Boxers are adept at deception. It’s something they do better than an awful lot of politicians. And one of their myriad acts of subterfuge is that they would have us believe they are normal creatures, that they do normal deeds and behave in ordinary ways. When you meet them face to face their physical appearance may strike you as unremarkable.
But that’s just another deception. Because it doesn’t take me long to realise that there is nothing normal about the person sitting at my kitchen table right now. It isn’t anything to do with the conspicuous lack of extra poundage on his long, too lean frame. Nor is it the glowing skin: firm and freshly scrubbed and ridiculously absent of wrinkles of any description. And it’s not the way he talks or moves or smiles or frowns or grimaces or coughs.
It’s nothing at all that you can put your finger on. This courteous, quietly spoken manboy is just different. There’s no other way of describing it. Different.
Sofia has now been out of that hospital for more than three weeks. As soon as she spots the back of boxer Frank Buglioni’s head she scampers off to hide in her room. Frank, you may remember, was at the gym earlier this year when I met with Steve Collins. Since then we’ve exchanged a few messages and the young fighter has very kindly sent words of support for Sofia. She doesn’t know that, of course. She’s just a thirteen-year-old girl and as far as she’s concerned a very good looking stranger has just walked into our house; he mustn’t be allowed to see her blushes.
A little while ago Frank asked a favour of me. He told me he was having his website redesigned and asked if I would mind writing a piece about his last fight: his WBA world championship loss to a Russian named Fedor Chudinov in September 2015. I told Frank it would be an honour. However, if we were going to do this it had to be different to the standard “So-and-so threw a left hook… Whatsisname threw a jab…” sort of fight report.
For this reason our plan is to watch the Chudinov fight together and talk about what might have been in possible excruciating detail. I’ve never done this with a boxer before and I can’t say I’ve heard of anybody else doing it. I believe it’s a particularly brave thing for Frank to agree to. After all, not many would want to rake over the coals of what must be one of the undoubted low points of their life. It would be the equivalent of you or I being forced to relive the minutiae of a particularly cringeworthy date in which you loudly belched as you reached over for that first tender kiss. Or an embarrassing job interview that you undertook not knowing that you had a piece of cabbage wedged between your teeth. I understand, of course, that such comparisons are a trifle egregious – for since when was a boxer ever anything but brave?
Thankfully the Frank Buglioni who takes a seat next to me today is nothing like the figure of the latter rounds of the Chudinov fight that will remain eternally searchable on YouTube. Remorseless pressure and relentless punching from the Russian WBA belt holder had reduced that Frank Buglioni to an exhausted caricature of himself. The person sitting beside me is, however, unmarked by his ordeal. A sickeningly fresh-faced picture of youthful vitality that makes me feel like punching him myself right now.
A little small talk: Frank tells me more details about his split with promoter Frank Warren. As before I find it difficult to hide my concern. Then Frank drops the bombshell that he has also parted company with Steve Collins and my worries are instantly amplified tenfold. Being a boxer in the digital era is rather like being a contestant on the X-Factor: unless you get that number one hit in double-quick time you’re pretty soon humped and dumped. Only five months earlier Frank had been fighting for the WBA world super-middleweight title – the very pinnacle of a prizefighter’s ambitions – and now his future, to put it mildly, seems uncertain. Or at least this is my initial impression.
But I’m wrong: Frank’s disarming honesty and common-sense approach convinces me so. With a nonchalance that belies his tender years Frank explains that these decisions were his, and that he made them purely in the name of good business practice. ‘I was prepared to work with Frank Warren again,’ Frank tells me. ‘But I thought let’s see what else is out there. I don’t want to do anything behind anybody’s back. I want to do things properly…’
I’ve heard boxers attempt to deal with disappointment before. And I’ve been present when blatant untruths have been issued with an audacity that would put to shame any government dossier ever compiled on WMD. But Frank is earnestly and eminently believable: he’s had to stop working with Steve Collins purely for financial reasons and he’s keen to manage himself, which is a very bold step that few few boxers ever take. This means that he will have to personally barter with promoters for the best price he can get whenever he fights. He’s going to have to learn to fight outside the ring as well as in it
I click the YouTube ‘play’ button and tell Frank to prepare himself for some fairly dopey questions. The blocky image on my iPad reveals his Russian opponent Chudinov climbing through the ropes. Small. Clean limbed. Ape-like. Hairless torso. Muscled. A good head shorter than Frank. Watching the Russian immediately brings to mind an issue that is perennially debated on social media.
