Category Archives: Opinion

Review: Drive to Survive (Season 2)

It has long been said that what happens on the track is just a small proportion of what goes on in the world of Formula 1. What goes on behind the scenes has long been off-limits for fans, but Netflix’s Drive to Survive changes that completely.

The first season gave fans an insight into the emotion in the sport, including a look into the personal lives of those working in it. The second season is no different, but this time includes F1’s two biggest teams, Mercedes and Ferrari.

The series begins with a scene-setting episode, unsurprisingly titled “Lights Out”. It’s a rather slow start, looking at the off-season driver changes with particular focus on Daniel Ricciardo’s move from Red Bull to Renault and his disastrous debut in the Australian Grand Prix, his home race.

The most interesting nuggets to come from the first episode are Red Bull team principal Christian Horner’s admission that star driver Max Verstappen has an exit clause in his contract were he not among the top three in the championship by the summer break, and also Horner’s suggestion that Ricciardo left because he couldn’t handle the pressure of being Verstappen’s team-mate.

Steiner loses it

The pace soon quickens, with a full episode focussing on Haas and one of the stars of the last series, team boss Günther Steiner. The Italian became much-loved by F1 fans for his swear-filled rants, and he hasn’t calmed down.

It is a turbulent year for the American team, who suffer a dramatic downfall in results following an impressive race in Australia, where their two cars finished 6th and 7th.

It can often be hard to work out whether Steiner is being serious or joking. One standout moment is an exchange with driver Romain Grosjean, where the Frenchman reminds his boss that despite success with his former team Lotus, they went bankrupt. “We’re not bankrupt,” Steiner replied. “Anyway, not yet. It depends how many cars you destroy this year.”

Frustrations reach boiling point after yet another disappointing result at the Spanish GP, with Steiner launching into another trademark tirade aimed at chief race engineer Ayao Komatsu. “Find out the problem and make progress out of it instead of ‘this is better’. It isn’t ‘this is better’, it f***ing isn’t. I want to see the progress. I mean otherwise I make changes, you know?”

The tension erupts at the British GP, after the two cars collide with each other on the first lap. In arguably one of the moments of the series, a post-race debrief featuring Steiner and both drivers goes horribly wrong, with Danish driver Kevin Magnussen smashing the glass door on the way out.

“He smashed my f***ing office door,” Steiner rages. “I don’t know where he is but he can f*** off, I told him. Both of them. We have got two f***ing idiots driving for us.

“This is not acceptable and we will make changes. If it would be my decision now I would sack them both.”

Disappointingly, the episode ends abruptly, and Haas’ progress is not followed throughout the rest of the campaign. Whilst those who watched the whole season would know their struggles continued, casual fans of the sport would be left wondering how the season played out.

Mercedes meltdown

Another standout episode features Mercedes, who were not involved in the first series, celebrating their 125th year in motorsport at their home race in Germany. The race is a disaster, Lewis Hamilton finishing 9th whilst teammate Valtteri Bottas fails to reach the chequered flag.

Team boss Toto Wolf’s angry reaction to Bottas’ crash – pounding the table and exclaiming “F***! How is this possible?” in German, is one of the most iconic moments from the series.

Despite being left with red faces, Mercedes to their credit do not deny Netflix access to anything, with the cameras allowed to film their post-race debrief, with Hamilton apologising numerous times for his costly crash.

Grief to glory

One narrative followed closely throughout the series is the driver change at Red Bull. Pierre Gasly begins the season as Verstappen’s team-mate, but is demoted during the summer break, with Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon making the step up to replace him.

Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko can be heard telling Horner at the Canadian GP: “Gasly is poor, he’s lost four tenths in the last two corners, which I think you or I could do.”

The French driver is at a loss to describe his failings, offering the explanation: “I’m f***ing fast but at the moment I’m f***ing slow” as it is presented as being inevitable he will lose his seat.

Drive to Survive brilliantly captures the raw emotion fans rarely get to see from drivers. The tragic death of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert in Belgium is presented fittingly. Gasly speaks emotionally about losing his “best friend”.

“I’ve grown up with this guy since I was seven in karting, we’ve been roommates, we’ve lived in the same apartment for six years. I’m still shocked. I don’t realise how it can go so fast. It’s just terrible.”

The final episode focusses on the penultimate race in Brazil, where Gasly secures an emotional and unlikely second place for Toro Rosso. His narrative is perhaps the best of the series, with viewers left rooting for him to succeed after a year in which he was demoted and lost his best friend. It’s a fitting way to finish, with him securing his first ever podium.

Disappointingly, several drivers and teams are barely mentioned throughout the 10 episodes. Fan favourites such as Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen are given very little screen time.

Norris’ McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz’s journey from joining a new team to securing an unlikely podium is tracked, but the English rookie receives little attention. Similarly, teams such as Alfa Romeo and Racing Point are mentioned only in passing.

