Barrera’s law degree is just another of boxing’s quirks

Boxers are more rounded than we suspect. Some have kept pet snakes � some have even been friends with Rasputin

When Marco Antonio Barrera gets in the ring with Amir Khan in Manchester next Saturday, he will share an unlikely bond with a fighter going about his business on the same night down the road in Birmingham.

Both the great Mexican and the Birmingham middleweight Matthew Macklin studied law. That might come as a surprise to those who believe fighters are one-dimensional hard men who would struggle to finish the Sun’s quick crossword. Some are. Plenty aren’t � and they are invariably the ones who bring something extra to their work, not just “intelligence”, but a sense of perspective on life.

Barrera was in the third year of a law degree at La Salle University in Mexico City in 2000 when he was preparing for the first of his three fights with Erik Morales nine years ago, and decided he had better pay closer attention to the day job.

The following year, Macklin won the ABA welterweight title while studying law at Coventry University, and has gone on to establish an impressive professional record. He is an articulate young man who nevertheless is not shy of the hard graft in the ring, as anyone who witnessed his war with James Moore in 2006 will testify. For now, his ambitions reside in beating his fellow Brummie Wayne Elcock for the British title in what should be the city’s biggest local showdown in years.

Another fighter whose brain matches his brawn is the Welsh light-heavyweight Nathan Cleverly, a serendipitous surname for someone in his last year of a pure maths degree at Cardiff University. “It will set me up with a good foundation for life after boxing,” says the Commonwealth champion.

And cheering him all the way to a world title challenge will be his fellow Welshman Nicky Piper, who held the Commonwealth belt in the 90s and is a member of Mensa.

What is endlessly fascinating about boxing is the diversity of unexpected talents among those who practise this most demanding of physical activities. It was always a struggle, for instance, to picture the London heavyweight Gary Mason using his massive hands in the delicate work of setting diamonds in his day job as a jeweller. And what better name could there have been for his business than Punch and Jewellery?

James “Bonecrusher” Smith, who briefly held a version of the world heavyweight title in the 80s, was the first college graduate to do so, it was claimed. Well, sort of. It was in business administration.

A considerably more acclaimed champion, Gene Tunney, a lifelong friend of George Bernard Shaw and self-proclaimed intellectual, never won the affections of the fancy in the way that his conquered contemporary, Jack Dempsey, did. Tunney was a pretentious wordsmith; Dempsey had cred. He had ridden the rods, slept rough, hung out with gangsters. He ended up in movies and running a restaurant.

Jack Johnson, the poor Texan of limited education who would go on to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world and whom Dempsey refused to fight, spoke five languages and numbered among his acquaintances Grigori Rasputin. It takes all sorts, and it always will.

Mickey Hughes, who thrilled his fans with a big left hook as a welterweight in the 90s, relaxed before fights listening to Mozart. Billy Graham, Ricky Hatton’s one-time trainer, has pet snakes.

Are these oddities in any way related? Only in as much as they describe the complex psyche of boxers. An outside job, a university degree, literature, music and weird hobbies: these are a few of fighters’ safety valves.

Manny Pacquiao, the world’s best at the moment, did his high school entrance exams only a couple of years ago and will go to college when he has finished with the fight game, before tackling a career in politics that might, in the most fanciful scenario, lead him on to the presidency of the Philippines. His opponent in Las Vegas on 2 May, Ricky Hatton, is probably going to content himself with a career in stand-up and drinking. But that, he insists, is what makes him the fighter and person he is.

Boxing is a job like few others, a life-threatening exercise that requires a peculiarly intense mental input and a deep understanding of emotions and strategy, the geography of a ring, the mechanics of opposing movement and the application of learned skills � although it is unlikely many trainers explain it exactly like that to their charges. But the commitment has to be total.

A lot of fighters hold down the pressures until they quit, and then it all unfolds. Frank Bruno struggled under the weight of his bipolar disorder when he retired; Mike Tyson, similarly, wrestles with his demons now his fighting days are over.

Seamus McDonagh, a good Irish cruiserweight who once fought Evander Holyfield, succumbed to drink and for a while was a shoeshine boy on skid row. He was rescued from the streets by a woman who saw the sparkle in his eye and steered him towards an acting career, and he is now doing just fine. If you want to see what he does to Paul Simon’s The Boxer, check out this video.

Holyfield? He has worked his way through the best part of $100m and is still fighting. “I liked boxing more,” Barrera says, “but I will definitely go back to finish my degree one day.” Perhaps Khan can expedite Barrera’s return to academe.
Posted by Kevin Mitchell Friday 6 March 2009 14.41 GMT
The Sports Blog