The winners and losers in boxing aren’t always decided in the ring by whomever has the most superior fistic skills. The fight often begins long before the ding of the opening bell hums into the air. Sometimes it begins at the press conferences, sometimes it happens as soon as the last ‘i’ is dotted on a contract and sometimes they begin long before a contract is even drawn up.
Boxing is as much psychological as it is physical, so below we’ve taken a look at five times that bouts were won (or lost) thanks to help from some devilish pre-fight ‘mind games.’
Muhammad Ali And The Megaphone
Muhammad Ali was the king of smack talk so it’s no surprise that he’d make an appearance on this list somewhere, but even for Ali this was cockiness dialled up to 11 and even he couldn’t predict how volatile the reaction from his target, Sonny Liston, would be.
On a “campaign of harassment” against Liston, trying to goad the heavyweight world champion into a title fight with him, Ali, then Cassius Clay, rented a bus, parked it outside Liston’s home and proceeded to hurl insults at the champ for the remainder of the night. He would continue to follow Liston everywhere he went, calling him a coward - it nearly backfired tremendously in Las Vegas though.
The story goes that before Liston’s second fight with Floyd Patterson in 1963, Ali encountered his future opponent in a Las Vegas casino having a bad night on the tables shooting craps. Ali being Ali was said to have shouted, “Look at the big ugly bear, he can’t do nothing right.”
Bad move. “If you don’t get out of here in 10 seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass” was Liston’s response. Needless to say, Ali made a swift retreat.
The pre-fight assault on Liston’s integrity must have had some impact though, with Ali finally receiving his shot at Liston, stopping him twice in 1965.
Roberto Duran And The Charm Offensive
Roberto Duran is one of the most ferocious fighters to ever grace the ring, something that Sugar Ray Leonard found out to his misfortune when the two met for the Brawl In Montreal in 1980. Ray Leonard, a gold medallist in Montreal for the USA just four years earlier, was expecting the bulk of support when the two eventually squared off but Duran beat Leonard to every punch long before they even got into the ring.
Immediately, Duran turned on the charm offensive towards his hosts, claiming his love for all things Franco-Canadian and turning up to sparring wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Bonjour Montreal!’ The natives were lapping it up.
It wasn’t just the theft of support that was getting into Leonard’s head, it was everything Duran was doing. He would devour entire steaks in front of Leonard with just his hands, like a wild beast and then continue to hurl a barrage of abuse at his opponent.
Leonard recounts in his biography ‘The Big Fight’ what it was like to be around Duran in the build up to the brawl: “Early on in proceedings, Duran jabbed me softly with an oversized glove that’s commonly used for promotional purposes. The photographers ate it up. For a while I went along with the unrehearsed bit. Except Duran didn’t know when to stop fooling around. Or he kept going just to irritate me. Either way, the playful taps got harder and harder. I gave him an angry glance. It did no good and was probably the dumbest thing I could do - he saw that he was getting under my skin.
“He called me “motherf*cker” and a “son of a b*tch” and told me to “kiss his b*lls.”
Duran went on to hand Leonard the first of just three career defeats.
Steve Collins And The Hypnotist
“That’s why I’m afraid, that’s why I wanted to call the fight off,” said Eubank, ahead of his March, 1995 showdown with Ireland’s Steve Collins.
Cocksure and as confident as ever, Eubank entered the bout unbeaten in 43 professional contests but what was it that had spooked the self-proclaimed dandy of boxing so much? That would be the hypnotist the ‘Celtic Warrior’ Collins had hired to prepare him for the fight.
In a pre-fight press conference, businessman Tony Quinn informed the room that he had hypnotised Collins and that it would make him punch and fight harder, faster and stronger than ever before.
Eubank was startled.
“That’s why I would call the fight off if I could now, it is unknown territory. For the 43 fights I’ve had in the past I’ve always known what I was going into,” he insisted.
“I don’t know what I’m dealing with tonight. I’m fighting someone that has been mechanically altered and that’s an unknown area. I shouldn’t be put into this situation.”
The tactics might have worked too, with Collins eventually triumphing over Eubank by way of a unanimous points decision.
Mike Tyson And The Stare
“When I fight someone, I want to break his will. I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him."
‘The Baddest Man On The Planet’ needs no introduction when it comes to getting inside the psyche of an opponent - he is unquestionably the most terrifying fighter to ever lace-up a pair of gloves, and if you ever broke eye contact with him before that opening bell in his prime, then you’d probably have already lost.
As Tyson said himself, “They lost the fight before they even got hit. I knew the art of skulduggery, I knew how to beat these guys psychologically before I got in the ring with them.”
No fancy pre-fight predictions, no hypnotists and certainly no megaphone were needed for Tyson in his heyday. Like a modern-day Medusa, one look could turn any poor soul who’d foolishly wandered into unknown territory, into a pile of rubble.
Wladimir Klitschko And The USB Stick
Not all mind games can work in your favour, as Wladimir Klitschko found out to his peril against Anthony Joshua in 2017.
In the final press conference before their Wembley showdown, the Ukrainian heavyweight legend pulled a USB stick from a robe pocket and revealed it to the room, claiming it included a video that showed his prediction for the upcoming fight.
The stunt was immediately labelled as little more than ‘mind games’ by Anthony Joshua and his team.
“It's strategy, isn't it?” Joshua said
“I'm just focusing on the fight, I'm not downloading no USB and bringing that to press conferences. I didn't take it the way he wanted to express it.
"In this sport you can't say something and get away with it, so it has to exist.
"He's trying to make me angry, because when I'm angry I don't fight well. But he's different at it. I don't dislike him, I just want to beat him, and there's a big difference."
The strategy didn’t pay off for Klitschko, who was stopped by AJ in the eleventh round in an immediate heavyweight classic. The robe and USB stick were eventually auctioned off for £160,000 and the funds were used to support the Klitschko Foundation.