I halt the playback and ask Frank whether he genuinely considers the title he fought for to be a true ‘world’ title. It’s an awkward question and his answer is not entirely unexpected: ‘It’s 100 per cent a world title,’ he says firmly, as if used to and bored of answering this question. ‘The WBA, the IBF, the WBC, WBO – if you’re a world champion of any of them you’re a world champion. People on social media don’t know how hard it is being a professional boxer and getting to that world title level.’
We restart the video and watch the figures onscreen warm-up in their respective corners. ‘What were you thinking about at that moment?’ I ask. ‘Were you thinking about your dad… About when you were a kid dreaming of being a world champion…?’
‘The fight was the only thing on my mind,’ he says. ‘I was just visualising myself lifting the belt. It was something that I’d been preparing for for the last year, and then very intensely for the last ten weeks.’
‘Did you have any doubts in your mind at all as to the result?’
‘No. None at all. Prior to the fight I was actually full of confidence. The way that I fought in the gym was better than ever before. I pushed it that extra level…’
Had he spoken to his opponent in press conferences leading up to the fight?
‘Not really,’ says Frank. ‘His English wasn’t great but we’d shaken hands when we first met. Obviously I didn’t shake his hand at the weigh-in because I was in the zone. People saw that as disrespectful and some had things to say about it but I’d like to challenge them to be in my situation. To prepare their mind and body the way I did and then shake someone’s hand you’re about to fight to the death…’
We stop talking for a moment and watch the introductions to the fight unfurl. The onscreen Frank looks pensive as he prowls the ring, the Russian unperturbed, all business.
‘I presume you had a fight plan?’ I ask as the action kicks off.
‘Yes, it was to box, move, draw him on to the shots, make him use his legs because in his last fight every time he used his legs he needed to take a breather. Obviously it didn’t work the way we thought it would do…
‘It must be so hard when you’re doing everything you can but the other person is still beating you,’ I say. ‘Surely no amount of money can compensate you for this sort of punishment.’
‘You wouldn’t be fighting for a world championship unless you didn’t love boxing,’ replies Frank. And I think it’s hard to love a business the same way as you love a sport.’
As the sentence leaves his lips there is a cheer from the YouTube crowd. Frank has just enjoyed his first success of the fight: he connects with a couple of right hands but they scarcely make a dent in the perpetually advancing Chudinov. The Russian moves forward like an automaton, throwing punch after punch at the retreating Buglioni.
‘He had a great jab,’ says Frank. ‘And he’s thick set and strong. I wasn’t expecting the jab to be as good as it was. In fact, I’ve never come across anyone with a jab as good as his.’
‘How did that affect you?’ I ask. ‘If I’m hit by one punch it’s more than I can take. But he was throwing dozens and many of them were connecting…’
‘I would say after the seventh round I started to feel the pace,’ admits Frank. ‘It was getting tougher and tougher and he wasn’t tiring.’
So tough in fact that with no more than two minutes on the clock Frank is already running out of places in which to retreat. He rests his back on the ropes and attempts to use them to leverage his own punches.
‘Did you plan to do that?’ I ask, already knowing the answer.
‘Once my back was on the ropes the plan was to try to move away,’ says Frank. ‘But he was very good at cutting off the ring and reserving energy.’
I find myself wincing as Frank tries to fend off the first-round barrage. I tell him I don’t like to watch him fight. He ignores the comment.
‘Did you work on your jab?’ I say.
‘Yes. I’ve been using the jab.’
‘So why weren’t you using it here?’
‘I was trying to keep him at range and when he comes in, throw the flurry and move away again. But I shouldn’t have been away so quickly. I should have thrown a second phase of punches…’
I tell Frank that perhaps he should have stood his ground more. Although I’m all too aware that it’s easy for me to say.
‘If I fought him again I would hold my ground and go to war with him,’ he replies. ‘He’s so good coming forward I’d like to put him on the back foot and see what happens.’
As the round comes to a close Frank reveals to me that prior to the fight he had perforated an ear drum.
‘Jesus!’ I exclaim.
‘The other thing is that making super-middleweight was just taking a little too much out of me,’ he adds.
‘You really shouldn’t have been fighting at all,’ I say.
‘Yeah but world titles don’t come along too often. My dad wanted to pull me out but I said: “I don’t care if I’ve got two broken hands!” It was the biggest opportunity of my life…’
‘I suppose that in reality it’s rare for a boxer to ever be 100 per cent fit.’
