Sports, passion, life
THINKING SPOT - Bianca Locsin (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2014 - 12:00am

Four years ago, Manny Pacquiao knocked out Ricky “Hitman” Hatton in the second round of their bout at the MGM Grand Las Vegas. Manny was at the height of his powers then, Ricky attempting to disprove that Manny was “the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.”

Though not a fan of boxing, I, like most Filipinos, watched that fight. Unlike probably most of my countrymen, I cringed as Manny dismantled his English challenger in a manner that left Hatton no other recourse than to go on career hiatus. Since that fight, Manny has become a congressman and, despite a few hints of scandal, seems to have managed well the transition from full-time fighter to semi-retired national icon. Ricky Hatton’s story, on the other hand, if reports are to be believed, is the more familiar one among boxing champions, that is, how it has spiraled downwards.

In a recent BBC Sports Hour radio documentary, “Fight for Life,” on depression in the sport of boxing, world champions, including Mike Tyson, Michael Bentt and Hatton, spoke candidly, often surprisingly eloquently on why they started fighting (boxing greats hail from the humblest of backgrounds and no one, as one boxer put it, goes into the ring for the chance to be beaten to a pulp because they have had a happy childhood) and the challenges — mental, emotional or practical — of too much fame, too much money and, in Tyson’s case, too many girl friends (he claimed to have had 45 and, I think, he meant all at the same time). The second half of the program had experts discussing the consequences of too many whallops to the head and the morality of allowing mentally unstable athletes into the ring, but I was more interested in the boxer’s stories, their confessions, as blunt as the blows they once rained, of alternately failing or winning at the game of life.

Men who had once stood at the pinnacle of their sport talked about being reduced to worrying about not having enough money for groceries and trying to take their own lives. It is easy to forget that when these men raised those golden belts, they were still relatively young, probably just shy of 30, their sporting lives almost over but their real lives yet to begin.

I once played a sport competitively, dreamed I would get to play in an international tournament which, in fact, I did, in my mid-20s, losing that one international match in a record-breaking nine minutes. Aside from being a nerd in high school, I was a jock, more comfortable in a badminton court than at soirees. My life was regulated by a training schedule — runs in the morning, on court training in the evenings. When I joined some teammates on a year-long stint in China to train, we graduated to six days a week of grueling China-style instruction — sand pit drills, hauling bricks, batting shuttlecocks from point to point endlessly till we could approximate our Chinese counterparts’ precision. It sounds hard but it was one of the happiest periods of my life. As Nietzsche said, “Perfection is a straight line to a goal” and, then, every part of me — mind, heart and body — was aimed at one thing, the perfect game.

I came back to the Philippines at the peak of my abilities but, to my chagrin, no closer to being a world-class athlete than before. It wasn’t long before I retired and attempted the real world with rather mixed results. Aside from having to work through the grief of losing my passion — for years I couldn’t watch a badminton game, let alone pick up a racquet, I had to learn the habits of normal people, not people who trained six to 12 hours a day. I didn’t know, for example, that it wasn’t normal to eat an entire loaf of bread in one sitting. Then there was the directionless ambition. Looking back at a third of a life gone, I realize that in almost everything I have done, I have been trying to replicate the pure high I once got from a game played well and won.

Because I was once a dedicated athlete, I have an affinity for ex-jocks, counting among my friends ex-pros in sports ranging from biking to tennis to rugby, baseball and golf. That affinity stems from perhaps an unfounded belief that all of us share a similar experience of having once lived in bodies finely tuned for a specialized activity, of having been defeated, publicly, after months of hype and preparation, and of having to make the difficult transition from single-minded athlete to mildly-confused and irritated normal human being. I have always assumed that we all had that same moment when we realized that life was never going to be as simple as exercising and then going out on court, a ring, or a field to do what we did best, but would now be a far more complex game of no clear wins and losses. Not the fist-pumping high of victory but the alloyed joy of compromise, not losses which just meant “no trophy” but the complete extinguishment of a hope.

Is it any wonder then that those who, unlike me and my friends, touch the absolute heights also fall so much lower? This is not to say that every great boxer’s life or every athlete’s life ends in regret and misery. Michael Bentt, perhaps the most wry and well-adjusted of the boxers interviewed by the BBC, noted that what saved him from descent into drugs and depression was the discovery, after seven years of soul searching and a chance encounter with a Tennessee Williams play, a passion for acting, proving that the key to a successful post-world-champion-boxing career is just the same as that for any other post-anything-career — the discovery of a new passion to replace the old.

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