Overall however, the second season of Drive to Survive is very entertaining. Whether you watch every race or have never seen an F1 GP in your life, there is something for everyone.

Images via: Flickr (Haas https://www.flickr.com/photos/105731165@N07/46549269174 )

Wikimedia Commons (Red Bull
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FIA_F1_Austria_2019_Nr._33_Verstappen_1.jpg)

Pexels (Mercedes
https://www.pexels.com/photo/action-shot-f1-f1-car-formula-1-1414483/ )

How committed is committed?

Actors love to test themselves to the limits, demonstrating their ability to transform into different people and live in that skin for however long it takes – months of preparation and then shooting a film.

Whether it’s a chance to bulk up and get shredded or slim down to frighteningly low weight, this is the physical side of method acting, and down the years it has yielded some amazing performances.

For example, Adrien Brody basically went homeless for a year in preparation to play a Holocaust victim in The Pianist, helping him to win an Oscar.

Sports movies are fertile ground for actors going to enormous lengths to inhabit the characters they are playing, and the boxing genre in particular seems to lend itself to these amazing transformations.

My two favourite performances come from two of my favourite actors.

Christian Bale, The Fighter (2008)

Bale plays Dicky Eklund, a former boxer who had great sucess in his younger days but is now a drug addict. Mark Wahlberg gives a strong showing in the lead role as Micky Ward, a promising fighter trying to find his feet.

The real showstopper, however, is Bale’s gripping performance in this thought-provoking film. The Fighter, won him his first Oscar nomination and win. The actor dramatically transformed himself from Batman vigilante to “stick thin” cornerman, shedding 30lbs in the process.

It was not the first time that the 6ft Welshman had gone to such extreme lengths. For The Machinist (2004), in which he played an intense insomniac, he dropped an incredible 63lb. For the 2019 movie Vice, in which he portrayed former US vice-president Dick Cheney, he added 40lbs.

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (1980)

One of the very first instances of sacrificing body mass for art, De Niro added 60lbs to his already built frame to play an older version of boxer Jake LaMotta. No risk without reward, apparently, as he won his second Oscar for the role.

These performances and movies show that in order to tell authentic stories, authentic approaches all round must be taken to have the most organic response.

Audiences aren’t easy to fool and can tell when things aren’t ‘real’ enough. Method acting is a proven way of delivering ‘real’, and sports movies will continue to feature tremendous performances by dedicated craftspeople.

Fifa is shaping the next generation of football talent

Parents won’t thank me for this. We hear a lot about how video games are bad for kids’ development and a whole load of other stuff I never listened to like “you’ll fry your brain playing that.”

But what if coaches used these same games to improve and inspire young players?

Football is a simple enough game. From youth level, we see kids instinctively getting to grips with systems. You get the round thing and put it between the sticks. In coaching, we tend to overly focus and idealise teams from the past and their success in certain systems and haven’t tried thinking of new ideas that can match the speed and intensity of the modern game.

But the way they kids play of Fifa is incredible. Already familiar with all the positions on the pitch as well as being able to choose selected players to fulfill certain roles in the team, tracking back, man marking, etc.

Not to mention the plethora of formations at their disposal. They vary from classical systems like 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 to all sorts of more flexible line-ups.

New school

The truth is the world isn’t the same as it was 20+ years ago; the streets have changed. There’s USB ports on benches now. The parks aren’t littered with kids playing football anymore. I’m old enough to know about the freedom that comes with having a football and hours to kill, but also young enough to be a part of and see the effects of the gaming influence on the kids of today

We’re no longer in the era of Wayne Rooney-like street strikers or Nike Academy, but while children are now restricted in ways previous generations were not in terms of outdoor play, they will find things and be able to explore in many different ways online.

So why not use that as a means to improve instead of an activity that is seen as something that is holding them back from progression?

I could show you my room. You look across my shelf and you may be impressed at the fancy CD cases and books. The collection alone is a wonderful sight, but it’s nothing to get excited about. You’ll see the usual suspects. GTA. Call of Duty. Pacman. And then Fifa09 to Fifa20. Some of them in double because we’d scratch the disc quite badly. Quite a few duplicates, actually.

Growing up, Fifa was a part of life. At school, people looked at things on a pure Fifa ability basis, and you’d have a certain level of respect depending on how good you were at the game.

It wasn’t a place for the timid, no-one was safe from being drawn out for being rubbish and young 13-19 boys need to brag about something. But without fail I’d force (beg) my mum to get me the latest Fifa, until I got a little older with my own money and only had to beg for the remaining £15.

How can it help?

Fifa introduces young players to the technical, tactical and analytical side of the game in a way the previous generations could only dream of. Ultimate team allows you to buy and trade your own players. Put together a team based on a random selection of players from packs, like an online match attax, This builds on players having high football IQ as you have to pick players based on chemistry with others and take their special attributes into account.

