Psychological Warfare: Ryan Burnett interview

John A. MacDonald
18/10/2017 9:41am

Ryan Burnett faces a bantamweight unification against Zhanat Zhakiyanov this weekend. The Belfast native spoke to John A. MacDonald about the night he realised his world title ambitions by defeating Lee Haskins...

As Ryan Burnett stood in the ring ahead of his IBF bantamweight world title fight with Lee Haskins, he was perfectly at ease.

Stepping up to world level in just his 17th fight, facing an awkward, experienced champion and fighting in front of an expectant home-city crowd, it would have been understandable had he felt nervous. Instead, as his name was announced — to rapturous cheers — he stretched out his arms, closed his eyes and absorbed the atmosphere.

Burnett had left nothing to chance. Alongside his physical training, he had also conducted meticulous mental preparation to ensure he would not be overawed by the occasion.

“I felt no pressure whatsoever,” Burnett told Boxing Monthly over the phone from the London home of his trainer, Adam Booth. “If you look at the fight and you see me walking into the ring, and you see me in the ring — I’m happy, I’m smiling at Adam. We had it perfect.

“I said to myself: ‘Walking to the ring, I’ll be in a conscious mind, but as soon as that bell rings I’ll fall into a subconscious mind and I’ll let my body do everything I’ve been teaching it to do over the past load of months.’ That’s exactly what happened. As soon as that first bell went, I switched off my thought process and I just did everything I had taught my body to do. It just all fell into place.”

Burnett (17-0, 9 KOs) believes that his mental preparation was imperative to his success against Haskins. Blessed with a natural steely determination and unyielding desire to be the best, Burnett has always been mentally strong. But under the tutelage of Adam Booth, he has strived to improve his cognitive abilities to gain a psychological advantage over his rivals as well as a physical one.

An accidental head clash in the second round against Haskins resulted in both fighters being cut, with Burnett’s being the more severe. A deep laceration — which would require surgery in the days following the bout — was opened above his right eyebrow. This was a new experience for Burnett, who had never been cut as an amateur or professional, yet it was one he was fully prepared for.

Had the contest been halted due to the injury before four rounds had been completed, the verdict would have been a technical draw and Burnett’s first foray into world championship boxing would have been a frustrating one. However, he remained calm. He did not appear unduly concerned by the blood, nor did he attempt to force an early stoppage. He displayed great maturity, something he accredits to his psychological preparation.

“I had myself mentally prepared to deal with that situation,” he said. “So, when that situation arose, I just fell into auto-pilot and my body did exactly what I’d been telling it to do over the weeks. That was to stay calm, stick to the plan and don’t panic. That’s exactly what I done.

“I’ve figured out that your mind is a very, very powerful tool. If you control it correctly, you can programme yourself to do absolutely anything. Once you figure out how to do that, it’s a very powerful advantage.”

Except for the cut, the fight could not have gone better for the 25-year-old. He kept Haskins under educated pressure for the full 12 rounds, forcing the natural counter-puncher to lead as he picked him off. Knockdowns in the sixth and 11th rounds punctuated his dominance.

A perplexed Burnett felt a moment of dread as the result was announced as a split decision. He feared he was about to be a victim of poor judging.

“For a brief second, my heart dropped,” Burnett recalled. “I thought to myself: ‘They are going to take it away from me.’ We’ve seen so many decisions in the past where there is an absolute uproar but, no matter what, the decision is made. Never mind how much of a robbery it was, the other guy still wins and you lose. I just put my head in my hands and prayed to God that the decision would go the right way.”

The decision, of course, did go the right way. Jerry Jakubco and Dave Parris turned in identical scorecards of 119-107. Judge Clark Sammartino bizarrely scored the contest 118-108 in favour of Haskins. Afterwards, it became apparent that Sammartino had mistaken Burnett for Haskins. The contest has since been ruled a unanimous decision.

During training camp, Burnett lives with trainer Booth, while his fiancé, Lara, lives in Belfast. Despite the long distance, they still see each other regularly. However, as fight-night approaches Burnett’s personality alters.

“Coming up to the fight, I’m not the normal guy that I usually am,” he revealed. “I’m told that I’m very different. I don’t think I am, but I’ve been told that I’m a very different person from what I normally am. That affects my fiancé, so she’s happy to have the normal Ryan back.

“You have to remember, boxing and fighting is an inhumane act. It’s not normal to programme yourself to hurt someone. To be in that mindset, you have to change your whole attitude towards life. That takes its toll in the weeks leading up to the fight. I’m not in a mood to be normal. I put myself in the mood to really hurt someone. With that comes a very sharp attitude, and a very short temper. When it comes to my fiancé, I tell her to make the coffee and it has to be made right away [laughs].”

Having been a couple since before Burnett made his professional debut, the pair have been through a lot together. Burnett was quick to express his gratitude for his partner’s understanding and support.

“With Lara, I’ve got myself an absolute diamond because she totally understands,” he said. “She gives me no trouble back. If I lose my head a little bit, she’ll nod and she’ll say: ‘OK.’ She’s very, very, very good when it comes to that. But believe me, as soon as the fight’s over, she puts me back in my place.”

