Fear is a tricky subject to write about when it comes to combat sports. The sort of person who makes a living climbing into a cage or ring to exchange physical punishment is, by definition, a physically brave human being.
Anybody who has spent any amount of time in a fight gym watching novices learning to spar knows how unnatural the act truly is. Fighting itself might be an innate part of human nature, but fighting with poise rarely comes naturally to anybody.
The instinctual reactions to having punches thrown at your head and body fall along the spectrum from covering up and freezing to throwing punches back in a reckless, adrenaline-fueled flurry. To stay in the pocket and maintain a calm presence of mind requires training and practice.
And it requires a fighter to conquer and control his fear. The threat of serious physical harm is part of the bargain going in, and anybody who has much success at all in boxing must be comfortable with that fact.
So most of the time, when we talk about fear in the fight game, what we are really talking about is "business fear." Most often, a feared fighter isn't necessarily the fighter who seems most likely to do serious damage to his opponents, though that's certainly part of it. But what really makes a fighter "feared" is that the potential risk doesn't balance out adequately with the potential reward.
Sergio Martinez and Wladimir Klitschko, for example, are extremely dangerous fighters. But everybody at middleweight and heavyweight, respectively, wants to fight them. There is an excellent chance you will get knocked out, even hurt badly. But if you win, you will be the top man your weight in the world and a pound-for-pound superstar.
If you lose, well, you lost to the champ. Depending upon how well you performed, it might even be possible to come away from a loss to a dominant champion with your career in better shape than it was going in.
Gennady Golovkin and Kubrat Pulev, on the other hand, are also very likely to knock out anybody who fights them. A win over them would be a major accomplishment for any middleweight or heavyweight. But ultimately, they are just stepping stones on the way to potentially tougher fights against Martinez or Klitschko.
But they are very, very slippery stepping stones, the kind that will send most opponents tumbling into the swift current, to be dragged down stream from relevancy. So, not surprisingly, most fighters and their management would rather bide their time and angle directly for a fight with the champs.
And as anybody who really follows the fight game knows, fear is truly the province of management and promoters. I gained a lot of respect for Austin Trout last January when I met him after a Friday Night Fights card in Verona, N.Y., where he had come to campaign publicly for a showdown with fellow 154-pound champ Canelo Alvarez.
A reporter asked him: "Do you think Canelo needs a heart transplant." Trout's response was respectful of his rival while still realistic about the business side of the sport:
I want to be clear, I don't think Alvarez is afraid to fight me. He's a fighter and to me, a fighter isn't afraid to fight anybody. When I say Canelo is ducking me, what I mean is that his promoters are ducking me. Golden Boy is ducking me...but maybe Papa De La Hoya will let him (Alvarez) out of the yard to play.
Ultimately, Trout did get the fight with Alvarez, and in May fight fans will see the sort of showdown that should be routine if boxing truly hopes to again approach its past popularity.
Prize fighting is a brutal, dangerous way to make a living, and it is hard for me to fault fighters and their management pursuing their own interests over the interests of the sport. Still, the health of the sport in terms of media coverage and television contracts can only improve when business fear is handled the same way as physical fear.
It needs to be taken into consideration, because it is legitimate. But no true glory can ever be won if fear is allowed to rule the day.