It doesn’t just stop at football. The influence of video games is strong in other sports and helped young Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen. He had been racing on simulated F1 tracks to master overtaking techniques, most famously at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2015, when he used a move he had perfected in a sim racing programme to overtake Felipe Nasr around the outside of a high-speed corner.

Coaches should be more up to date and modern in their methods as they are truly going to inherit a generation unlike any other. Using language that they will understand, If that means allowing the next generation to play a bit more Fifa with the purpose of learning the advantages of pressing or positioning, why not.

If you take those ideas on to the training pitch and use them productively, why not? Kids are already playing this game; it is renewed annually, and will be around when they’re adults, make use of their knowledge to help them develop quicker.

Photo courtesy of Emily Coruna under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Flair comes from les rues

“ONLY WHEN BRAZILIAN KIDS REACH AROUND 14 YEARS OF AGE DOES ANYONE START TALKING TO THEM ABOUT TEAM SHAPE AND TACTICS. UNTIL THEN IT’S ALL ABOUT TECHNIQUE, TRICKS, SHOOTING, DRIBBLING AND SPONTANEITY. WHAT IS THE POINT OF TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT TRIANGLES AND BLIND-SIDE RUNS IF THEY CANNOT EFFORTLESSLY CONTROL THE BALL, PASS OR SHOOT?”

Football crazy

As a boy, when I wasn’t playing football, I was watching it, and if I wasn’t playing or watching then I was playing Fifa. During school holidays, there would be 20-30 of us with silly grins just looking for a pitch. A space. We’d boost each other over fences in a search for somewhere to play.

A good game of knockouts, the rules are simple. Whoever is out first keeps watch; for the others, it’s free for all. Allowed out during the day with a lot of time to kill, in an an age where we couldn’t stay indoors and didn’t want to. But unfortunately, there are no such spaces like that anymore. So where do kids go?

Walking through Mile End, I passed the astroturf football pitches and saw a bunch of kids get kicked off an empty pitch, although they were willing to pay a small fee they were denied and told to leave. Guess where those kids will now be instead of playing football? Most likely, on the road.

The Difference

It’s been a thing for a long time in England; youngsters not being allowed to play in facilities that aren’t actually being used. Not letting local kids use these community resources. This is in contrast to the freedom that communities in France afford them.

,Having lived in both places, I’ve realised their vast differences in approach to football. In England, its very structured, and if you show enough talent, you get picked up by an academy when you’re very young and stay in the system until you’re scholar age (16-18).

In France, clubs tend to pick up young players when they’re older (14-18) especially amongst the lower leagues. This doesn’t happen all the time but it is a frequent proven method when scouting players in central Parisian areas. This gives the players the freedom to develop their technical skills before becoming part of any system of tactics, formations and styles of place.


‘Concrete football’

In Paris, football starts at sunrise and only finishes as all the mothers of the area can be heard calling their kids home one by one. The culture of street football in France is much more alive and beneficial than in England.

The effects of this can be seen if we delve deeper into the quality of players that hail from France and England. We never really praise English talent for having excellent technique or ball control and when we do it’s rarely at the same level as truly world-class players. There isn’t an English midfielder that would get in the French national team, but why is that?

French documentary Ballon sur Bitume (‘concrete football’) celebrates the culture of families in estates called les banlieues. These estates have dealt with a lot of neglect and are largely populated by immigrants so are rich in different cultures. Ballon sur Bitume tells the stories of young people growing up in such places. 

Somehow these areas have become the perfect breeding ground for football: a large number of young players, open spaces and gymnasiums free to use by locals creates a culture of fast-paced, intense but informal matches on small pitches. That’s where the flair is born; technical quality and individual expression is allowed to roam free.

I like to say that as a child all I did was play football but it wasn’t until I went to France that I realised that there are levels to this, and my countrymen were on a whole other level. Not only would they play all day but everyone was extremely technically sound. No matter what size or age, everyone was able to control the ball and manipulate it beautifully

They allow their youth the opportunity to do what they all love to do, even if it’s only a few out of a bunch that will make the step to become professionals. In England, we aren’t given the same freedom nor do we have the same facilities available for us to use, let alone any free pitches. 

“Our parents aren’t that strict and so they let us play, and playing all day every day really helps you improve your dribbles and technique. I think that’s why the best technical players come from the streets.”

Creativity

I think the main reason England doesn’t produce a lot of world-class players is because our football is too structured. It gets kids to do everything by the book, whereas in countries such as Brazil, Spain and France, they have fun first and foremost and that brings out their creativity. So, when they grow up and add structure to their game, the creativity is already instilled.

