‘This is legal cheating.’ Mental techniques in boxing

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

“YOU can start taking your deep breaths,” says The Brain to The Boxer. “In and out, gradually, slower and slower. You’re feeling more and more relaxed with each breath. You feel the tension escaping your body. Keep your consciousness on your breathing. This is familiar for you now. You know what it is. You’ll be going down into your subconscious mind very soon. You’re standing at the top of the staircase of a big plush hotel.”

The Brain is Brian McCready, an energy psychologist, and The Boxer could be anyone. All that matters is he has a fight tonight and is currently horizontal on the bed in his bedroom with his Union Jack shorts, the pair he’ll wear into battle in a matter of hours, hung on a nearby chest of drawers, situated not far from a number of championship belts he has accumulated over the years. The Brain, whose tranquil, dreamlike atmosphere is interrupted by a strong Liverpool accent, sits beside The Boxer, holds his left hand and now moves closer to his ear.

“You’re looking down those stairs,” he continues. “As we walk down, we go lower and lower, deeper and deeper. We’re on thirty. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven. Twenty-six. Feeling more and more relaxed and going deeper and deeper.

“Twenty-five. Twenty-four. Everything’s dead calm. Your hand is on the rail now. Notice what temperature it is and what it’s made of. Twenty-three. Twenty-two. Deeper and deeper and deeper and more relaxed. Twenty-one and twenty. Nineteen and eighteen. Seventeen and sixteen. Fifteen and fourteen. Deeper and deeper. Your whole physiology is becoming more relaxed. You’re at peace right now. You feel balanced and everything makes sense. You have clarity.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Deeper and deeper and deeper.

“Nine. Eight. Seven and six. Deeper and deeper towards your subconscious.

“Five and four. You’re deep, deep, deep into your subconscious now.

“Three, two and one.”

The Boxer, eyes closed and body limp, is now supposedly under the spell of something called Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).

“What I do is use deep relaxation techniques to lower the brain frequency so that we go down beta to alpha and then theta,” McCready later explains. “Between those points we are able to reprogramme old beliefs. If, for instance, something negative was planted in your head as a six-year-old, we can revisit that moment and remove the memory and the negative energy associated with it. We’re always looking for self-sabotaging beliefs, anything that might adversely affect your ability to do something positive with your life.

“The subconscious mind works in pictures, whereas the conscious mind deals in words. What this means is I will show someone different pictures of situations way beyond the actual event – in this case, the fight this evening – and essentially con the super mind into thinking something has already taken place.”

Boxing, they say, is 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental. It’s a rough estimate, of course, such a thing can never truly be quantified, but the idea behind it is essentially this: while running and sparring and strength and conditioning prepare a boxer to deal with the rigours of their chosen profession, their success on fight night is ultimately attributed to how well they prepare their mind.

Whatever the actual physical-mental ratio, it’s an oft-used mantra which was again trotted out when six-foot-eight and 19-and-a-half stone heavyweight David Price was cut down to size by a smaller heavyweight, Christian Hammer, despite possessing all the physical advantages. Shattered after a couple of rounds, stopped in seven, Price, we were told, had sparred 10 rounds twice and 12 rounds once in preparation for the contest. Yet it mattered not. He flunked the 80 per cent. He somehow beat himself.

“I’ve always been accused – and rightly so – of probably not believing in myself,” Price lamented to me. “I get in the ring and hope I’m going to win. I have little doubts.”

Doomed is the fighter who doubts. Price knows that now. But some are built differently. Some build themselves differently. Steve Collins, for example, the former WBO world middleweight and super-middleweight champion, will be the first to admit his were a relatively ordinary set of physical skills, albeit skills developed and polished in America, yet he supplemented this modest 10 per cent with an extraordinary physical and mental toughness. He grafted hard in the gym – his ability to push the pace for 12 rounds was a testament to that – but worked twice as hard on his grey matter, his feelings, his emotions, his doubts, with psychologists and hypnotherapists. Performance-enhancing hugs, if you will.

“Steve always stayed somewhere else and we never saw him until it came time to train,” says Collins’ former sparring partner Glenn Catley. “If he walked into the gym and said, ‘Hi lads, what’s the craic?’, you would then take a deep breath and feel slightly relieved. This meant he hadn’t been doing his hypnotherapy. If, however, he parked up, entered the gym and then walked past you without saying a word, it usually meant he’d just been doing hypnotherapy. And that was when we all knew we’d have to earn our money. On days like that he was quicker, sharper, stronger and almost impenetrable. It was as though he had a thousand Duracell batteries strapped to his back; he’d keep going and going and going.”

Collins connected with Alan Heary, a sports psychologist and performance coach based just outside Dublin, and together in Jersey, during training camp, they’d look to ramp up the intensity and get sparring partners on edge.

“I’d been big into psychology my whole life without ever actually realising it,” Collins says. “I caught on to it one day when something happened and I asked myself, ‘Why do guys look a million dollars in sparring and then, when it comes time to fight, they look like rank beginners?’ There must be some reason to it all. A car can whizz around a practice track the day before a big race and you’ll be fairly confident it will perform the same way for real when the time comes, barring any mechanical failure. So why can’t humans perform with that same level of consistency? Well, unlike cars, we have minds and emotions, and the body follows the mind.