‘Yeah… If you push yourself to the limit you’re inevitably going to have an injury or illness. It’s as simple as that.’
We watch as the second round carries on from where the previous left off: Chudinov stalking, Buglioni retreating. Chudinov metronomically launching punch after punch, Buglioni trying in vain to pick off his opponent. It’s painful viewing.
‘But this was the best I could have performed,’ insists Frank. ‘The actual best. That’s why I’m not disappointed by the result. He was the better man on the night.’
I ask the boxer about his opponent’s power. What did it feel like being continually hit by the champion’s punches?
‘They weren’t concussive but every one was solid,’ says Frank. ‘And he had very fast hands. But I’ve been working on crossing my arms on the inside so I didn’t take too many uppercuts. I was rolling with a lot of the punches. Even though he was winning most rounds I was having flashes of success. So I was still positive…’
‘But I just want you to stop and use your jab,’ I say. ‘I think it could be a phenomenal weapon…’
‘Yes, my jab’s good when it lands,’ agrees Frank. ‘It’s very solid…’
As we look on it suddenly becomes apparent that Chudinov appears to be slowing down for the first time.
‘He’s taking a breather,’ observes Frank, as he finally begins to force his way into the fight.
‘See… that’s nice,’ I say, pointing out a body shot that Frank delivers.
‘Yes I was having a little bit of success working to the body. I think he felt a few of my shots.’
‘How quickly does time go when you’re in the ring?’ I ask.
‘The minute break in the corner was going very quick,’ says Frank. ‘But the three minutes were definitely three minutes long.’
‘When you’re exhausted I expect it seems like six minutes?’
‘Yes, of course. When he catches you with a good body shot or in your face it seems longer…’
‘Now all of a sudden you’re planting your feet and throwing punches,’ I say.
‘Yes I’m going back to my instincts.’
‘And your instinct is to fight him, not to back away?’
Round four begins and Frank makes another confession: ‘I think it was about then that the other eardrum went…’ he reveals.
‘Oh no! What did that feel like?’
‘It’s like a ringing in your ear, a very, very bad headache. It didn’t really affect my balance.’
‘I take it you didn’t mention it in the post fight interviews?’
‘No. You can’t do that. But I had a lot of injuries in that fight. When I took the drug test afterwards my body wasn’t absorbing any water and I was vomiting from exhaustion. And the urine I passed was just blood.’
‘Do you ever wonder why you do it?’
‘The next day I was pretty sore when the adrenalin had worn off. But I thought it was a great night and a great experience. I loved every minute.’
‘Are you starting to feel the pace now?
‘Yes but I was having a little success and occasionally hurting him so it gave me the incentive to carry on.’
‘Had he hurt you yet?’
‘Only with the shot that burst the ear drum.’
‘What does your mother think of you fighting?’
‘She was actually there that night. She didn’t want to miss my world title shot. I think she took the defeat quite hard…’
‘It must be difficult to watch somebody hitting your child.’
‘I suppose so. The only thing that was going through my mind was: I need to beat this man and I can do it! I know that when I hit someone I can hurt them. And I tend to be quite a good finisher…’
‘His punches don’t look particularly hurtful, I say. ‘Although I’m obviously not the one taking them…’
‘Yes but it’s the cumulative effect. The gloves are important here. He wears Rival gloves and they’re very compact. And I usually wear Grant gloves which are a puncher’s glove and slightly bigger so that you can get more wrapping around your hands. Sometimes when a glove is too tight it can make your hand go numb.’
We watch as Chudinov continues to up the tempo. Frank is visibly tiring now. His face is marking up and more of his opponent’s punches are getting through Frank’s guard.
‘That’s looks painful,’ I say.
‘Not really. You take a shot and you deal with it. You try to have your chin down so you take them all on the forehead. If you take an uppercut to the nose you can feel that a little bit more. Body shots can hurt and sometimes you get a thumb in the eye.’
‘But he wasn’t dirty?’
‘No, not at all. Just businesslike. I’m kind of the same really. I just get on with the job. I don’t really enjoy gamesmanship…’
‘It seems like you’re suddenly getting a second wind…’
We look on as Frank finally gets his turn to land a few punches. Then, as the bell to end the round sounds, Frank suddenly connects with a booming right hand and the Russian hits the canvas hard. The crowd are screaming as the referee steps in to separate the fighters. A moment or two later he indicates to the ringside judges that two points are to be deducted from Frank’s score. The referee clearly believes that Frank landed his punch after the bell.