Manchester City forward Riyad Mahrez, one of the most electric players in the Premier League, has said: ‘’I was a street footballer. I was improving my technique every day. As a youngster, you saw me in every photo with a ball. That’s why I’m such a skinny boy. I missed dinner sometimes. My mother left me some food to eat when I got back from the streets.’’

Players such as Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba, Benjamin Mendy and many others have all hailed from the concrete courts. These are players who have led their country to world cup glory.

Downward spiral

Britain’s youth,is feeling increasingly marginalised and worthless. They feel they have no future and don’t believe they can achieve anything. Their role models are ephemeral and their values therefore skewed. By trying to keep up with phony images of perfect lives – designer clothes and get rich quick attitudes displayed on social media, it’s all about likes, rather than being real and being themselves.

They’re frustrated, insecure and resentful, which can lead to anger, crime and violence. Given the void that now exists thanks to government cuts, it is incumbent on us to do something about it – and to stop this downward spiral and hopefully prevent more young blood being spilled on the streets.

Perhaps encouraging – rather than discouraging – the culture of street football can play its part.

Photo courtesy of Emily Coruna under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Would female stars reinvigorate F1?

Formula One has only seen five female drivers compete in races and qualifying in its almost 70-year history – and now might be a good time for that to change.

We are currently in one of those eras in which one team and driver – Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton – are dominating the sport. The Briton will be gunning for his seventh title since 2008 when the new season begins in Melbourne on March 15th.

So how can F1 be made more interesting? How can its appeal be widened in a way which wins over new fans and generates fresh excitement? Surely one easy way is to get female drivers taken seriously and on the grid.

In recent years, the likes of Susie Wolff have tried hard to break down barriers in the male-dominated competition and show that women can compete at the highest level.

The Scot served as a test and development driver for the Williams F1 team between 2012 and 2015, and drove in pre-race practice sessions during 2014 at Silverstone and Hockenheim.

However, she eventually grew frustrated at waiting for her chance to claim a Grand Prix drive, claiming that she was fighting a losing battle in a sport in which, until recently, the most visible women were the race-day grid girls.

Pioneering women in F1

Wolff grew frustrated by the lack of opportunities for female racers in F1

Wolff is one of five female racers who have featured in F1 since its creation in 1950. The first was Italy’s Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed in five GP races but only finished in one – the Belgian Grand Prix in 1958.

The next women to follow her was compatriot Lella Lombardi who remains the only woman driver to have points on the board. She started started 12 races and managed to finish sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

Britain’s Divina Galica competed in four Winter Olympics as a skier but also took part in qualifying for three F1 races, the first being the 1976 British GP for the ShellSport Whiting team.

The follow season, she was handed the chance to replace Rupert Keegan at Hesketh Racing, but after failing to qualify for both the opening two races in Argentina and Brazil she called time on her F1 career.

Next came South Africa’s Desiré Wilson who lined up in qualifying for the 1980 British Grand Prix but failed to make the grid.

The last female racer before Wolff to try their luck in F1 was Giovanna Amati. Another Italian, she took part in qualifying in the first three races of the 1992 campaign but never raced in a Grand Prix.

Female success in other competitions

Women seeking to gatecrash the F1 party have usually found themselves given a chance by teams with little hope of taking on the manufacturer-backed outfits. But when female racers are given the right level of support, they can take on their male counterparts and challenge for honours.

America’s Danica Patrick (main photo) stunned the motorsport world in 2005 when she led for the Indianapolis 500 for 19 laps before finishing fourth. In 2008, she also became the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American series when she won the IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300.

Patrick then moved from IndyCar to the NASCAR series, and became the first woman to take pole position for a NASCAR Cup Series event. Her eighth-place is still the highest finishing position ever by a woman.

France’s Michèle Mouton became an Audi works driver and won four World Rally Championship races. She had nine podium finishes and remains the only women to win a WRC race. In 1982, she was runner-up in the WRC drivers’ championship.

But who will be next to seek a breakthrough in F1? Jamie Chadwick, the inaugural champion of the women-only W Series, has moved closer to achieving her dream after joining Williams as a development driver but, as Wolff’s story shows, we have been here before.

So what will it take for women to finally take their place on the starting grid in motorsport’s most prestigious competition?

Points

Last season’s F1 bottom six

This season’s W Series winner will earn 15 points towards the 40 needed to gain the FIA Super Licence which any driver racing in Formula One needs. However, there is no guarantee that any number of points will open doors with F1’s teams.

Perhaps the winner of the W Series should at least get to try out for one of F1’s smaller teams. Who knows, if they succeed, they then might even get a chance with one of the bigger outfits?

I would also put forward the idea that any driver who finishes with less than the 25 points you get for winning a Grand Prix should be demoted, with their race seat given to an up-and-coming competitor.

Last season, for example, that would mean six racers ranging from Lance Stroll to George Russell would have been ‘relegated’.

