twitter rant:

A few hours later Fury posted another tweet that somewhat expectedly revealed his retirement announcement as a hoax, claiming he is ‘here to stay’, while lambasting the ‘Medea’:

The controversial British fighter’s announcement and subsequent u-turn represents yet another headline story for Fury, coming after a series of high-profile incidents that have seen his already tainted reputation diminish even further.

In truth, Fury’s whole career has been one long series of controversial incidents, most of his own making. However, recently revealed mental health problems means we must step back and consider the bigger picture, looking at mental health in boxing and considering whether Fury deserves any sympathy for his actions.

Fury’s year so far:

Fury stunningly overcame Wladimir Klitschko – one of the greatest and most-respected champions the heavyweight division has ever seen – on points in Germany last November, to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

After beating a man who had not lost since 2004, on his home turf, to claim the WBA, WBO, IBF, and The Ring titles, one would expect Fury’s career to have skyrocketed. It has, however, plummeted in the opposite direction.

Initially pulling out of the scheduled rematch in July due to injury, Fury was then implicated in a doping scandal by the UK Anti-Doping Agency who claimed they had discovered traces of prohibited substance nandrolone in a urine sample. A hearing is set for November relating to this charge.

After rescheduling the Klitschko rematch for October 29th, Fury then pulled out again, being declared ‘medically unfit’ to fight by his trainer and uncle, Peter Fury. His camp cited mental health issues as the reason behind the latest withdrawal.

Finally, just a few days before his ‘retirement’ announcement, Fury reportedly tested positive for cocaine during a random urine test. While Fury will most likely escape without a ban, as cocaine is not prohibited when taken out of competition under WADA rules, he still faces the possibility of losing one or more of his belts before he next makes the walk to the ring.

It would be relatively safe to assume that Fury’s cocaine use can be related back to his mental health issues. He has claimed in the past that there is a media hate campaign against him because of his traveller background, and that he plans to move to America where he feels more appreciated. This then begs the question: does Fury deserve some sympathy for his actions? In order to answer this question, one must look at the silent relationship between boxing and mental health.

Boxing’s Dirty Secret?

In the macho, pumped-up realm of boxing and combat sports in general, there is no place for any weakness. The unforgiving nature of the sport itself and the industry surrounding it means there has formed a major stigma around mental health.

The need for fighters to maintain a supreme and unnatural confidence in their own abilities – as shown most obviously during press conferences in which insults and boasts are the order of the day – leaves little room for admissions of doubt or cries for help. If a boxer has such thoughts, there develops a powerful combination of this uncertainty, an emotion he is not used to or supposed to feel, and the need for him to maintain an outward aura of invincibility. The likelihood is that a boxer will be forced to keep these undesirable thoughts to himself, with all these pent-up fears compounding into a potent recipe for mental health issues.

Apart from the psychological aspects of boxing, there is also evidence to suggest a link between repeated head trauma and depression. A 2010 study published by the American Medical Association found that the development of depressive disorder in those who had suffered brain injury was over seven-times higher than seen in the general population. A newer study published by the Canadian Medical Association shows that depression and risk of suicide increase threefold after just one concussion.

With boxers going through their careers suffering concussion after concussion, it is not hard to see that mental health is a much bigger issue within boxing than is widely realised.

Many former boxers have come out recently and spoken about their struggles with depression, including Ricky Hatton. In an interview with Men’s Health earlier this year, Hatton talks about his defeat to Floyd Mayweather: ‘I knew no one could beat me and then someone did. I had 30,000 people who came to watch me and I let them down. I couldn’t show my face in public afterwards…I just didn’t want to leave my house’.

Hatton’s comments encapsulate the devastating effect that losses of self-confidence can have on boxers, and the lack of support that is both requested and provided for fighters who are suffering from mental health issues.

Fury forgiven?

Reverting back to Fury and his troubled career, can we then afford to offer him forgiveness?

Remember, this is a man who has equated homosexuality and abortion with paedophilia and beastiality. A man who has spouted countless anti-Semitic remarks. A man who once threatened to hang his sister if she slept with strangers, who insists ‘a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back’.

The simple and obvious answer is no, we cannot forgive Fury for his actions. His consistently turbulent relationship with the public and the media has been a result of his hateful and alarming personal views, not his mental health problems.

However, we would do well to try and offer Fury some semblance of understanding. Mental health is a serious issue that is vastly underestimated and misunderstood, especially within the world of boxing.

While his mental health problems in no way can excuse any of the detestable comments he has made in the past, it is quite obvious that the perceived ‘witchhunt’ against him has indeed driven him into depression. Whether this ‘hate campaign’ has been justified or not is another matter entirely.

Billy Joe Saunders, another world champion from the travelling community, has come out and said that Fury might not see 30 years old if he doesn't get the help he needs. Saunders has called for the public and the media to 'give him a breather.'

Fury’s withdrawal from the Klitschko rematch, seen by many as just another comical development in a chaotic career, must be understood as a legitimate decision made in the best interests of a vulnerable man.

Where Fury’s career goes from here is yet to be seen, and it is no doubt likely that he will soon find himself in the spotlight again. Until then, it is up to us to allow him the time to recover and return to full health, in order for him to step back into the ring where he belongs.

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