Hatton case highlights retirees' plight

Ricky Hatton admitted he had trouble coping with life after boxing, an all-too-common occurrence

Nobody who knew Ricky Hatton well expected to wake up to see his picture slapped across the front of a London newspaper, snorting what appeared to be a line of cocaine while in a hotel room.

But The News of the World in London published salacious photographs of the popular former world champion boxer in a Manchester, England, hotel room, engaging in what seemed extremely out of character behavior.

"What surprised me about Ricky was using the drugs," said Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer, who promoted several Hatton fights and offered to Hatton's family to arrange for him to be treated at the Betty Ford Clinic. "I think that surprised a lot of people, including his family. Ricky liked to have a good time, but I never knew he was using drugs. We were all shocked by that."

Bob Arum, the chairman of Top Rank, also promoted several Hatton fights. He, too, had no inclination that Hatton was or had ever used illicit drugs.

"I knew Ricky liked to drink a lot between his fights," Arum said. "That was no secret. Everybody knew that, but I never, ever, associated him with drugs."

Hatton was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in Manchester on Sept. 12 after conceding in an interview with the News of the World that he is having difficulty coping with retirement. Hatton hasn't fought since being knocked out in the second round by Manny Pacquiao on May 2, 2009, but he has yet to formally announce his retirement.

"I am currently in the Priory [clinic] dealing with depression due to the fact that I have not been able to cope with my retirement from boxing," Hatton, 31, told the newspaper. "I have been binge drinking heavily and dabbling in other daft and silly things. But it will be the toughest fight of my life and I am here to win it."

Hatton isn't the first and won't be the last professional athlete to run into end-of-career issues. It's a particularly acute problem for boxers, though, because there isn't the support system in boxing that there is in other professional sports.

Players in the major team sports, such as the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, can and do receive support in how to transition out of sports from their union.

Golfers, like boxers, are independent contractors and rely on their ability to perform to earn their living. But unlike boxers, golfers aren't physically consumed when their careers are over. Boxers take significant numbers of punches to the head and in a lengthy career, it has an impact.

And golfers often make valuable contacts during their careers which enable them to plan for a post-athletic career, which far too frequently isn't the case in boxing.

So, when the end comes, it often comes suddenly and hard and the fighter frequently has nowhere to turn. Occasionally, a kind-hearted promoter will help a boxer, but for every one who is helped, there are hundreds who are left to fend for themselves.

Arum promised former bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval a job for life if Sandoval would agree never to fight again after suffering brain injuries in a March 10, 1986, bout with Gaby Canizales. To this day, nearly a quarter of a century later, Sandoval remains employed by Top Rank.

Several current and former boxers, notably Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and Marco Antonio Barrera, have gone to work for Golden Boy. Dan Goossen hired one of his former stars, Gabriel Ruelas, to work for him.

But there are only a handful of those types of jobs available and there are a slew of ex-boxers, some prominent and most not, who are in need of them.

Hall of Fame boxer Terry Norris and his wife, Tanya, have created "The Final Fight: The Terry Norris Foundation" to help boxers deal with issues relating to their post-boxing careers. One-time heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney created an organization called "Fighter's Initiative for Support and Training" (FIST) for the same reason. It couldn't be funded properly and eventually was disbanded, though it did aid 250 needy fighters.

Much more, though, is needed. Dr. Ronald L. Kamm, a sport psychiatrist with Mind Body & Sports in Oakhurst, N.J., was one of the co-founders of FIST along with Cooney. He said boxers often become depressed when their career is over and turn to drugs and alcohol. Kamm said that former world champions such as Hatton are less likely to go down that path, but he said he's seen dozens of examples of it.

"There is such a long tradition in boxing of, when your career is done, turning to drugs and alcohol," Kamm said. "A lot of the hangers on are into drugs and the fighters always have so much time on their hands when they're not fighting that it is easy to succumb to the peer group and get into drugs.

"A lot of guys are brain damaged – and I'm not saying Ricky is – but you always have to be suspicious of that in anyone who has had multiple concussions. There is about a 25 percent incidence of depression in people who have had [chronic traumatic brain encephalopathy]. We don't know if Ricky had that, but people who have had multiple concussions are more susceptible to depression. And alcohol and drug use can also bring on depression."

By the nature of the sport, boxers have a feeling of invincibility. When it is beaten and battered away after a long career, fighters often lose their sense of self worth. That leads to the type of problems Hatton is fighting.

Retirement is often difficult for an average person, who hasn't spent years being beaten in the head and, more significantly, believing he or she is invincible. After realizing he's not good enough any more, a boxer will have a hard time dealing with getting away. That's why so many boxers unretire with such a high frequency.

"Retirement itself brings upon depression," Kamm said. "One study from a few years ago found that at least half of retirees, from anything, just average people retiring, actually become depressed. About two-thirds of retirees either want to get back or try to get back within two years of retiring. It's a pretty painful state and we're talking about the general population, not just boxers. You can imagine what it's like for a boxer.

"With FIST, we tried to educate trainers and promoters to look for the warning signs when a fighter's skills were eroding. We tried to talk to the boxer about life after boxing and we tried to provide them with career counseling. But honestly, a lot of the guys are in denial."

The only solution is to create some sort of fighter's organization such as FIST or the Norris Foundation that has regular funding so it can provide counseling and assistance to boxers who need it. With the economy in tatters, it's a difficult task to start.

As usual, obtaining the funding is the most difficult task. One way to do it is to add a fee to the licensing in each state, so when a fighter, a trainer, a manager or a promoter is licensed, he or she pays a fee that goes into an organization that would provide boxers with the necessary tools to cope with life after sports. States should contribute a percentage of the revenues they earn from fights to the organization. And in order for a sanctioning body to be allowed to sanction a title fight in a given state, a perquisite should be for it to have to pay a fee for each championship match to the fighter's assistance organization.

The sport owes it to its athletes to make nothing less than its best effort to solve the vexing issue.

Until it's done, there are going to be a lot more ex-fighters binge drinking and snorting cocaine in a hotel bathroom.