Facing Fear in Boxing – From the Mists of Time

by Fran on December 2, 2011

As a boxer it is not the done thing to talk in any depth about the fears that you experience in the run up to a fight.  You want an aura of fearlessness, an absolute and total demonstration of confidence in your ability to smash to pieces anything that’s put in front of you.  You determine to convince yourself and anyone around you, especially your opponent, that you fear nothing and will stop at nothing to get your win.

Before we get into the meat of this article, if you haven’t already it’s well worth referring back to the first article on boxing psychology.

However, I’m no longer a boxer.  I’ve not fought competitively for almost 20 years.  So, I can now talk quite freely about the experiences I went through in the weeks, days, hours and minutes before a fight.  I simply would not have talked at any length about any of this whilst boxing.  I’d acknowledge maybe to my nearest and dearest that I was nervous, but I certainly wouldn’t run into the kind of detail I am going to put across here.

Bear in mind, what I describe here is personal to what I felt at the time.  Other boxers may not recognise anything I talk about here.  Other boxers may have experienced something similar, or maybe even more profound.  But I speak here only for me.  I longed at the time to be totally fearless, but there you go.  I feel now that the more challenging the fight and associated fears, the more precious and satisfying the victory.

What’s to fear?

I should probably start with what I felt the source of my fear was.  In the introductory article of this series on fear in boxing/boxing psychology, I mentioned that the source of fear for me is rather academic.  The key is how you react to the fear.  Boxing is a performance business, you must deliver peak performance and anything less brings with it the risk of not winning the fight.  Certainly when I became more experienced, I don’t think I ever feared being physically hurt in any serious way.  Boxing training prepares you perfectly for dealing with someone trying to hit you.

What scared me more than anything was experiencing defeat.  It hurt like hell and made you feel crap, all ends up.  Boxing training does not prepare you for defeat, not in any way whatsoever.  I wanted to perform well and win fights.  The level of sacrifice in preparing for a fight is immense.  A win, quite simply, makes it all worthwhile.

The Morning of Battle

In the weeks before a fight, I simply never held any fears at all.  The over-riding emotion was one of excitement.  I often felt anger toward the opponent, whoever that was, for making me work this hard and sacrifice this much, but I was never nervous.  Remember that in amateur boxing you will often know nothing about an opponent until the fight actually starts.  This fear of the unknown did play a part, but certainly not in gym time.  Excitement was what it was about, anticipation of fight night.

For me, it was the morning of the fight that really signalled the beginning of the range of emotions that we could broadly describe as fear.  My eyes would flicker open and I knew that the day of days had arrived.  That’s when the emotions kicked in,and kicked in hard.  My aim throughout the day was to take my mind off the fight.  I couldn’t sit there brooding with anger and hatred.  Not only would this cloud judgement and risk a loss of control, but it would leave me drained.  Sure I would get flashes of anger during the minutes before the fight, anger at the fact that this guy was making me go through this (even though he wasn’t, I’d chosen to do it myself).  But those flashes were very temporary.  Being angry takes it out of you!

During the inevitable minutes that my mind did fix on the upcoming fight, I would visualize really positive images.  From the outside looking in, I would see myself effortlessly controlling this faceless opponent.  I would visualise my hand being raised and the uplifting journey home where we could recount the key passages of the fight.  I’d quickly then switch my mind to other matters, waiting for the time to come that we embarked upon our journey to the venue.

The Journey to the Battlefield

When I was travelling to the venue with team mates, there would often be some light-hearted banter.  This often helped, as whilst boxing is ultimately an individual sport, in the amateur game there is a good deal of support amongst boxers from the same team.  You are all going thorugh the same process so there is always empathy.  Even in a group though, we would often lose ourselves in our own thoughts for prolonged periods, still working hard to visualise positive outcomes.

This was where I often encountered one of the more weird effects of nerves/fear; sleepiness.  It’s pretty difficult to look intimidating when all you can do is yawn and rub your eyes in an effort to avoid drifting into a deep slumber.  On the journey though, I didn’t need to keep up appearences, so I often allowed myself to take 40 winks.  Once at the venue though, alertness was the order of the day.  As we pulled into the car park and I saw the building in which I’d be fighting, things really got serious.

Once More Unto the Breach!

When in the venue, I could basically break the preparation down into 3 main phases:

1.  The Formalities

This is the formal process of weighing in and being checked out by the doctor.  Even at this stage, I was often prone to considering the likelihood of the weights not being right, or the opponent not passing the doctor’s scrutiny.  It would be macho to say something like “I couldn’t wait to get in there!”  However, a part of me always felt that I wouldn’t be that disappointed if the fight did fall through.  Looking back, this again I’m sure is natural.  Not wanting to do something and not actually going through with that something by your own choice are two very different things.  It’s fine to have fear, it’s how we respond that counts.

On occasion, the queue for the weigh in and medical check could often be the first time you come into any kind of visual contact with your opponent.  So, there was an overall aura of all boxers in the line trying to look cold, sinister and plain dangerous.  “I wonder whether that’s my guy?”, “That lad looks about my size” and other basic questions would cross your mind.  Each boxer who even looked remotely the same dimensions as each other would be eyeing each other up as to the possibilities of ending up squaring off an hour or so later.

