In the wake of his majority decision victory over Jose Benavidez Jr, former two-weight world champion Danny Garcia opened up in a way we have never heard from him before. ‘Swift’ went into detail about how boxing has helped him overcome anxiety and depression. Speaking to broadcasters after a successful super welterweight debut, Garcia shed light on his 20-month lay-off, “I did take a break going through mental things, things went dark, I went through anxiety, deep depression, just trying to be strong”.
Explaining how his craft had helped pull him back from the brink, Garcia continued, “It rained on me for a year and a half and the only way to do better was to fight again. I’m a fighter. If you battle anxiety and depression, you can get out of it, that’s what I did today. I fought.”
It is heartening to see a great champion overcome his mental health struggles, while also being so open about his journey. It was not long ago that combat sports was a macho environment that was hostile to such personal growth. In recent years that culture of toxic masculinity has changed for the better.
High-profile fighters being as refreshingly candid about the battles in their mind as the ones in the squared circle is now commonplace. WBC, The Ring and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury has always worn his mental health issues on his sleeve. ‘The Gypsy King’ spent two-and-a-half years of his prime on the sidelines after battling suicidal ideation, addiction and other issues. But Fury did not go quietly, nor was he cagey upon his return. Turning the charisma he uses to verbally eviscerate his foes towards mental health advocacy, the heavyweight shone a valuable light on his struggles and showed a generation of fans that it’s okay not to be okay.
Fury is far from the only boxer doing such important work. Former WBO cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccarinelli has built an online community of fight fans, with whom he interacts primarily through Twitter. The Welshman posts daily motivation and sets physical tasks and challenges to give his followers focus and purpose. He also hosts regular boxing and banter Spaces on the platform, giving fans from all over the world a place to congregate, laugh and support each other.
It’s not just boxers using their platforms for good. UFC rising star Paddy Pimblett spoke about the subject of mental health in the wake of his stunning two-round submission win over Jordan Leavitt at UFC London last month. The proud Scouser told the story of a close friend who had recently committed suicide and implored men to talk to someone if they ever find themselves in the throes of depression.
Words like this from the likes of Fury, Maccarinelli, Pimblett and Garcia are invaluable. A generation of combat sports fans can see that desired traits like toughness and skill can go in hand with openness and vulnerability. Gutting it out in the ring or the cage does not mean having to swallow your feelings outside of it. The very nature of fight sports means there will always be a level of macho posturing involved. But this no longer comes at the expense of fighter care. Instead, these brilliant warriors are using their struggles to teach others the importance of looking after our brains as well as our bodies. Long may it continue.