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Last weekend, in Monterrey, Mexico, the little-known[1] Vivian Harris (31-9-2 prefight) fought and beat one Jorge Paez, Jr. (37-4-1).  Several writers have expressed their shock and outrage, not at Harris’s win, but at the fact he was allowed to fight at all.  Harris had previously retired following an ugly series of knockout losses, saying he no longer had the “desire and hunger” to be a fighter, and since his comeback he had been denied a licence to box in the UK[2].

So, Tim Starks, writing at http://queensberry-rules.com, said “Harris should not have a license to box in Mexico or anywhere else”[3].  Dan Rafael of ESPN worked himself into a positive frenzy, declaring that the fight was “everything that is wrong with boxing . . . Harris is damaged goods”[4].  Steve Kim of MaxBoxing declared “Harris [is] a fighter that should be put down. If he were a horse, he’d either be taken to stud or the glue factory”[5].

This being boxing, others have taken a contrary view.  Paul Magno of http://theboxingtribune.com called this “canned outrage” and “blind grandstanding”, quoting with approval Sam Geraci of http://www.fightnews.com, who said he could not understand “how any person with ethics can write something that harms the earning potential of a fighter without having verified information on why a fighter may have been denied a license in one region and granted one in another ”[6].

This is an unedifying debate.  I cannot be the only one who finds something distasteful about suggesting a fighter is fit only for breeding or the glue factory, or describing him as “damaged goods”, especially when the writer professes a sanctimonious concern for the same fighter’s welfare.  Nor can I be alone in detecting a whiff of condescension, or even colonialism, in the bald statement that “in Mexico, where suspensions in the United States or England are usually ignored, the standards are lax”.  Some pretty questionable fights are sanctioned, and licences granted, in other places, the UK and US not excluded.  On the other hand, I am not convinced of the “ethics” of saying a fighter should be allowed to go jurisdiction shopping in the interests of making a buck.  But there are some important, more general issues here that are worth airing.

The boxer who won’t quit when he should, or comes back when he shouldn’t, is a dreadful cliché.  Boxing writers, podcasters, et al, tired of the same old stories, groan and roll their eyes.  Of course he can’t quit: the idiot spent all his money, and he can’t bear to leave the limelight! But there is more to it than this.

From the beginning, a fighter is taught that the decision to stop a fight is for his trainer, or the referee, or the doctor, but not for the fighter himself.  His job is to keep going, to keep punching, to defend himself at all times (and, not coincidentally, there is perhaps no worse insult in all of boxing than that of “quitter”). The quid pro quo is that he trusts his handlers to take the tough decisions and look after his best interests.

This being so, it is asking a lot of a fighter that he alone make the judgement to end his entire career once and for all. However, due to boxing’s usual grotesque conflicts of interest – that is, absolutely everyone else’s interests exactly conflict with those of the fighter – often there is no one for him to turn to for help[7]. A retired fighter isn’t going to make any money for anyone. What’s more, a rich fighter is much likelier to retire: yet another reason, in case they needed one, for unscrupulous handlers to screw boxers out of their earnings and – a point less often noted – to encourage fighters to blow what money they do get their hands on.

There is another respect, less obvious, in which boxers are different.  In most elite sports, and especially team sports, and most especially of all sports that are very physically demanding or where performance is very objectively measured, the absolute demand for positive results and the economic imperatives that accompany such demands generally ensure that players who are past their best are kept well away from the action.  Enthusiasts may wax nostalgic about big names from the past, and sports clubs may like nothing more than to trumpet their history and tradition, but no one, from the fans, to the other players, to the managers, to the team owners, wants to see a has-been step up to take a last-minute penalty, bowl the final over of a one-day international, or (perhaps most relevantly) attempt to block a charging defensive tackle.  But one of the many perverse facts about the economics of boxing is that the opportunities and rewards available to a fighter may increase after his peak.

It takes time and money to get to, or near to, the top in boxing.  Having reached it, a guy may only stay there for a short time. But having made his name, especially if he has won one of boxing’s worthless “titles”[8], he can often make good money by hanging around (or coming back) to fight against, and polish the records of, young prospects.  This is how a 35-year old Marco Antonio Barrera ended up in the ring with the 22-year old Amir Khan, and why a 38-year old Larry Holmes met Mike Tyson when he was 21 and terrifying.  More recently, a badly faded Erik Morales fought & lost to Danny Garcia twice, despite giving away eleven and a half years, and Zab Judah (who once held WBC, WBA and IBF welterweight titles simultaneously) has become a sort of specialist celebrity loser, having now succumbed to Paulie Malignaggi as well as both García and Khan.

