By James Goyder
Having played football all my life and started boxing at a relatively late age I have a fairly astute idea of what might await Rio Ferdinand ahead of his pro debut. The 38-year-old former Manchester United and England defender is currently training for his first ever fight.
I’m not trying to compare my football career to Ferdinand’s. He won the Champion’s League once and the Premier League six times whereas my greatest achievement was winning the 6 a side tournament organized by the local council in Hua Hin earlier this year.
However I was already 31 when I made my pro boxing debut and it was on a relatively big show, at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore so there are some parallels. The good news for Ferdinand is that he will probably enjoy the training, there’s nothing like the feeling of pushing your body to the limit and being rewarded with dramatic improvement as a result.
By comparison football training is more prosaic. With so many matches on the calendar footballers aren’t worked that hard during their daily sessions and many complain about suffering from boredom as a result, it’s not like boxing where a trainer’s job is to push you to the point of exhaustion and beyond.
So Ferdinand will feel like he’s getting fitter and stronger and the competitive streak that served him so well in his football career will undoubtedly be rekindled. That’s the good news, the bad news (as you can see from the video below) is that the former defender is not going to look good.
Boxing is relatively simple in that a fighter only has two weapons to choose from, a right hand and a left. However there are a near infinite number of factors which will determine whether shots delivered with either are successful, ranging from stance to head movement to footwork and beyond.
It can take years to learn the correct technique for punching a bag, let alone throwing shots with the sort of timing and accuracy required to adversely affect a skilled opponent. As a defender Ferdinand was elegant and relaxed, as a boxer he’s likely to look wild and ragged.
This Betfair sponsored exercise will involve Ferdinand working with some very experienced boxing coaches. But the type of energy expenditure required to compete inside the boxing ring is completely different from a football match, where you might go several minutes without even touching the ball.
Boxing is much more intense and Ferdinand’s football experience probably won’t help him deal with the adrenaline. A defender usually has plenty of time to work themselves into a game with a few simple touches or easy passes but a boxer is under intense pressure right from the opening bell.
Doubtless an opponent will be found who is bad enough to lose to Ferdinand but it won’t be a very dignified process. Former England cricketer Andrew Flintoff looked absolutely horrible in his pro boxing debut and for someone accustomed to competing in sport at the very highest level there must be an element of humiliation involved here.
When Ferdinand gets in the ring he will look like a complete beginner because that’s exactly what he is. The big difference being that most novices dip their toes into the amateur waters on small shows after several months of training, instead of stepping straight into a high profile televised bout.
No doubt Betfair will have put together a financial package which more than compensates Ferdinand for this probable humiliation, as well as the more remote prospect of a serious injury. But the fact that he’s getting well paid for it gives fight fans the right to judge him much more harshly than they would if the whole thing had been for charity, like when Ricky Gervais boxed.
If Ferdinand had decided to start boxing at a local club because he was genuinely intrigued by the sport he would have my full support. It is never too late in life to try and take on new sporting challenges and if you train in any martial art for long enough you are eventually going to want to compete.
But this entire exercise strikes me as being no more than a massive publicity stunt for a gambling company. A publicity stunt which comes at a time when there are over 400,000 problem gamblers in the UK with that figure having grown by a third over the course of the last three years.
This isn’t Ferdinand’s fault or responsibility but it also means he doesn’t deserve the same lenient treatment that was afforded to Gervais when the comedian fought Grant Bovey. When I boxed in Singapore I donated my US$1,000 purse to a trainer who had recently lost his wife because I was worried my performance would be poor and didn’t want to be judged by professional standards.
I felt that if people knew I was fighting for free they would be less inclined to criticise me. Ferdinand, by contrast, is going to be getting extremely well paid for his Betfair-backed boxing debut and therefore people are entitled to judge his performance by professional standards.
So the multiple time Premier League and Champion’s league winning defender will come out of this experience significantly richer. But his reputation as an elite level athlete is unlikely to be enhanced.
This article first appeared on thefightnation.com