By Chris Weatherspoon @Christoph_21
Back in the late 1990s, as Mike Tyson found himself in another stint of boxing exile and Lennox Lewis stepped willingly into the heavyweight breach, a bemusing new television show was conceived. Celebrity Deathmatch first appeared on MTV back in May 1998 and, over its four-year run, became amusingly popular across the world.
In a word it was… strange. Broadcast late at night for good reason, the show centred around animated celebrities being pitched into a wrestling ring against one another, in bouts which invariably ended amid copious amounts of blood, often brought on by the use of weapons that one suspects might not be allowed were celebrities to face off in real life.
It is doubtful that Celebrity Deathmatch served as inspiration for a proliferation of real-life famous matchups, but it did serve as the forerunner to a boon in such tussles, particularly in boxing. Since the turn of the millennium, there have been several formats whereby the world’s more renowned figures have been matched off, stepping into the squared circle and donning the horsehair gloves.
Such formats have been met with mixed reactions. FOX’s Celebrity Boxing aired in 2002, but it quickly became clear that it was little more than an attempt to return once famous figures to some form of relevance. The show bombed badly.
On the contrary, in the same year Sport Relief, Comic Relief’s biennial fundraiser, showcased its own first boxing match. The brawl (in the loosest sense of the word) between Bob Mortimer and Les Dennis aroused memories of Chaplin rather than Chuvalo, but it proved popular enough for Sport Relief to put on pugilistic parleys for each of its following three events. Mortimer even sought the undoubted expertise of Barry McGuigan in the buildup, though the sight of one half of Vic and Bob windmilling across the ring had plenty wondering just how much of the former world champion’s advice he had taken. To Mortimer’s credit, he scored a decision victory.
Whilst celebrity-on-celebrity affairs have become more frequent in the last two decades, they still remain rather novel ideas. More novel still is the notion of a celebrity facing off against a genuine, bona fide master of the art. Wags may remark that Conor McGregor’s fight with Floyd Mayweather last summer fit rather neatly into this category, but basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s scraps with Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley are standouts in what is a decidedly niche genre. That O’Neal, seven feet high and over 300 pounds deep, was on the end of comfortable decision victories for each of the two welterweights did much to confirm the ridiculousness of the idea.
Somewhat perplexing, there have been plenty who have actually turned to boxing after gaining notoriety elsewhere. Many suggest that to desire to be a boxer is to be a little bit mad, and certainly it seems so here; many get into boxing to leap out of poverty, so the idea of leaping into harm’s way once prestige and fortune have been earned elsewhere is anathema to most.
But leap some have, at varying levels of difficulty, always to wide interest. Mickey Rourke, the Hollywood film star, is perhaps not the best example, given that he had successfully boxed as an amateur prior to hitting the bright lights of L.A. Yet Rourke took his leave from such stardom to turn professional in the ring, going unbeaten in eight fights (six wins, two draws). Rourke was trained by none other than Freddie Roach, and described his return to the ring as necessary to avoid him self-destructing in the face of the fame he had been afforded as an actor. Problematically, his unbeaten record did not save him from the perils of the sport, as he picked up a bewildering number of injuries for such a short career. A return to the ring in 2014 was short-lived, lasting just one fight. Rourke won, thus retaining his unbeaten professional record.
In more recent years, one particular area of fame has lent its members to boxing more than most: football. Former Norwich City and Premier League striker Leon McKenzie turned to the ring once his playing days were over, racking up eight wins from nine before coming unstuck late in 2016. Curtis Woodhouse too, once of Sheffield United, waited until he’d finished playing the beautiful game. Declaring that he had “fallen out of love” with football, Woodhouse retired, took up boxing, won his first fight and then had his license revoked for assaulting a police officer. He promptly returned to football, signing for Rushden & Diamonds, then, once his ban expired, decided to do both at once. His most recent bout came last November, a defeat of Lewis van Poetsch on points, his 24th win in 31 fights. He remains in football, currently managing Bridlington Town.
Perhaps the most high-profile shift from football to boxing is one which has yet to occur. Former England defender Rio Ferdinand announced his decision to step into the ring last year, but his decision to do so under the banner of the bookmaker Paddy Power had plenty questioning the seriousness of Ferdinand’s intentions. He has still yet to don the gloves and, despite his protestations to the contrary, it seems likely that any forthcoming fight of his will be a show for the cameras rather than a concerted effort to transition from one sport to the next.
That certainly rang true for Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff when he fought a professional bout back in December 2012. Flintoff’s points win over the American Richard Dawson was an unsurprisingly turgid affair, and led plenty to rebuke the former cricket star for taking attention away from serious proponents of the sport, particularly one David Price, who was defending a British title some 50 miles up the road on the same night. Flintoff would not fight again, presumably realising boxing wasn’t for him.
Few who have made their fame elsewhere have made a success of careers inside the ring. It is perhaps best that celebrity boxing largely resides in the domain of comedies and fundraising.