Confidence As A Fighter

In my last entry, I discussed how fighters will often express doubt and fear before stepping into the ring to fight. In the days since, I’ve received several questions about how to cope with these powerful emotions. Unfortunately, there is not a quick solution that can be utilized overnight.

One reader questioned whether hard work in the gym is enough to develop confidence on fight night. Is it possible to train yourself through doubt?

Even this question is not easily answered. Clearly, confidence can be developed to an extent as a result of rigorous and consistent work. This is particularly true for experienced fighters who already know what to expect. Bernard Hopkins has perhaps the best quote that you’ll ever find pertaining to this subject.

In his words:

“I’m always going to come in (to the fight) overconfident and I have a reason to. I always come in overconfident because I train so hard that I leave no room for doubt in my mind. I never go in there to lose. The word is not even in my dictionary. I train confident, and I train to think overconfidently. If I didn’t, I’d be a fool.”

There is no denying the truth to Bernard’s words. He enters the ring as a confident fighter who is prepared to win. Others without his experience may struggle to work themselves through such doubt however. There isn’t a drill or routine that you can perform on your own that will develop the mental attributes that are necessary.

Confidence is clearly a complex subject, particularly for fighters. The best way to develop it is by accumulating more experience. Experience for a fighter isn’t just about running and hitting the bags. A fighter needs actual ring (or cage) time. Sparring is where it all begins, and then eventually the fighter must rack up competitive experience.

As seen within the previous entry, Mike Tyson was obviously scared before entering the ring. He possessed all of the physical tools, but had not yet developed the mental toughness and confidence to willingly express them. More gym work is not what he needed, which is why his trainer (Teddy Atlas) became so vital. Teddy was able to diffuse the situation by talking Mike back into the ring to compete.

That tournament was a learning experience for Mike. Overcoming the doubt and then realizing a positive outcome is an experience that you cannot learn in the gym. No matter how hard you train, you still need to experience the nerves that develop while sitting in the dressing room before being called to fight. That lonely walk towards the ring or cage is an experience like no other.

In summary, there is not a quick way to develop confidence. The time will come when you must stare doubt in the eyes and persevere through it. Hitting the bags until your hands are sore may be strenuous work, but you still control the action. Experiencing the threat of another hard working fighter who has trained to hurt you is entirely different. It is a feeling that is impossible to comprehend until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Trainers must be aware of this and guide their fighters appropriately. Teddy knew the doubt that Tyson faced and was able to guide him through it. Someone without his experience and knowledge may not have recognized or understood what Mike was dealing with at that time.

I’m sure I speak for all boxing fans in saying that I’m glad Teddy was able to show Mike the light. Plenty of others in that situation have taken off the gloves and never returned.

What’s the moral to this rambling entry?

Understand that gym work is only part of the process. You can’t work your way around the need for experience. It must be developed sooner or later. It’s also worth noting that this sport isn’t for everyone. No one should be forced to face doubts that they are not willing or ready to overcome.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. We all know that isn’t the case. Experience is a must and it must be earned…


  1. I second the non-ramble. I have never been in the ring, but during my sword training my master would come at me with everything. Scared the stuffing out of me every time. However, once the initial hit was taken either him hitting me or vice versa it was easier. So I agree with Ross. The more time you spend getting hit the less time you spend fearing the initial hit.

  2. Hopkins might not feel fear because he’s never gone into a fight ready to bang like Tyson. He’s safe and boring. Tyson’s fear wasn’t a shortcoming. It was one of his greatest strengths. He could have tried to deny it like B-Hop and become a milquetoast bore, but instead, he turned his fear into aggression. A fighter doesn’t experience emotions different from anyone else. The difference is how a fighter handles those emotions.

  3. Hopkins has been a pro fighter for over 20 years. What you see from him today is often much different from the younger version. It is impossible to put a blanket statement on his style or emotions over such a lengthy career. Surely, he’s slowed down over the years and his style has changed as a result. He also never had the style of Tyson (of course), nor did he have the same physical attributes.

    The quote from above is from many years ago however. Look back at some of his earlier performances. Even his dominance over Tito Trinidad at age 36 came at a time when most thought he was too old. Tito was a huge favorite going into that fight. He had just destroyed William Joppy before fighting Hopkins in very impressive fashion. I was at the Hopkins-Tito fight ringside. 99% of the arena was in complete shock when Hopkins methodically destroyed him. That was a complete domination and destruction of a 40-0 world champion. Hopkins also had many other dominant victories as a younger fighter (ex. Glen Johnson, Simon Brown, Robert Allen, Antwon Echols, etc.)

  4. although i agree with the assessment of handling fear through training hard, and developing confidence over time, through experience, i believe the situation with tyson here entails more than just fear of the ring.

    tyson had been taken out out of juvenile hall by cus d’amato strictly because of his boxing ability and potential. he was living with cus d’amato at this time, and according to some accounts, felt that his acceptance by cus, teddy, et al was dependent upon his performance as a fighter. i forget where i read this, maybe atlas’ book, or from mike jacobs. but the point was that tyson felt tremendous pressure to succeed in the ring so as not to lose his situation with cus, and return to juvie, and the dire life in the south bronx. his fear, supposedly, was that if he lost, cus would be done with him because that was the basis of that relationship. whether or not that is true, we will never know, because tyson excelled and cus died.

    either way, the point is well made and valid. i have never met a fighter who wasn’t nervous before a fight, although in my own case, as an amateur boxer, as i got more fights under my belt i was less nervous and learned to handle it better.

    for the record, rocky marciano was said to frequently fall asleep in his dressing room before fights, and according to some accounts i’ve read, was the least nervous guy in the dressing room. but then again, there was only one rocky.

    1. Rarely is it ever just fear of the ring. Some are fearful of the unknown, fearful of looking foolish in front of friends and family, fearful of letting others down, etc. Fear itself is a complex subject.

      As for sleeping in the dressing room, it actually isn’t too uncommon. Many commissions require that fighters report to the dressing room several hours in advance. Just last month, one of my fighters was on an ESPN FNF show. We didn’t walk out to the ring until 11PM, yet were in the dressing room at 7. It’s common for fighters to close their eyes and relax. 3 or 4 hours of sitting around is a long time. The nerves usually don’t kick in until the gloves are on and it’s time to walk out to the ring.

      Alexis Arguello said it well with the following,

      “It was a natural process, because when we go to the ring we are human beings, but once you feel the punches and the competition that’s when the beast comes out and takes hold of us.”

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