Shaking up the grid

Another way of progression that could see more women in the driving seat is that every F1 team should have two female racers in their development line-up, with the main teams from F1 supporting them in the W Series to further expand their brands.

The first woman to make a breakthrough in this way doesn’t have to be the next Lewis Hamilton, but surely the likes of Jamie Chadwick are more deserving of a shot at racing in F1 than some of the drivers who are hired mainly on the strength of the sponsorship they bring in?

This ‘relegation’ concept would certainly shake up the industry and would make drivers even more keen to gather every point they possibly can towards the back of the grid. One point could possibly be the difference at the end of the season between staying in the sport and being demoted.

An all-female team?

Another idea which would certainly generate fresh interest in F1 would be to have an all-female race team and crew.

Critics might argue that having a such a team could be actually be seen as a negative for a woman driver – i.e. the only way she could get into F1 was through having an all-female outfit. However, once it became integrated into the sport and proven in competition, the other teams would start to see the potential of female drivers in real races, not just junior series.

Again, critics will say what if the all-women’s team came last every race? In F1, though, it’s a question of resources, not just driving talent, and if such a team had enough backing to properly develop and test its cars, it could ensure this wouldn’t happen.

It would certainly add a different dynamic to a competition where the outcome often suffers from being a foregone conclusion (see Hamilton, but also Michael Schumacher – seven titles in 11 years), and the rule-makers seemingly add a new layer of complexity every season.

Of course, F1 currently has lots of female fans, but how many more might it attract – to the delight of broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers – if women were competing and succeeding in the sport?

Feature image of Danica Patrick courtesy of  John Steadman via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0. Susie Wolff photo by Lewis James Houghton via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

YouTube boxing – genius or embarrassing?

Former WBA super-middleweight champion George Groves recently blasted the phenomenon of YouTubers infiltrating professional boxing as ‘horrific’ and ‘abysmal’.

He delivered his verdict following American vlogger Jake Paul’s win over FIFA YouTuber AnEsonGib on a Miami show headlined by middleweight world champion Demetrius Andrade. But is it really that bad?

What began as a light-hearted video between two friends has rapidly evolved into one of the biggest – and also the most divisive – invasions of a sport in recent times.

It’s safe to say that the traditional, hard-core boxing fanbase aren’t exactly welcoming this YouTube invasion with open arms, though. Many say that it is embarrassing the sport and stealing the limelight away from professional fighters who have spent years working their way up the ranks.

But, whether people like it or not, the demand appears to be there amongst the younger audience. According to Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, the fight between Logan Paul and KSI last year sold more pay-per-views than Anthony Joshua’s huge heavyweight rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr.

How did it start?

When Joe Weller – a YouTube star from Brighton – uploaded a video of a boxing match with his friend Theo Baker in August 2017, no one could have possibly anticipated that it would be the catalyst for the whole landscape of the sport to change. And yet here we are.

Olajide Olatunji – better known by his online alias of ‘KSI’ – challenged the winner of Weller and Baker’s bout to a fight, perhaps not initially realising at the time how big it would become.

His fight with Weller ended up selling out the Copper Box Arena in London and clocked over 23 million views on YouTube. This, inevitably, prompted another fight between two internet stars; this time between KSI and Logan Paul.

This took things to a whole new level. Their first fight sold out the Manchester Arena and generated over 1.3 million pay-per-view buys worldwide. The rematch was made into a fully-fledged professional fight, picked up by streaming service DAZN and promoted by Eddie Hearn.

It’s been quite the journey and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of this train slowing down anytime soon.

What’s the problem, then?

The most recent fight between two YouTubers: Jake Paul – brother of Logan – and AnEsonGib – ‘Gib’ for short – was hardly the sweet science. And that’s being polite.

The Saudi Arabian-born Gib used a bizarre stance in the early exchanges of the fight in an attempt to crouch out of the way of a barrage of wild, flailing punches from Paul. However, his evident lack of defence and general boxing ability meant that he struggled to keep his balance and was an easy target for the American to just pick off.

After Gib touched down on the canvas three times in quick succession, the referee decided that he’d seen enough of the farce that was unfolding in front of him and declared Paul the winner by technical knockout in the first round.

KSI stormed the ring after the fight for a face-to-face confrontation with Paul. We can all see where this one is going, can’t we?

‘There’s a time and a place for ‘celebrity fights’ – but that place is not in the world of professional boxing’

These events have undoubtedly attracted fresh eyes on the sport – but at what cost? Is it worth putting on such farcical, comical shows just to get a few more people watching? And, realistically, how many of those new fans are going to stick around for the ‘proper’ fights?

This could be a slippery slope for boxing. Singer Robbie Williams has already called out former rival Liam Gallagher for a fight, and pop sensation Justin Bieber has expressed an interest in fighting KSI. The old cliche is that ‘you don’t play boxing’ and yet a lot of celebrities seem pretty keen to do just that and, perhaps more worryingly, there are also people out there who are capable of making it happen.

