Is this really the right move for Rio Ferdinand?

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Every man thinks he can write, and every man thinks he can box. The first of those delusions ends up in mangled sentences. The second can put you on the floor.

Rio Ferdinand is not quite the dreamer knocking on the door of the boxing gym, begging for a chance. Oh, no. The most telling line in the press release announcing his move from football to
prize-fighting was: “When Betfair approached me about the Defender to Contender challenge, the chance to prove myself in a new sport was a real draw.” Clearly the idea sprouted from a PR
‘blue-sky’ session more than Ferdinand’s own thoughts.

Charitably, we might say this is part superstar restlessness, as well as a bookie stunt. A potentially dangerous bookie stunt at that. When cycling’s Victoria Pendleton signed up to be a National Hunt jockey there was always a fair chance she would survive round Cheltenham on the capable horse chosen to be her vehicle. If Ferdinand is serious about boxing, and progresses further than a Freddie Flintoff-style one bout caper, he is going to be hit – and hit hard.

The draw for amateur fighters is that you can go to a gym, hit the pads, smash the heavy bag, skip rope, shadow box, chuck a medicine ball about and examine your own pugilistic magnificence in the mirror.

The ring warrior fantasy gives vent to our machismo. Men from all walks of life give boxing a go, feel sated, and realise they never want to do it again, because it hurts, and can be scary. Finding an opponent at your level is devilishly difficult. Miscalculate, and out go your lights.

Pro boxing is an immensely testing and highly-technical business, framed by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, and with one over-riding objective, which Floyd Mayweather has mastered: to avoid being hit. Mayweather’s scrap with Conor McGregor has contributed to this idea that anyone with a big heart and a point to prove can part the ropes. McGregor is a top UFC fighter, but is not a boxer.

Ferdinand was a great defender, but he is not suddenly a ring ‘contender’ just because a bookmaker is throwing money around. Underlying all this is the primal scream of sports stars falling off the edge of their careers and not knowing what to do next.

Ferdinand told London’s Evening
Standard: “I just miss that chemical that comes out of you. I have not been able to replace it. This is a great way to get that back. I’m doing this for many reasons. I’m doing this to test myself as a man, as a human being.”

His life, his choice. But to call it a ‘great way’ to get the ‘chemical’ back will not pass unchallenged – again, assuming this is more than just a brief PR get-up.

We see the increasing dislocation of professional sports people at the end of their careers. Previously, they probably suffered in silence, but are now more able and willing to express bewilderment when the roar of the crowd stops and they are ripped away from the life they loved.

The counterpoint is that they were lucky to have had such highs in the first place, and can hardly be shocked to find it ending at 35 years old. People who never scored at Wembley or won an Olympic medal might resent the elevation of sports star suffering over the struggles of teachers or NHS staff, say, to find professional fulfilment in the second-half of their lives.

A psychologist might wonder whether boxing can offer a kind of self-purging, a release, for someone beset by pain or frustration. But this line of thought probably played no part in the Betfair meeting where this dangerous idea was born. We can only hope Ferdinand has one four-round grapple for charity and then finds a safer way to ‘test’ himself.