NO SEX PLEASE WE’RE BRUTISH
You might recall the prominent scene in Raging Bull in which Robert De Niro is frantically pouring jugs of iced water over his groin. This celluloid reconstruction of Jake LaMotta desperately trying to quash any libidinous impulses toward his curvaceous blonde bombshell of a wife will strike a chord with any fighter alive. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there: you’re getting to bed early, eating right and looking a million dollars in the gym. Surely a little stress-relieving nookie isn’t going to ruin your readiness for war. Or is it?
The traditional view in boxing circles has always been that sex is harmful to a fighter in training. In my experience the majority of coaches and fighters still tend to believe this, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
The name Kent Green will be unfamiliar to all but the most obsessive Muhammad Ali fans but he probably still has occasion to brag about his stoppage victory over a young Cassius Clay in the 1958 National Golden Gloves tournament. In his ghosted 1976 autobiography, Ali came up with an alibi. An older team-mate had taken him to Chicago’s South Side the night before the contest and
the two had engaged the services of a couple of local prostitutes. Allegedly, it was Ali’s first experience with the fairer sex, it cost him $9 and, as far as he was concerned, the National Golden Gloves crown. His friend, also heavily favoured, lost badly, too.
Ali is certainly not alone in blaming a sexual encounter for a loss or sub-par performance. Mike Tyson attributed his poor showing against Buster Douglas to having been “f***ing them Japanese girls like I was eating grapes.”
But it’s not just the baddest men that struggle to contain their urges – even golden boys stray. Oscar De La Hoya has spoken of the time, while training for his 10th pro fight, when he opted to enjoy nightly visits from his girlfriend to his Hollywood hotel room: “I would not soon forget the helpless feeling of trying to fight through fatigue on weakened legs. It would be a while before I violated the rules of training camp again.” De La Hoya stopped Angelo Nunez in round four but felt he had “dodged a bullet… of my own making,” in the process.
AIN’T GOT THE LEGS:
The notion that women weaken legs is a prevalent one – and not just in Rocky films. As a teenage amateur boxer, my own introduction to carnal knowledge seemed that bit more significant for the fact I was scheduled to box two nights later. In the back of a minibus en route to the show I continually harassed one of the older fighters as to the likelihood that my weekend activities would prove detrimental to my performance. Admittedly, I was probably keen to advertise my newfound ‘manhood’ but there was also a genuine concern that I might step in the ring and suddenly feel weak as a kitten, as I’d been encouraged to believe. As it turned out, I won comfortably and didn’t feel impaired. Nonetheless, in the years that followed, I would usually enforce a period of celibacy on myself in the run-up to a fight. Initially, abstinence would be for two-three weeks, but that was later extended to five after a tip from former champ Paulie Malignaggi in the locker room at Gleason’s Gym in New York.
In order to best represent the opposing old-school view, perhaps we need to go back a little further for an example. Harry Wiley, who worked with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson for over two decades and served as a cornerman for legends like Joe Gans Henry Armstrong and Joe Louis, believed that abstinence does keep a fighter lean and mean. “I’m of the old school,” said Wiley speaking in 1970s. “Most prizefighters have enormous sex drives. They build up this tremendous store of vitality and drive and just a few rounds in the ring is not enough release. I blame a big part of Joe Louis’ decline on his getting too much and how Henry Armstrong ever won three world titles with the women he went through, Lord knows. Sonny Liston used to take his sex drive out on his opponents.”
Apparently, it was common for Liston’s handler’s to tell Sonny that a beautiful woman was waiting for him in the crowd but would leave the arena should he fail to knock his opponent out by the third round. By the time Liston challenged Floyd Patterson for the world title, the ‘carrot’ for victory was legendary singer, Lena Horne. We will never know if this compulsory chastity and mental manipulation had any bearing on Liston twice annihilating Patterson inside a round.
Modern-day trainers who consider themselves old-school are, nonetheless, slightly more liberal on this question. East London boxing stalwart Johnny Eames thinks every fighter is different in this respect. “Obviously, I tell my fighters not to have sex two weeks before a fight but, then again, are you stressing ‘em? Some guys can’t go two minutes without sex, never mind two weeks! It’s not something I’d really ask my boys [in the dressing room]: ‘Did you have sex last night?’ I might ask jokingly but I’ve never had anyone say, ‘yes,’ and then put in a bad performance, fitness-wise.
Alan Smith, trainer of former British light-middleweight champion Sam Webb and current domestic welterweight king Bradley Skeete, while leaning towards the old ethos, “fighters of yesteryear were tougher and most of them observed the rule,” admits that there is no universal approach pertaining to sex and fighters. “Patrick Mullings always used to have sex the night before a fight, it relaxed him and controlled his nerves and he didn’t do too bad in twice winning the British Title,” Smith mused.
Ali, despite his setback in Chicago went on to garner a reputation for “two-backed beasting with anyone that would stand still long enough,” in the words of boxing writer Joseph D’Obrian.
Various trainers and assorted characters from boxing’s rich tapestry have suggested that it is the emotional and psychological aspects of sex that place it at odds with a fighter’s optimum preparation but one man who believes it poses no physiological hazards whatsoever is Kerry Kayes. The bodybuilding guru and nutritionist, most famous for the CNP brand and his work with Ricky Hatton, stated, “Testosterone makes us younger and better athletes, the ageing process is about producing less and less hormones. Not having sex will not save any testosterone (making you a better fighter.) In fact, the more sex you have, the more your system produces. Think about it: people who have a mundane life do it less and less, but go on holiday where everything is nice and happy – people do it more. Most people getting close to an event don’t eat enough food and don’t give themselves the building blocks for their testes to produce adequate hormones. It’s an old wives’ tale not to have sex before a fight.”
The bulk of scientific research on the question of sex and athletic performance would seem to endorse Kerry’s view, with little or no physiological evidence to suggest that pre-event sex is a bad idea. “There are two possible ways that sex before competition could affect performance,” says Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “First, it could make you tired and weak the next day. This has been disproved. The second way is that it could affect your psychological state of mind. This has not been tested,” he said.
Some observers suggest that the longstanding mantra which dictates athletes in general and fighters in particular should abstain from sexual intercourse before ‘game day’ is rooted in the belief that sexual frustration leads to increased aggression, which is clearly useful in a combative context. However, the notion that the act of ejaculation draws testosterone from the body is, “a really wrong idea,” insists Emanuelle A Jannini, a professor of endocrinology (the study of bodily secretions) at a leading Italian university. “After three months without sex, which is not uncommon for some athletes, testosterone dramatically drops to levels close to that of a child. Do you think this may be useful for a boxer?” asked Jannini rhetorically in a recent study of the relationship between sex and performance in a sports context.
Elite nutritionist Freddy Brown is another who disputes the seemingly outmoded concept of ‘no sex, please, we’re fighters’. “The old adage of refraining from sex during training camp may be ill advised,” Brown points out. “Unless you are stuck with only your sparring partners and coach, in which case abstinence may represent the safest course of action…!’