I rewind the YouTube video. Frank and I review the action meticulously. It’s arguable but fairly clear to me that Frank’s knockout punch landed exactly on the bell. The sound of bell could still be heard as the punch connected. Deducting two points from his score was extremely harsh, bordering on unfair.
‘Towards the end of this I landed a few shots and it spurred me on,’ says Frank. ‘It would have been nice if I’d landed 20 or 30 seconds before the bell. We might be sitting down having a different conversation right now…’
‘His recovery was superhuman…’ I say, as Chudinov springs to his feet, apparently fresh as a daisy.
‘He bounced back didn’t he?’ says Frank. ‘And I thought it was a bit unfair taking two points off me because it was on the bell. And it was only because I dropped him. It shouldn’t make a difference…’
‘I agree – it’s very, very harsh.’
‘So you know with two points gone it’s Goodnight Vienna,’ says Frank. ‘If the referee hadn’t have done that it would have been a 10-8 round to me. Instead it’s a 10-7 round to him – that’s a 5-point swing…’
Now it’s Frank’s turn to attack. With Chudinov still shaky on his feet Frank throws punch after punch at his opponent in an effort to end the fight.
‘You’re obviously tiring,’ I say. ‘But the adrenaline is keeping you going…’
‘Yeah. I’m thinking if I’m going to win it I better go out and do it now.’
‘And you’ve maybe only got about half a minute before the exhaustion takes over?’
‘Yeah. I was kind of winging the hooks in…’
‘It’s a terrible thing that this half a minute is so crucial to your entire career…’
And even as we speak Frank’s punches are becoming slower. His arms suddenly look as if they have lead weights tied to them. Conversely, Chudinov seems to finding a new lease of life. The pendulum has swung.
‘I put so much into that first 30 seconds to try and hurt him and tired myself out,’ explains Frank. ‘That’s when his shots start to really tell.’
‘At this point in the fight was there any strategy left at all?’
‘Yes, I was trying to fight in bursts but they weren’t frequent enough or long enough to have any telling effect. And Chudinov tended to win the rounds because he was consistently on me all the time. In order to win I had to put my level above his and I couldn’t do that.’
As the bell for round 8 sounds I leave the room for a few moments and Sofia conveniently appears from nowhere.
‘Hi you OK? Recovered now?’ I hear Frank ask. ‘What a terrible incident!’
I return and put my arms around her shoulders before introducing the pair.
‘She’s tall now,’ I say. ‘She going to be a big one.’
‘That’s probably what caused the illness,’ says Frank. ‘When you’ve had a growth spurt your immune system is weak. All your energy goes into growing.’
‘I didn’t think about that,’ I say.
‘A lot of young athletes get injuries and illnesses because they’re training all the time and it’s too much stress.’
‘That’s an interesting theory.’
‘When I was about 12 or 13 I had bouts of glandular fever every time I got taller. The specialist said that it was because I weak. But there’s a few things you can do to boost it: Carrot and ginger juices… Manuka honey… Echinacea… Garlic…’
I point Sofia’s head towards the iPad screen: ‘We’re watching Frank fight,’ I softly say. ‘Wanna see?’
‘Getting banged up,’ says Frank grimly.
‘Frank is fighting for the world title – can you believe that?’ I tell Sofia. ‘I don’t know if you like boxing, do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Sofia dryly replies.
It’s more of the same for Frank now. Monotonously more of the same. The Russian’s piston-like punches never stopping. Frank retreating, attempting to connect but never quite managing it with any real authority. I feel guilty for putting Frank through this.
‘I remember at the end of the 9th coming back to the corner and Steve saying: ‘Only three more rounds!’ recalls Frank. ‘And I was thinking: “Three more rounds? It seems like a lifetime!”‘
‘He can’t win it on the cards now,’ says the commentator. ‘He’s got to knock him out!’
Round ten begins and the pattern of the preceding rounds continues. It’s barely worth mentioning what’s happening on screen right now so we talk about Frank’s training methods instead.
Frank asks me if I’ve ever heard of the Chimp Paradox and proceeds to give me a detailed explanation of the training model that he adheres to. In this model the brain is made up of three parts: The Computer, which governs automatic functions; The Chimp, which controls ego and emotions; and The Human, which concerns the logical functions of the brain.