“I analysed why certain things, good and bad, had happened in my career and started looking for explanations. Then I watched [Ray] Leonard and [Marvin] Hagler do things without realising they were doing them, and I watched some of [Mike] Tyson’s challengers crumble before they’d even touched gloves with him. They’d be so spooked by Tyson that they’d forget how to jab or move or how to hold up their hands and defend themselves. And they were far from rank amateurs; they knew what they were doing, at least in the gym, away from Tyson. The joke is, Tyson could be beaten. Buster Douglas showed us that. So did Evander Holyfield.”

A day before their fight in 1995, Chris Eubank, reeling from news that Collins, his opponent, had employed a hypnotherapist to help him prepare, asked promoter Barry Hearn if he could scrap the WBO world super-middleweight title defence.

Request denied, Eubank went on to explain: “I wanted to call the fight off because I am going into unknown territory. In the forty-three fights I’ve had in the past I’ve always known what I was dealing with. I don’t know what I’m dealing with tonight. I’m fighting someone who is mechanically-orientated and that is just an unknown area. If I walk away from the fight now they’ll say ‘you’re a coward’. I shouldn’t be in that ring tonight. This is wrong. This is legal cheating.”

Twenty-two years on, the term ‘legal cheating’ still generates a chuckle from Collins.

“At that point I knew I was in Eubank’s head,” he says. “You had to beat him mentally first. He always led the game when it came to the mental stuff and I’d see him beat opponents before he even stepped in the ring with them. Chris was the one everybody watched and he knew they were all watching him. I had to turn the tables and give him that inferiority complex a lot of his opponents had. Being the centre of attention was one of his greatest assets and I had to remove that.

“Eubank was very experienced in the ring and could do most things reasonably well. He could box and he could stand and punch. But nobody had ever tried getting into his head. Nobody had ever taken him out of that comfort zone. As a result, he didn’t see it coming. He thought he had me figured out, just like all his other opponents. But nervous energy can bring down any fighter. If something feels unfamiliar or not quite right, you burn up nervous energy. You ask yourself questions. Add to that the fact Eubank was a great thinker and you can imagine what was going on inside his head.

“All of this weakened his focus and distracted him. It’s like a bag of water with holes in it; the water escapes until there’s eventually none left. That’s what Eubank felt like on the night of the fight. The whole thing was leaking and he didn’t know how to stop it. Before he realised what was going on, it was over.”

By the time Eubank straddled a 1975 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead as part of his elaborate ring entrance, gone was the swagger and look of unwavering confidence that had been a polarising feature of the champion’s previous fourteen title defences. Instead, he peered into the ring, from his position high above the crowd, only to find Collins, tartan hood over his face and head bowed, sitting on his corner stool, oblivious to all that was going on around him. Blissfully ignorant, Collins heard not a single note of Tina Turner’s song that night. Beneath the hood was a set of headphones and beside him was Tony Quinn, a hypnotist and an outsider, someone akin to a witch doctor in the eyes of Eubank.

“I could see doubt in Eubank’s eyes during every single round we shared,” says Collins. “Every round was something new and unexpected. He didn’t know what was going to happen, he didn’t know what I was going to do. And Chris hated that. He loved being in control. He had never had that doubt before.”

Collins would go on to defeat Eubank not once but twice. His sparring partner Catley, meanwhile, followed his lead and utilised hypnotherapy to help him win the British middleweight title and the WBC world super-middleweight title.

“Unfortunately, we can’t go to B&Q or Asda and buy confidence,” he says. “Hypnotherapy, though, generated phenomenal amounts of confidence and allowed me to go into certain fights feeling bullet-proof and certain of winning.”

Catley quickly became a staunch advocate of trance state visualisation and used this particular technique ahead of a British title fight with Neville Brown in 1998.

“I watched videos of Neville Brown and noticed everything he did came off his left jab,” he explains. “In order to win the fight, I had to take that away from him. So what we decided to do was create something we called ‘The Mongoose’. This meant that every time I saw the jab, I’d step under the punch, see it go over my shoulder and then counter with the left-hook. I performed this over and over with my hypnotherapist, while on the couch in a trance state, and did it so many times – both with him and on my own – that eventually it was hardwired into my subconscious mind.

“Come fight night I wasn’t even thinking about it. As soon as Brown jabbed, I slipped and banged him with the counter-punch. It allowed me to react within a fraction of a second and not have to think about what to do when he jabbed.’

Such was Catley’s intensity that night, Brown, the British champion, retired on his stool after eight rounds.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five and six,” says The Brain. “You feel strong and revitalised. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten and eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. You feel your consciousness returning.

“Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen and eighteen. Nineteen and twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. You feel strong and ready to go but peaceful and relaxed at the same time.

“Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six. Twenty-seven and Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine and thirty. You’re at the top of the stairs and you stretch your arms high above your head. Slowly open your eyes when you’re ready to do battle.’

On cue, The Boxer opens his eyes as The Brain rubs his hands together and leaves. Next, he scans the room, acknowledges his fight shorts and collection of belts, and then yanks the bed cover over his shaved head and sinks deeper and deeper into the mattress beneath him.

Later that evening he will win in seven rounds.

by Elliot Worsell

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