But let’s say our fighter does have the strength of will to stop. Let’s say he isn’t tempted to come back. And let’s assume he doesn’t have enough money to “retire” in the good way. What is he going to do with himself? And what is he going to live on?

Many retired sportsmen go on to a career in the sports media. But this requires a certain public profile. The historic decision to shift the most important fights to subscription-only channels or pay-per-view may have meant sustainable boxing revenues for broadcasters & promoters, because it ensures that the core audience ponies up, but it is a disaster for individual fighters trying to make a name for themselves in the wider world. There are people outside boxing’s hardcore support who have heard of the Klitschkos, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, but how many have heard of such extraordinary athletes as Sergio Martinez, Tim Bradley, Andre Ward, or Guillermo Rigondeaux, all of whom are regularly listed among the pound-for-pound top ten fighters in the world? What chance do they have of presenting a boxing show on TV, much less getting a gig in the wider sports media?

Of course, there are other qualifications for a job of that kind.  A presentable appearance, a degree of literacy and a civilized manner are three of them. These are not areas in which retired fighters typically excel.  It would be easy, but lazy and wrong, simply to put this down to their backgrounds: plenty of retired sports stars have had high-profile public careers despite humble beginnings.  Rather, in their own short-term financial interest, promoters always permit and often encourage boxers to remain essentially feral, their public appearances often comprising little more than sullen misbehaviour and graphic and obscene threats of violence.  A recent low point came when Adrien Broner and Paulie Malignaggi publicly destroyed the reputation of one of Malignaggis’ female conquests.  It is impossible to imagine a young soccer, baseball or NFL star, carrying the reputation of his club and also of his sport, being allowed to carry on like this with impunity.  In boxers it appears to be the norm.

And this limits boxers’ opportunities in other ways than stopping them getting a gig on Fox Sports.  Many retired sportsmen become coaches: but who wants to be trained (and which parents want their kids to be trained) by someone like that?  Some become “spokesmen”, or travelling salesmen, for companies: but what business is going to want a boxer’s “endorsement” if he doesn’t know how to speak, dress or behave?  For the same reasons, and others besides, what employer is going to hire him?

It isn’t hard to see why we admire fighters: they step into the ring alone, almost naked, armed only with their talent, their conditioning and their determination, and put their lives at risk in the name of glory (and our entertainment).  But if we expect these lone warriors to be superhuman outside the ring, too, I suggest we expect too much.  Fighters, by temperament, training and culture, are ill-suited to determine when to end their careers.  The people around a fighter are incentivized to extend his career as far, and make retirement as unappealing, as possible.  Economic forces encourage him to box on past his prime.  Fighters are encouraged to develop antisocial personas making them ill-suited to life, especially working life, after boxing.  And this is before we consider the difficulty anyone might have in “leaving the limelight” (or just something they were good at) at an early age.

Perhaps, then, when they find it difficult to leave the ring for good, fighters deserve a little more understanding and compassion than they get from the likes of Rafael and Kim. Equally, before we trumpet a fighter’s right to seek out a regulator with low standards so he can make a living, we might like to reflect on why that might be necessary.

[1] This is another way of saying I’d never heard of him.

[2] http://www.boxingscene.com/fighting-words-vivian-harris-danger-success–75950

[3] http://queensberry-rules.com/uncategorized/weekend-afterthoughts-on-vivian-harris-health-face-off-manny-pacquiao-vs-timothy-bradley-ii-more.html

[4] http://espn.go.com/blog/dan-rafael/post/_/id/8068/harris-should-not-be-fighting

[5] http://www.maxboxing.com/news/max-boxing-news/requiem-for-a-repeat

[6] http://theboxingtribune.com/2014/03/vivian-harris-and-the-licensing-lynch-mob/

[7] Of course, this isn’t always true, and as the always-readable Steve Bunce points out (http://www.espn.co.uk/boxing/sport/story/187155.html) managers & promoters often intervene, even against the fighters’ wishes, to protect their charges by suggesting their licence be withdrawn. This does not change the point, which is that fighters are too dependent on the goodwill of people whose economic interests are opposed to their own.

[8] Vivian Harris is a former WBO light welterweight champion.