‘When you’re training obviously you do things over and over again,’ says Frank. ‘These are Computer thoughts and actions. When you go into a fight you want to run off your Computer, your instinct, because it’s so much quicker. It’s something like ten, twenty times faster than human thought.
‘If someone throws a jab and you think to yourself: “Ok jab coming, catch it, block it, throw a counter!” then you’ve already been hit three or four times. But if you don’t even think about it and just react instinctively – that’s your Computer at work.’
‘That’s very interesting,’ I say. ‘Do you think all boxers do this?’
‘Yes. To get to the top level of any sport you need to rely more and more on your Computer. And to have a good functioning Computer you need to do the practise.’
‘But are other fighters consciously aware of this? Do they think about this like you do?’
‘Maybe not. They probably just do it automatically. When your Chimp kicks in you’ll be thinking: “I’m under pressure here! It’s getting too hard! Let’s quit! Let’s quit!” So it’s down to your Human to override it, to say “No, I’ve trained too hard for this!” And then your reason and logic will kick in…’
Frank tells me about how he visited a psychologist prior to the fight, about how he uses hypnosis and visualisation techniques.
‘Because of this I went into the trenches a hundred times before I fought Chudinov,’ he says. ‘In my head I’d already beaten him so many times. When I was in the ring this is what drove me on.’
‘Unfortunately I guess all of this must cost you money…’ I say.
‘Of course – it cost a small fortune,’ says Frank. ‘But what I learned leading up to this fight is an education for life. Everything I’ve learned about how to fight and deal with copious amounts of stress and pressure. After a fight like this everything else is a walk in their park…’
‘We’re having a trade off,’ says Frank to Sofia as the three of us grimly watch him continue to lose the fight. ‘And he seems to be getting the better of it…’
‘You’re really tired, aren’t you…’ I say.
‘Yes, I am but I’m still thinking about trying to land and hurt him.’
‘Did you think by this stage that you’d lost the fight?’
‘No. I still thought there was a chance.’
‘How do you feel about seeing yourself looking so tired onscreen?’ I ask.
‘It’s not a shock really. I was exhausted.’
We watch as Chudinov connects with a hard looking uppercut.
‘That looked like it might have hurt,’ I groan.
‘Yeah,’ smiles Frank.
‘It’s good that you’re laughing about these things…’
The bell rings for the final round and it’s no use pretending that the fight was even close. Even Sofia standing quietly beside us can see that.
‘At this stage you must have known that you’d lost,’ I say.
‘Yes. I was a little bit spaced out. That’s a good description,’ says Frank. ‘It was an exhausting fight and you don’t always think clearly afterwards. There was a lot of things jumping around my head: I was disappointed with the two-point deduction, although it wouldn’t have made any difference to the result of the fight…’
‘You don’t seem to be angry about that decision,’ I say. ‘A lot of people would be very bitter about it…’
‘No. Anger doesn’t really come into it. It’s not in my emotions,’ says Frank. ‘It was an honour to be fighting for the world title. A great experience. A great achievement. I just want to move on to better things.’
‘What do you think was the main difference between you and Chudinov?’ I ask.
‘Well he just didn’t expend any unnecessary energy,’ says Frank. ‘He’d obviously trained so long on the bags that his muscle memory could punch all day. He just let them flow naturally.
‘I’ve learned a lot from him. Rather than fighting in bursts that use 100% of your energy I’m going to drop it right down to about 87%, which is still going to do a lot of damage, but is more sustainable.’
Frank talks about his plan to fight at a heavier weight and how it’s going to help him. ‘Give me another four years…’ he says.
I offer him an unprovoked suggestion: ‘My feeling is that what needs to happen…’
‘…Is that somebody gives me an iron bar?’
‘…Is that a big name is fighting and his opponent pulls out and they bring you in at the last minute.
‘You need a big name,’ I tell him. ‘You need a big win. You must have thought that yourself?’
‘Yes. But I’m happy to take my time. Rebuild. Go and do some very high quality sparring.’
I thank Frank for his generosity. I tell him that hopefully there will come a time when he can return to my kitchen and together we can watch him win that elusive world title.
‘That’s why I’m here and why I speak to you so often because I respect what you do,’ says Frank. ‘And I’ve got a lot of trust in you…’
‘Well that’s very nice of you.’
‘If not I’ll have to send someone round.…’
‘Do you see that Sofia?’ I say. ‘Somebody who finally respects what I do…’