Opinion: The comeback of a combat athlete and why we find it so intoxicating

Tyson Fury
Image: Tyson Fury on Instagram

“It’s going to be part of my legacy, these injuries,” former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz said on a recent episode of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show. “How many people go through life with problems? Life is no different from fighting and that’s why I love fighting so much…whether you play sport or not, athletes go through and build through adversity on a stage that the general public can connect to.”

As humans, the arrival of setbacks, adversity and loss in our lives is virtually guaranteed. And while we often revere our favorite fighters to near god-like status, they are no different in their susceptibility to suffering than the rest of us.

Yet it is when fighters are at their weakest, when they bare their souls to the masses watching, that their fanbases become the strongest.

Throughout the ages, we have rooted for the underdog. Take boxer Vinny Paz, who in the 1980’s forged a reputation as one of the most exciting fighters in the world. Known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, he won the IBF lightweight title in 1987, then lost the title in a rematch before being badly beaten by Roger Mayweather in 1988.

In a cruel twist of fate, despite beating the odds with a sensational comeback by bulking up to two weight-classes and claiming the WBS light-middleweight title from Frenchman Gilbert Dele in 1991, Paz suffered a broken neck after a car accident and was forced to wear an unsightly and restrictive contraption known as a Halo neck brace.

From a medical standpoint, another fight was out of the question. One blow to the head could result in a snap of the spine. Yet, unbeknownst to his tight knit Italian family, Paz began working out in secret, and within a year he had miraculously placed himself in a position to fight.

“No one thought I would fight again but sometimes it’s not as hard as people make it seem,” Paz told a reporter in 2016, during media promotion for his autobiographical Hollywood film Bleed For This. “So I was always going to give it one hell of a try. I just wasn’t ready to call it quits…boxing gets in your blood and I didn’t want to live if I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do.”

After overcoming a number of obstacles — including point blank refusals from sparring partners who feared that a single punch could send him back to the hospital — he shocked the world once again in 1993, beating Roberto Duran on points over twelve gruelling rounds to win the IBO World Super Middleweight Title along with two more subsequent titles.

He was undoubtedly, the people’s champion.

It’s often a fighter’s skill and personality that first captures our attention, but it is a fighter’s ability to come back from trauma or tragedy that solidifies their following. After all, negative human experiences and the coinciding emotions are relatable. They add flavor to a person’s make-up and provide a window of insight into their strength of character.

A comeback, or at least a fighting attitude, earns the fighter in question a level of respect that surpasses the attainment of any number of gold belts.

Take former the former UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz. Having been labelled by UFC President Dana White as the “unluckiest fighter in history” after a string of major surgeries have nearly derailed his career, Cruz could be forgiven for hanging up his four-ounce gloves and working full-time as an analyst for the UFC — a job he has excelled at.

Yet he refuses to retire, and his ability to come back from career threatening injuries has earned him high praise within the MMA community and beyond.

“You can attach whatever you want to this situation, but it never defeats me, and it never will.” He recently told Ariel Helwani. “You’ve got to have a checklist of your fears. You’ve got to be vulnerable enough to go there… you can’t deal with the hard things in your life until you go into them head first. Nothing good has ever occurred to me that didn’t hurt first. The fans that can connect with me through this are going to be with me through this, and I love them. I choose to look this as a blessing. This can be whatever I want it to be.”

Recently in the world of boxing, Tyson Fury made headlines when he candidly discussed his struggle with mental health throughout his two-year hiatus from boxing.

“I had lost the passion to live,” He flatly told Showtime Boxing recently, recounting his spiral into depression after his 2015 heavyweight title win against Wladimir Klitschko.  “I’d say to my dad and brothers ‘I wish I was dead’ 24 hours a day. And alright, I’ve won a belt, but what does it mean?”

As so often is the case, Fury’s depression was soon followed by severe anxiety which culminated in what he referred to as “the king daddy of all anxiety attacks.”

“I was like a vulnerable child,” he said. “I was so sure I was going to die…soon after this I believed I was going to end up in a padded room. I can’t tell you in words how down I was. When you lose control of your mind you are in a bad place. I was going through hell.”

At this point in his life, Tyson Fury weighed a staggering 322 lbs, and was heavily dependent on alcohol and drugs to ease his mental pain.

Then one night, upon returning uncharacteristically early from a Halloween party, still dressed as a skeleton, he looked to a higher power for help.

“I got down on my knees in a dark room on my own and I was praying to God to help me,” he said, caressing his beard as he spoke. “There were tears rolling down my face because I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I’m an emotional wreck, crying my eyes out like a baby, but when I got off my knees I felt a weight lift off.”

From that moment on, Tyson Fury was a man on a mission, egged on by his future opponent and current WBC heavyweight champion of the world, ‘The Bronze Bomber’, Deontay Wilder who, in one interview, claimed that Fury’s career was over.

In their long-awaited December 1st fight, Fury was knocked down by Wilder in the 12th round, before getting to his feet at the eleventh hour of the referee’s 10-count. The fight was deemed a draw on the final bell.

Fury’s comeback has been praised by his fellow boxers and his fans alike, and the world now eagerly anticipates a rematch between the two heavyweights.

In a post-fight interview, when asked how he managed to get off the canvas Tyson Fury said, “I just showed the world tonight, everyone suffering with mental health that you can come back – it can be done. Everyone knows that I won that fight… if I can come back from where I come from then you can do it too. I did it for you guys.”

While the skill involved in a boxing match or an MMA fight can’t be denied, it is undoubtedly the strength of spirit of the individuals in both sports that will ensure their survival. The fascination with vulnerability and strength combined, along with a determination to get back up, whether it be from a canvas or rock bottom, is what makes a fighter who has undertaken a comeback so popular among fans.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 12/26/2018.