One thing for sure though, these checks took you to the point of knowing whether your fight was on or whether it  was not.  Reality struck at this point, you were heading for a fight and that was all there was.  There were a number of occasions where my fight never materialised.  It has to be said, this was often a bitter-sweet moment.  Bitter because you had no chance of experiencing a win on that night, especially after training had gone well.  Sweet because there was something to be said for relaxing and watching the other boxers scrap it out.

2.  The Preparation

If you’ve become part of the Boxing Training Foundation (sign up for the newsletter, you get a great deal on buying the Foundation), you’ll know about how important the warm up is for your gym session.  On fight night the warm up takes on a whole new dimension; preparing the mind as well as the body.  I also talk about this in the article The Corner Man.

This was the time where I was reduced to single word answers to questions and a feeble smile and nod of the head in acknowledgement of a message of good luck.  I wasn’t trying to be moody and intimidating, I was more worried that my voice would break with the nerves.  Difficult to sound assured when your voice keeps hitting the high notes.

It was also a time were that annoying tiredness could strike, yawning away like I was ready for bed.  But mostly it was a time of not being able to sit still, being constantly on the move.  Pacing up and down, the mind racing, or shadow boxing working hard to focus on positive images of the fight.  Reassuring myself that I’d worked so hard in the gym and that would always count towards getting a win.

Getting the competition gloves and enjoying the feeling of them during a hard session on the pads (an absolute must for any warm up for a fight) brought home to me that I felt good.  Well, most of the time anyway.  Feeling sluggish during a pad session was a real downer and did nothing for the well-being.

3.  The Ring Walk and Introductions.

The journey to the ring was always memorable.  On many occasions this was the first time that he or I absolutely knew who we were fighting.  By this point in proceedings I felt at my most alert.  The yawning was nowhere to be seen and I was probably relieved at the fact that the opening bell would extinguish all fear and nervousness.  That’s not to say that mishaps don’t happen.

As a young boxer I had the honour of sharing the ring with a boxer called Paul Ingle, from Scarborough.  To this day, Paul is one of the nicest people I ever met in boxing, just a superb lad in every way.  He went on to become the IBF Featherweight Champion of the World, so yeah, he was something a little bit special.

Back to the story, I knew nothing of Paul at that time.  I was a regional champion, he was a regional champion and we were boxing off to progress to the next stage in the tournament.  My coach told me nothing of Paul’s calibre, pleading ignorance, probably best really.

I had suffered no more nerves than usual.  As we both entered the ring I noticed that Paul was wearing quite long trunks, but I could see no fabric because they were covered in badges.  I knew instantly that he was one of the best I had ever faced because each badge meant he was a national champion of some description or other.

This realisation caused an initial shock, but I quickly managed to get a grip and with a boxer’s faultless logic thought, “I can beat him”.  Then Paul turned around to take a drink from his corner man, only to reveal that the back of his shorts were also festooned with badges.  It never rains but it pours.  I had a good go, but if I’d have fought Paul 100 times I’d have lost them all, he was just that good.

Point being, up until the very last second before that opening bell, doubts could surface because of the unknown.  Once the bell went though, I knew I was dealing with certainties and was doing what I had trained so hard to do.  The benefits of going through the pre-fight process paid dividends in the form of a sharper mind, more powerful shots and greater endurance.

The fear helped me on my way. The next article is a little bit special. It’s about a young boxer that I worked with who truly faced the fear in boxing.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

nick April 29, 2014 at 8:34 pm

What are the answers , if the fear is not with regards to boxing but day to day life , how to overcome them when they haunt in head everyday , like fear of possible argument leading to fist or fight or some threat kind , please help , thanks

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Brent April 26, 2013 at 4:22 am

I’ve got my first fight on August 3rd – I’ll keep all this in mind! However, like Dan I’m a musician and have probably played 1000+ gigs of all sizes -hopefully that helps me, at least with nerves and the ‘performance’ aspect of the fight!

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Fran April 29, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I’m sure it will Brent. Lose yourself in your boxing just like you do in your music!

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Peter December 3, 2011 at 9:37 am

Excellent Fran,

Since finishing your story, It has taken me nearly an hour to respond. I had a wander down memory lane.

It is amazing how clear the memories are of pre, during, and post fight. Possibly related to the fear factor surrounding the event.

Thanks again Fran

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Fran December 3, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Thanks Pete. Always good to know that these feelings are normal, just didn’t feel like that in the minutes before the event did it. 🙂

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Dan Adlington December 3, 2011 at 1:02 am

Brilliant post Fran.

I am going through training to be a boxer.

The closest thing I can relate to it is being a musician and playing music to a crowd of 1000. I have been scared at big gigs but I knew the fear was important.

My first fight will be an experience no doubt. Nervousness and fear are the fuel for the show.

Let it be a good one.

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Fran December 3, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Dan. I think that you find that there are some pretty big similarities with the stage, so this should stand you in good stead for your first match. I’m sure that you will use the same coping mechanisms i.e. focusing on how good you are at what you do! Enjoy your first encounter mate and thanks for the comment.

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Rich December 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Great article Fran. I can relate 100% to everything you have said. My fear was epic: could never sleep the night before and couldn’t eat the day of a bout.

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Fran December 3, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Thanks Rich. It’s a game that can really take you to the limits in many ways, the pre-fight test being the perfect example.

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