If this is what it is going to take to bring the sport into the mainstream, I’d rather we left it as it is.

There seems to be a certain level of naivety from these online stars as well. They strut around like they are Conor McGregor at press conferences but when the head guards come off and the 10oz gloves go on, it is no longer a game.

It’s not a YouTube video that you can just re-film if you make a mistake, it’s a proper fight. And in proper fights, people who don’t know what they’re doing can get hurt. This isn’t a charity football match where celebrities can just join in for a laugh, this is the professional fight business, where one well-timed punch can render an opponent unconscious and in need of urgent medical attention.

Less than six months ago, a promising young fighter in Patrick Day lost his life. In a chapter of the sport where safety is a topic that should be more prominent than ever before, it seems an odd time to start the trend of catapulting novices into the brutal world of pro boxing.

So far, it’s been YouTubers matched against other YouTubers. But who’s to say one of them might not get a couple of wins under their belt, start to believe their own hype and chase after fights against more seasoned pros? It could easily become more than something to poke fun at. It could start to become really dangerous.

Tommy Fury, the younger half-brother of Tyson, who is decent professional plus a Love Island celebrity, appeared to call out KSI in November, saying: “I’ve heard he wants to continue fighting so if he wants a real fight, he knows where I am.

“We are both from that influencing world — he is from YouTube, I am from Love Island. We both have a great following here in the UK. Why not make it a ‘Battle of Britain’?”

At the end of the day, there’s money to be made and that doesn’t even necessarily need to be a bad thing. Although it’s not great to watch, there’s clearly a market for this sort of stuff and it would be foolish to ignore it completely. And if these guys genuinely want to box and they’re willing to put the hard graft in, they should be able to.

It was easier to stomach, though, when it felt like a bit of fun. A fake rivalry, a bit of trash talk, nothing dangerous, nothing serious. It didn’t need to go any further than that.

There’s a time and a place for ‘celebrity fights’ – but that place is not in the world of professional boxing.

Featured image via: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H65ZxeDAysg

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez: ruthless killer or tragic figure?

Aaron Hernandez was an NFL tight end for the New England alongside Rob Gronkowski. Their partnership was integral to the Patriots’ plans to continue their domination of the league.

However, despite Hernandez being the youngest player on any active roster in the NFL in 2010 after being a fourth-round pick in the draft, he would end up being compared to OJ Simpson rather than Junior Seau.

Aged just 25, he was was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In a separate case, he was tried for but acquitted in 2017 of two more killings. Days afterwards, he was found dead in his cell: the verdict was suicide.

At the time, Hernandez was appealing against his murder conviction. Even if he wasn’t guilty, the Netflix documentary series Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez paints a vivid picture of an angry young loose cannon who was more than capable of pulling the trigger.

The three-parter conveys that it is more likely than not that Hernandez killed Odin Lloyd, his soon-to-be brother in law, but many parts of his troubled life don’t make a lot of sense.

If he did murder Lloyd, he was smart enough to hide the murder weapon and also was calm enough to conceal his emotions. What makes it all the more fascinating is that lawyer Jose Baez may well have got his conviction overturned – so why did Hernandez take his own life?

Mental health

The documentary leaves you in no doubt that something was wrong with Hernandez and, sure enough, it turns out that the man who scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots had developed a heavily advanced stage of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

This serious brain condition is linked to repeated concussive impacts to the head and has been diagnosed in many ex-NFL stars. The documentary mentions how former Pittsburgh and Kansas City centre Mike Webster was the first player to be identified as having CTE, caused by damage to his frontal lobe and leading to cognitive dysfunction.

Former Patriots linebacker Seau was also mentioned as someone who had developed CTE. He shot himself dead in 2012 at the age of 43.

Since these and other diagnoses, the NFL has set aside $1bn to compensate around 18,000 retired players who have displayed signs of the condition. The fund has paid out $5m in cases of Alzheimer’s, $4m for people diagnosed with CTE, and $3m for those with dementia.

However, other deep-rooted issues were affecting Hernandez before he developed CTE. His violent father died when he was young, and his upbringing is best described as troubled.

Sexuality

The documentary also explored his sexuality, suggesting that he was possibly gay or at least bisexual but remained firmly in the closet because of the macho world of professional sport in which he lived.

The series interviewed a former college footballer who played with Hernandez and he recalled how they had experimented together, and that their relationship was more than just that of being friends.

At one point, Hernandez asked an attorney if people are born gay, and the documentary seems to want the issue of his sexuality to be a key cause of his profound unhappiness, knowing he could never ‘come out’ in the NFL.

There is also speculation that Odin Lloyd had perhaps seen Hernandez with another guy, or found out from someone else that he was gay. We will never know, but would keeping it secret have been enough to make him kill?

