You Can Fool Some of the People, Some of the Time… But You Can’t Fool Yourself

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Yes. I. Can.

In less than 10 minutes, lying prone at the feet of David Haye, it was brutally, conclusively clear that no, Audley Harrison couldn’t.

Fourteen years earlier one of my all-time favourite boxers, Evander Holyfield, faced the fearsome and seemingly back-to-his terrifying best Mike Tyson.  In the face of very real fears for Holyfield’s well-being after a series of poor performances and serious health scares, ‘The Real Deal’ didn’t just fool himself into believing he could win, he guaranteed to the world that he would do so.  Furthermore, he claimed that he had won the moment the contract was signed and all that remained was for him to turn up on fight night and pick up his title.

Boxing experts were far from convinced and of 48 experts polled only 1 shared Holyfield’s faith.

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Holyfield proceeded to shock the world, not just beating Tyson but beating him up in the process of forcing the referee to rescue Iron Mike.

One of the things that has always drawn me to boxing is the psychology of the sport, the mental battles that are fought long before the physical contest takes place and far away from the bright lights.

The pre-fight press-conferences and interviews, the weigh-in, the stare-downs – all of these pre-fight rituals provide opportunities for the combatants to gain a crucial advantage in the battle that has been said to contribute as much as 90% to the eventual outcome of the fight: the battle of the mind.

And away from these public rituals and adversarial mental battles are the deeply personal battles, those fought within the fighter’s own mind.

It’s fascinating to observe, as too are the post fight justifications offered by the defeated warriors that reveal many things – courage, respect, character.  And sometimes, delusion.

Boxing is littered with tales of great champions that didn’t know when to walk away; proud, strong, determined warriors that convinced themselves there was more left in the locker, while to the world watching it was apparent that the gifts that had propelled them to the summit had long ago been locked away for good, the key swallowed by Father Time.

Boxing reveals just how fine the line that is drawn between self-delusion and self-belief can be, and also how necessary it can be to tread it.  Had Holyfield let his detractors erode his self-belief there would have been far fewer chapters to his storied career; had Harrison tempered his belief by facing the truth offered by his performances he would have been spared a number of painful knockout defeats that were suffered while chasing an impossible dream.

Self-belief in boxing is crucial – when entering the potentially dangerous arena of the boxing ring there is little place for doubt.  But self-belief needs to be built upon a firm foundation of truth, for in the ring there is no place to hide, the truth shall be revealed.

And in life too the truth is always there; the question is whether we have the courage to face that truth and to confront what it says about our selves and our lives.

I always wondered how a fighter could put himself at risk of long-term physical harm chasing a dream that can quickly, often predictably, become a nightmare.  But like any behaviour, at some level his delusion serves him, protecting him from the greater threats that hide in the shadows.

When the walls of delusion are breached, what are we faced with?  The truth that life can no longer be as it was; the routines that provided us with safety, security and predictability will be no more; the identity that we have worn like a shield no longer fits.  The success that cloaked our self-esteem is removed to reveal the emperor’s new clothes.

We are bare, and we must confront the truth about what our delusion is telling us if we are to clothe ourselves in newly tailored finery.

Confronting our delusions takes courage and brings us face-to-face with what can be our greatest fears: harsh, painful realities about our lives and the choices that we make, about who we are, about the people that we depend upon; about the need to change that which does not serve us.

Viewed this way it’s understandable that some would choose to continue on the path to an apparent dead-end, or worse: our capacity for self-delusion can take us to the edge of sanity and beyond.  The human psyche is tremendously powerful and we can be blind to the delusions that we hold onto to protect us from painful truths; especially if we risk being unmasked, revealing that the selves that we and/or society perceive are a facade.

Adversity forces us to confront ourselves.  Doing so with honesty may reveal our flaws and expose our pain, but it has the power to lay our delusions before us.

Or, we can choose to see things how we want them to be, allowing ourselves to stumble through the obstacles, bypassing the lessons they teach us as we continue our lives as if nothing has happened.

Faced with adversity there are times that I have been blinded by my delusions: I have recognised the signs of my mental illness and failed to see them for what they were; I have faced issues within my relationships and convinced myself they would work themselves out somehow, someway, rather than taking the action that might have shaped a different future; I have faced loneliness by seeking to merge my life with another, rather than cultivating a new life for me.

And every time the truth was there to be found, whispering inside, the inner voice that I heard but failed to hear.

Because ultimately we can delude others, but we can’t truly delude ourselves.  We can hide from the truth but it is always there, waiting for us, if only we choose to find it.

Yes, I can.

Soundtrack:
A Sorta Fairytale – Tori Amos

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