Five years ago, world title success as a professional appeared to be an impossibility for Burnett — not that he ever perceived it that way. In 2012, after an amateur career of 94 wins and four losses — including a gold medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore — Burnett decided to turn pro. At 11 years of age, his father had questioned his dedication to the sport after Burnett had missed a training session. The defiant youngster retorted that he would be ranked number one in the world as an amateur, and then go on to win a world title.

With the first half of his promise accomplished, Burnett relocated to Stalybridge in Manchester to pursue world title success under the guidance of Ricky Hatton. At just 19, Burnett moved into a house-share he describes as “disgusting”. He was so embarrassed by the squalor he was living in that he hid it from Hatton.

Burnett would eventually move out when he could afford to. This took longer than expected as the Northern Irishman was denied a licence by the British Boxing Board of Control, after a blockage was discovered in the main artery of his brain, a defect that had existed since birth.

“I was sitting in my room in Manchester,” he said. “I got a phone call from a neurologist and he said: ‘Listen Ryan, this is such and such.’ Long story short, he said: ‘You are never going to be able to box again.’ At 19, in a house by myself with nobody around me, it sort of froze me.”

However, Burnett refused to concede that his career was over before it had begun. The condition the neurologist believed he was suffering from should have left Burnett with slurred speech and diminished reactions, yet — as those who trained alongside him can attest to — his reflexes were more than adequate and his speech was anything but slurred.

An unusual test conducted by Burnett’s father to assess the fighter’s reactions convinced him that his son was healthy and became the catalyst for a year-long quest to prove it.

“Ninety-nine per cent of people around me accepted the fact that the neurologist was right, and that was it,” Burnett said. “There were two people that didn’t accept it; that was me and my dad.

“About a week after we’d been told, my dad was standing behind me and he said: ‘Ryan,’ and I turned around. As I turned around he threw a teabag at me, and I caught it in my hand. He just said to me: ‘There is nothing wrong with you whatsoever.’ I went: ‘I know.’ My dad then took it upon himself to prove the neurologist wrong.”

Burnett’s father studied medical journals to the extent where he was able to converse with neurologists fluently on the inner workings of the brain — much to the amazement and bafflement of Burnett, given that his father had never before demonstrated academic aptitude. His primary aim was to ensure his son was not suffering from a serious medical condition.

Eventually, an angiogram — a test that could have resulted in Burnett suffering a stroke — proved that despite the blockage in the artery, his brain had created a path around the obstruction, and as a result his brain was receiving suitable blood flow. This meant Burnett would be finally cleared to box. It is a moment Burnett remembers vividly.

“When I found out I was fit to fight, it was a breath of fresh air,” Burnett recalled. “I’d never done anything with my life, apart from fighting. I knew that fighting was the only way to have a good life. Once I got the news that it was fine to keep going, it was as if someone told me: ‘The doors are now open again, go ahead.’ To be honest, I cried my eyes out, so I did.”

That would not be the last turbulent moment of his fledgling career. With his earnings from boxing, and a monthly wage from Ricky Hatton, Burnett had moved out of his shared accommodation but before long would find himself effectively homeless.

Hatton and Burnett parted company on amicable terms, but without his income from Hatton, Burnett was unable to pay his rent. This resulted in Burnett and his father — who had come from Belfast to help his son find a new trainer and accommodation — living in a Vauxhall Mokka that Hatton had lent them.

While most people would deem it appalling to be without a place to live for that duration, Burnett refused to be perturbed by the situation and was constantly buoyed by his father’s enthusiasm.

“To be honest, everyone will hear that story and think it was absolutely horrendous, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” he said. “I had money to buy food, we were able to stop at gyms and get cleaned up and things like that. We didn’t want to tell anyone because it was more embarrassing than anything.

“Any problem I’ve ever had in my life, my dad has made OK. When I knew we were homeless and we didn’t have anywhere to live, he always said: ‘It will be fine.’ I always knew myself that it would be fine because my dad was telling me it was going to be fine.

“At the same time, I was smart enough to know we were in a very bad situation. The money was getting lower, we were sleeping in a fucking car for weeks on end. He always kept us chasing for something, which gave us hope.”

Their hope eventually became reality when they encountered an old acquaintance of Burnett’s father, who had become very successful. He offered to sponsor Burnett, which allowed the fighter to put a roof over his head once more.

Once settled, Burnett arranged a trial period with Adam Booth, through Andy Lee, who he had known for the best part of a decade. The connection between fighter and boxer was instantaneous. Both men are perfectionists, and such is Burnett’s reverence for his mentor that he trusts him implicitly. With Booth in his corner, Burnett has set his sights high.

Despite having fulfilled the promise he made to his father as an 11-year-old, the joy was fleeting. To be a world champion is not enough. He wants to be the best. He needs to be the best.

“I was happy, but I am far from satisfied,” he said. “I want more. I’m only 25, and strangely, it has ignited a different type of hunger. Yes, I am very happy to be a world champion, but I’m not satisfied just being a world champion. I want more. I’m that young, and I’ve still got so much to learn that a lot more is capable of happening.

“I want more out of this game, I expect more out of myself. I want to become special. I see myself becoming special by staying a world champion for a long time. That’s my main goal now.”