Since the documentary’s release, his brother and mother have come forward to say that he did tell the family before he died that he was, in fact, gay so it was a secret that in the end, he could not take to the grave.

Documentary poster image courtesy of Netflix UK. For information about the documentary series, click here.

Is the January transfer window outdated?

And so another January transfer window closes, and if you found the whole experience a little underwhelming – despite Jim White’s best efforts to hype it up on Sky Sports – you are probably not alone.

While many clubs did do deals between Jan 1st and 31st, 17 out of the 49 in the Premier League were loans. Few, it seems, want to splash the cash as the deadline looms and be seen as buying in a headless panic.

Even fewer want to risk costly mistakes such as Benni McCarthy to West Ham (on £38k a week in 2011; fined £200,000 for failing to lose weight), Jean-Alain Boumsong to Newcastle (an eyebrow-raising £8m in 2005; ended badly) and Fernando Torres to Chelsea for a then-British record fee of £50m on Jan 31st, 2011 (just 20 goals in 110 games).

Although Bruno Fernandes joined Manchester United for £46.5m, while Tottenham signed Steven Bergwijn (£25m) and also converted Giovani Lo Celso’s loan to a permanent deal (£30m), big-money moves were few and far between.

Loans

Loan deals – often with a view to buy if things work out – have become an increasingly important factor in January. They offer a short-term fix at a crucial point in the season, when the hectic schedule of festive fixtures has left squads depleted by injury or short of cover. Arsenal were looking to fix such issues by signing Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares.

It also works for players seeking game time, which is why Danny Rose – out of favour at Spurs with Euro 2020 approaching – got his loan move to Newcastle. He gets to play more, the Magpie get an experienced international defender, and Spurs get him off their hands.

Some fans might question why their clubs go for players on loan rather than signing them permanently, but the reality is loans work better for the signing club mid-season because they don’t have to pay large fees and, in some cases, may not have to pay all the wages involved.

One way you could re-invent the January window is to turn it into an exclusive loan only window.

Total top-flight outlay during this January window was £250m, a lot more than the £180m spent in 2019, but miles off 2018’s £480m. When you look at the spend in the last summer window (£1.4bn), there is no comparison.

This lack of high-profile signings in January, compared to years gone by, leaves the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sport and other media outlets with a problem as the winter window becomes less dramatic, less filled with big stories, but solving this could be more obvious than you might think.

Fixing the window

One way the January window could be re-invented is to turn it into an exclusive loan-only period. Why not when 34% of the deals were loans anyway?

Manchester United’s last-gasp loan swoop for Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua appears symptomatic of the way in which big clubs are no longer prepared to take a massive gamble on big deals in January, when buyers are seen as desperate and it is very much a sellers’ market.

What does seem to have changed, however, is how many such deals now have option-to-buy clauses and incentivised structures which are more complex that the simple loans of the past. These serve to increase the chances of players remaining beyond the short term – but not if things don’t go well.

Essentially, a loan is a quick fix for a situation which means clubs don’t have to fully commit to a player’s future, but may well decide to do so if this ‘try before you buy’ period goes to plan.

Making the January window loans-only would not necessarily appease fans desperate for their clubs to make a statement of intent by spending big, but perhaps they would eventually be persuaded that January is best-suited to short-term solutions, while summer is when the serious business is done.

Another option might be to scrap the January window completely. However, the number of games that English sides play in December and January causes the kind of wear and tear that led, for example, to Manchester United being forced into scouring the globe for a suitable striker.

The athleticism required to perform consistently in today’s high-intensity game is a fragile thing, and it is unlikely you would be able to convince managers that stopping them from replenishing their squads would be beneficial to the game – or the players pressured into returning to action to soon.

Screenshot from the BBC Wales documentary Mavericks: Sports Lost Heroes: Bomber: Newport's Rocky

Documentary pays tribute to David Pearce – Newport’s Rocky

David Pearce came from a renewed South Wales boxing family. His dad boxed, and six of the seven Pearce siblings became professionals – but everyone could see David had a special talent. 

Bomber: Newport’s Rocky, the concluding part of the BBC Wales documentary series Mavericks: Sport’s Lost Heroes, did a good job of explaining Pearce’s humble origins on the tough streets of Pill in Newport.

Following his 1978 pro debut, which he won by a knockout in a matter of seconds, his dedication, determination and bravery soon had him marked out as a rising star of the UK boxing scene.

In September 1983, ‘The Bomber’ blitzed reigning British heavyweight champion Neville Meade in a blockbuster title fight which ended with Pearce’s fellow Welshman out for the count, held up only by the ropes.

Newport’s favourite son looked set on the path to stardom and world title challenges when he was given some devastating news.

While preparing to fight for the European title, a routine brain scan revealed an abnormality which was to ultimately end his career in the ring.

