Fans vs Fighters
“You can’t criticise a boxer if you haven’t been in the ring yourself”

It’s a term that so often gets brought up and perhaps is the stake that is driven between fan and fighter more than any other issue.  The premise being that, as a fan who has never stepped between the ropes, how can you possibly be in a position to critique the performance of a professional boxer?  Walk a mile (or a ringwalk) in the boxer’s boots before you dare utter a negative appraisal of the man in the squared circle.

The issue often rears its head when a boxer is deemed to have underperformed, not fulfilled their potential.  This past weekend, David Price seemed to clock off after round five against Christian Hammer; despite dropping his opponent with a vicious uppercut, he then went two rounds where clearly the tank was emptied.  Hammer merely had to outlast, not outskill his giant opponent.  Close to 20 stone on fight night and with a less than flattering physique on him, Price was the victim of widespread criticism, in some quarters ridicule, from the boxing fans who have mostly felt a sympathy previously to the man who has been on the wrong end of some PED assisted performances from opponents.

Professional boxers will often side with their man, offer sympathy to the ones who share their profession and fallen on hard times (or soft canvas).  The walls close in, unequivocal support and the power of protection, very rarely will boxers publicly criticise each other or support criticism of one another.  The closest boxing ever comes to unionisation.  As fans we invariably get behind our favourites, offer them our unquestionable support.  But then there will be fighters who aren't our favourites - not that we necessarily dislike them, but they will either impress us or disappoint us.

So what right do fans have to criticise and offer ridicule to fighters?  Let’s be clear, there is a big difference between the fan who Tweets ‘Price wasn’t good enough tonight’ and the fans who are more vociferous and abusive in their analysis and critique.  I for one have done both in the past, and often the level of criticism is a direct correlation to how you feel the fighter has performed.  Take Price as an example; seemingly not in shape, gassed on his stool within three rounds and at times looking like a novice when the tank was empty. 

Has a man who has never stepped in a ring got the right to point out that Price looked out of shape?  Do they have the right to point out that a man with his giant frame and long levers inadequately utilises his jab and rarely displays the type of killer instinct that has made Anthony Joshua such a mainstream hit?  If someone is sat at home with a takeaway on a Saturday night and has paid north of £10 to watch the boxing, do they have the right to be as harsh as they wish about a performance that they deem unacceptable?  And does the answer lay in whether they own a gumshield and a set of hand wraps?

To that end, where does the distinction lie?  I’m the proud victor of two white collar bouts, so am I allowed to criticise area title fights?  Or International Challenge Belt bouts?  However if I upgraded to a semi-distinguished amateur career then I would be entitled to have a go at a poor British title fight.  Take it further; I turn over and become a 2-0 professional by beating up a journeyman who knows what he is there to do, do I finally unlock the door to criticising world title fights? 

Let us also turn the tables.  Accept for a minute that those fans at home who haven’t laced the gloves are not allowed to offer up their harshest criticism of a fighter.  By the same token, under no circumstances should they be lavishing praise on a boxer.  How can they, when they haven’t laced up the gloves?  Any boxer that retweets the fans praise of their performance should only do so after a long and arduous process of due diligence, ensuring that said fan knows the route to his nearest amateur gym.

Take a look at other sports; football is a prime example.  As a fan you can pay upwards of £30 a week to follow you professional team as you stand on the terrace and hope that your 11 men perform to the best of their ability.  Say you are a Manchester United fan, you know your leading striker is on £300,000 or more per week.  You travel down to Southampton, to see him blaze 10 shots high and wide into the River Itchen.  So often the initial reaction is “he’s shite”, “sell him, he’s not good enough”, “couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo” etc.  You get the gist.  Fans don’t hold back in their criticism – their money has been handed over and they will let you know precisely how good or how bad your performance is.  It is a stock Match of the Day image every Saturday that a club will be booed off by their home fans at half or full time, those fans showing quite how annoyed they are with the performance.

So how many times do we hear Jose Mourinho say ‘You haven’t played football so you can’t criticise’?  Never.  Take it to a longer conclusion; Arrigo Sacchi was the manager of AC Milan, Real Madrid, the Italian national side.  He never played a professional game in his playing career, never walked out in front of the thousands of fans.  Well, Arrigo, I am afraid that you will have to keep your criticism of the players to an absolute minimum as you don’t know what it’s like to be one of them.  Apart from if the definition is changing, and because he played some Sunday league he is entitled to criticise the reserve team.

Of course professional boxers have a sympathy with their colleagues.  Of course they know better than the fans at home – not one person would doubt that.  You can’t.  They know what it’s like to be in that hard 10th round when the legs are going and the face is swelling up.  They know what it’s like to have those tiny gloves bouncing off of their chin in front of thousands.  We know that.  But it doesn’t mean that as fans we can’t have a view, can’t be critical of a performance or a clear lack of preparation from a professional athlete.

If Usain Bolt rocked up to the Olympics, eight stone overweight and struggling to fit into the lycra, would the armchair fan not have a right to be dismissive?  Would the boxer not have a right to be dismissive?  If the armchair fan goes out for dinner that Saturday night and their main course arrives burned to a crisp with no garnish, are they allowed to reject the food and criticise the chef?  Perhaps write a scathing review on Trip Advisor?  Well I guess that depends whether they have mastered beans on toast or not.

Of course what we all want is to get along.  As fans, we love the interaction with boxers.  They are one of the few levels of sportsmen that are accessible to us, willing to engage in conversation over social media.  Very few are prima donnas, on the whole it is a group of men who deserve the respect of the fan and in return they are appreciative of every member of the public who parts with their money to support their careers.  Perhaps as fans we need to see the boxers as human beings, individuals, and realise that as much as they are physically superior to the majority they are also, deep down, the same as you and I.  They can be hurt mentally and can take the criticism personally. 

Fans will always voice an opinion.  Some will do it with rationale, some with passion and anger, and some will take it to the nth degree.  The most likely vent for the views will always be social media.  Does this make them cowards, keyboard warriors?  Not necessarily.  Are they meant to drive to the venue to confront the fighter at the fire exit?  Not when there is a far easier option.  The boxers themselves are in a difficult position; social media is a great tool for engagement and self-publication and the opportunity to generate ticket sales.  However with that is the balance of knowing you are liable to receive the raw criticism of the man at home who wasn’t impressed with your showing.

There may not be an answer to all of this.  Of course we as fans want continued access to the sportsmen, it is a privilege to be able to do so.  We will pay our money either to go in person or through a subscription/PPV route.  But we will also voice our opinion.  Sometimes it will be positive, sometimes it will be negative, it’s a rough with the smooth scenario.  What we don’t want though as a sport is to segregate the fan from the fighter.  90% of the time we seem to all get along, this is perhaps the biggest threat to doing so.