by Wilson Pitts
The most basic necessity is that a fighter relax. He needs to relax during training and he needs to relax during the fight. True mental focus can not be achieved if he is too tense. Pacing, shot selection, power generation, and strategic decisions are all affected by being tense.
One aspect of this is the same as stage fright for performers; it takes repeated exposure to being on stage and performing in front of an audience to get over it. Some kids can never get over this and so they do not progress beyond the novice stage. However, boxing is full of stories of experienced fighters tensing up and blowing big fights. What we are really talking about is ways to manage adrenalin released due to stress.
In the mental game there are these different ego games and they can affect a fighter’s performance. They have to do with the fighter’s internal dialogue, or what’s going on inside his head during the fight. There is positive ego, “I am the greatest” but this usually only carries them so far and if the build up is too big it makes losing more painful than it needs to be. There is negative ego “I can’t do anything right” and this often leads to tentative, low energy performances. There is a third state, a neutral state, where the fighter “gets out of his own way” mentally and stops placing his ego between himself and what he is doing. This is “the zone” where all of the fighter’s training can come out, his reflexes are at their best, and he is able to stay relaxed and give his best performance.
The key to relaxing during training is to have a “happy camp” where the mammalian politics are held to a minimum and the day to day environment is relaxed. If the atmosphere is tense it uses up a lot of energy unnecessarily. Fighters tend to be high strung and they don’t need anyone at camp making this worse, especially handlers, sparring partners or management. In this rap star age many of today’s fighters are very prickly about feeling like they are being disrespected and so this has to be taken into account.
There has to be a level of trust among professionals so that open dialogue can exist between the trainer and the fighter. The trainer needs to be able to make corrections in a way that does not offend the fighter, and the fighter needs to be able to communicate to his trainer what is going on in his body, especially if he is hurt. If there is no trust in this crucial relationship it can lead to disaster.
When I watched trainers like Georgie Benton work with fighters in Joe Frazier's Gym back in the day the instructions were always positive. “Do this,” they never discussed strategy or tactics during sparring and there was never any criticism. It was a public gym and the press and gamblers were watching the big names. Working in the gym was like a show and they never scolded fighters out loud there. A fighter can’t learn like that, it is all happening too fast.
I found out that they had a small gym, a room really, with mirrors and bags and this is where they worked on specific moves at slower speeds, if need be, in preparation. This work was done in the mornings after roadwork and breakfast, they didn't start going to the big gym until the afternoon. Everything that needed to be said between fighter and trainer had been said earlier in private, everyone was on the same page, it was just work in the gym. This is how professionals like Benton handled themselves and their fighters with class and at the same time gave the fighter time to learn new skills without the pressure or any lose of self esteem.
The old time trainers were psychologists as well as conditioning experts and boxing coaches. They spent a lot of time with their fighters beyond the hours in the gym. Many of the fighters became dependant upon certain trainers to keep them calm as well as get them in shape. Anxiety decreases wind and so staying calm is an important part of peaking. They talked to them about boxing and played cards with them at night in the age before TV and video games. Even in the 1980’s Larry Holmes hired Ray Arcell, then in his eighties, to come to camp just talk to him about boxing!
Throughout history there have been many attempts to find a method for getting a fighter into the “neutral zone” mentally. Attempts were made in ancient China by melding meditation practices taken from Buddhism and Taoism with martial arts. Today we know that calm repetitive action increases Serotonin levels in the brain while reducing Cortisol levels which reduces stress. Cortisol inhibits memory retrieval of already stored information and is an important aspect of the brain chemistry of stage fright. If you are pushed beyond the level of your conditioning, “taken where you havn’t been before” your anxiety will increase as your energy level goes down. However, there are many examples of fighters who have done the work, are in the best shape they can get in, and still have poor performances because of stress. This is because their stress level has risen until it effects their brain chemistry negatively and they are unable to control their breathing.
Sugar Ray Robinson preferred ping pong for this mental training. It was a way to daily practice getting into that flow, to stop talking to himself and just react, in a context that was fun and had nothing to do with boxing. I recommend it to fighters today but they usually prefer video games. Great champions like Robinson tended to make this level of concentration, “mental energy” as Arcell called it, look easy but it requires daily training for many years to be able to do it under the duress of a fight.
Many fighters have been able to focus and stay calm in fight after fight against ordinary competition, only to “blow it” when they stepped up to a higher level of competition or got a title shot. This effect is especially noticeable when they step up to fight a great champion for the first time. These are the fights that haunt them in their old age, the ones where they know they didn’t give their best performance.
One of the best examples of this sad aspect of the mental game is Ernie Lopez, older brother of featherweight champion Danny “Little Red “Lopez. He was a very good welterweight who fought from 1963 to 1974 and had the misfortune to come along in the era of Jose Napoles, one of the greatest welters ever. At the time of their first meeting in 1970 Lopez was 36 6 1. Ernie was very smooth counter puncher without much power. The hype, the pressure of meeting a great champion, really got to him and he came in “tight”. You can really see this on the film of the fight. The tension is visible in Lopez from the beginning and so his punches fall short and seem to have nothing on them. He was knocked down in the first, the ninth, and KO’d in the fifteenth round. Lopez came back with ten wins in his next twelve fights and got another shot at Napoles’ title in 1973 but it was worse this time and he was KO’d in the seventh round.
For years at the Englewood Coliseum they talked about the night the real “Indian Red” Lopez didn’t show up. He ended his career with a record of 48 13 1 with 465 professional rounds boxed and a KO percentage of 38.71. Lopez passed away in 2009 at the age of 64.