What makes combat sports so dreadful and thrilling is the level of risk involved: not merely in the sense that fighters risk their health but that they risk failing, and failing on an awesome scale. If you play a game that is determined by scores mistakes can be atoned for. If you are part of a team the pain of losses can be shared. If you play with frequency you can rebound from them and find redemption. In combat sports, however, you train for months, devoted to the moment in which you step into the ring or cage to face your opponent, knowing that you alone must avoid making that tiny mistake that renders it all futile.
What a failure it must seem. There is nowhere to hide in the middle of a ring. If you are knocked out or submitted you are brought low in front of thousands of gawping onlookers. Rarely are a man’s shortcomings so graphically exposed and rarely is a self-concept so brutally destroyed. I know I would rather stand up to an oncoming fist than sit before the glare of hundreds of winking flashbulbs.
It should be acknowledged, of course, that top-level fighters are awesomely rich and there many, many people in more trying circumstances. Some boxers, indeed, would be liable soil to themselves in front of millions and be consoled if the pay packet was a generous one. Yet money, as the cliche goes, is rarely everything, even for the richest of men, and if they have any pride such a failure must cause wounds that even extravagant wealth fails to bandage.
I don’t know Ricky Hatton but given his past there is cause to fear for him. People are suggesting that he should have picked an easier opponent to come back and face but this, I’d guess, would have only raised expectations that would have been shattered once he faced a harder challenge. There must be suffering in loss or there would be no sweetness in victory but I hope that he remembers not merely that he proved his worth as a boxer long ago but that proving oneself as a man is rather different and rather more important. Friends, partners and children remember people long after the hardest of punches are, to those who heard them, like the sounds of distant rain.