THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TOLL
Time was running out for Naseem Hamed. The flamboyant featherweight champ was behind on the cards going into the late rounds of his 2001 showdown with Marco Antonio Barrera, and Hamed was looking to land one big punch. In the final round, the undefeated power puncher threw a wild left hook at the poised, skilled Mexican fighter, who easily ducked underneath it. As Hamed went sailing past him, Barrera grabbed him from behind and slammed him into the corner.
Barrera won on all three scorecards. Hamed’s critics said the bout exposed him as an overhyped knockout artist. He’d only fight one more time, more than a year later, before hanging up his gloves.
Steward was in Hamed’s corner the night he fought Barrera and kept telling the proud fighter between rounds that he was losing. The cocky Brit was having none of it.
“He didn’t want to hear the truth,” Steward said. “He’d been built up like he was invincible… He was living in a world of non-reality.”
Steward repeatedly stressed that fighters are all different — there is no single cause or set of causes that makes someone break down psychologically. Everything is circumstantial.
Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, for example, recovered from a humiliating knockout loss to Ingemar Johansson in his backyard in 1959, but never got over his knockout losses to Sonny Liston.
But Steward does have a formula for dealing with terrible losses. Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko both suffered knockouts during their heavyweight title reigns, but recaptured their titles under Steward.
His key to helping a fighter get over professional failure? Be honest about what happened, and try to find a practical way to adjust.
“A trainer has to be no bulls__t,” he said. “He can’t lie and say, ‘Oh, he just landed a lucky punch.’
“I try to explain to them why they lost. We made the mistakes we made.”
Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist in Amherst, Massachusetts, has written about the phenomenon he calls “Sports PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” in which an athlete who has been badly injured or failed in embarrassing fashion (think Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series) is left psychologically scarred. Fear of failure or re-injury keeps them from being able to perform at the same level again.
A soccer player who blows out her knee in an on-field collision, for example, may begin overthinking and playing more tentatively out of fear of running into another player again. Even if she knows her fear is illogical, she may not play with the same vigor or aggression.
Boxing’s brutality only makes it worse, he said.
“When you lose in boxing, you’re getting beaten up,” Goldberg said. “I think it sort of exponentially makes things worse… it’s humiliating. It’s shameful.”
Steward isn’t too worried about either fighter, psychologically. They’re both warriors, he said, and each man has a reason to be hopeful. Cotto believes Margarito won the first match by using loaded gloves, while Margarito believes he’s simply stronger — physically and mentally — than his opponent.
But losing in brutal or humiliating fashion isn’t easy to get over. The psychological toll on fighters, just like the physical toll, is high. Losing means being embarrassed on a deeply personal level, often in front of friends and neighbors. Every man handles it differently.
“Some guys can come back from that, some guys can’t,” Steward said.
Photos / Chris Cozzone-Fightwireimages.com