In the meantime, Pearce kept training and flew to France in 1984 to meet Lucien Rodriguez. He fought bravely but lost, having suffered a hand injury in the build-up and slept rough the night before the bout because no-one had booked him a hotel.

David Pearce’s statue on the banks of the River Usk

He then received confirmation that the British Boxing Board of Control were removing his licence – a decision he fought, getting ‘second’ opinions from no less than 14 consultants – but it was one he could not overturn.

As one member of his family said in the documentary: “He couldn’t let go, [boxing] was his life.”

Deprived of his livelihood, and having spent all his money on battling the board’s ban, Pearce fell into depression, and then began exhibiting the signs of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s presaged by that scan. He died in May 2000, aged 41, at his home in Newport. 

The Welsh boxer had 22 professional fights, winning 17 of those, with 13 knockouts, losing four and drawing one. More than 2,000 people came to say their last goodbyes on the day of his funeral.

His nephew Luke wanted to keep pay tribute to his uncle’s life and launched a campaign to pay for a bronze statue of ‘Newport’s Rocky’. It ended up raising £61,000, and the sculpture now stands by the river in the city. 

With vivid and touching testimonials from his family and friends, this emotional 30-minute programme reflects the emotion and passion that still surrounds Pearce’s name, and the impact he had in his community – an impact that keeps his memory alive.

David Moyes

The David Moyes effect

Since David Moyes took over for the second time at West Ham, he has made the side a better team, with the likes of Sebastien Haller benefitting from the Scot’s approach.

But what has the former Everton and Manchester United boss done that has made a real difference in his three games in charge, and what does he offer the Hammers and their long-term plans to challenge the established top six?

Stability

The 56-year-old offers a back-to-basics approach to which will be needed for the East London club to at least stay in the league this season. At the start of the campaign, pundits including ESPN’s Don Hutchison were saying that they were going to be able to challenge for the top four, while this hasn’t been the case these players are the same and have real ability to save their season if used correctly.

Moyes will work on the training pitch with the squad to improve the little margins that they’ve not been getting right. Despite West Ham having many flair players, they are going to need to start passing normally before they can show their skills because it’s the trying to be exuberant that has cost the side an identity that they’re new manager will have to get back.

We have already seen a marked improvement in Haller, who scored his sixth goal of the season in West Ham’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth, and it was the players around him who really helped the Frenchman flourish.

The inclusion of Mark Noble made a big difference, and the Hammers needs their skipper and Declan Rice in a midfield to offer a combative duo in front of the back line. Mix in another hard worker in Robert Snodgrass, and the London club overpowered a poor Cherries side.

Defensive issues slowly being corrected?

With 21 games played the Hammers sit 16th in the league, having won one and lost one in the league under their new manager.

They’ve conceded one in three, including beating Gillingham in the FA Cap – a team they might have failed to see off under Manuel Pellegrini, considering Oxford United beat them earlier this season. Prior to that, they had conceded four in three games.

Lukasz Fabianski is one of the best keepers in the league, and a workman-like defence of Issa Diop and either Fabian Balbuena and Angelo Ogbonna should be enough to keep them up this season. From there, the club can look to get a serious partner for Diop, who is by far the club’s best defender.

Fabianski only recently returned to action after three months out with an injury, and Moyes will be hoping he can now stay fit. A mix-up between No.2 keeper David Martin and Balbuena cost the Hammers a point against Sheffield United, underlining Fabianki’s importance.

With Everton coming up for West Ham, it could be a make or break game for their season. If they get the tactics right, then they could be four points above the drop zone, and they will then surely have enough about them to get results and achieve safety.

Tactics

Having Snodgrass ahead of Manuel Lanzini is beneficial because while Lanzini is a better player, he has been below par and doesn’t perform well on the right-hand side.

Snodgrass has three goals and two assists compared to the Argentine’s three assists. He seems rejuvenated by playing for his fellow Scot, getting the assist for Mark Noble’s first against Bournemouth while also having an equaliser ruled out by VAR against Sheffield United.

Wingers have been a real problem for West Ham as they don’t have many good left-sided forwards, Of course, Felipe Anderson can play there but if he is being used as an attacking midfielder then they are short out wide. Pablo Fornals is also better when being played through the middle.

This means that when Moyes is playing with three at the back and a variation of five or six through the middle, he is using a formation that works to the strength of the squad. This will get the best out of all their attacking players, and if Haller plays up front on his own he can thrive with the level of creativity around him.

Moyes tempers expectations

Despite Hammers fans feeling that they need to be in European football, it is clear that the way the club is some way off that, despite spending lots of money on the likes of Haller from Frankfurt, Fornals from Villarreal and Alban Ajeti from FC Basel without splashing serious cash on their defence.

West Ham’s backline is a mess, with both Ogbonna and Balbuena being inconsistent. Ryan Fredricks is underwhelming at right-back, with 34-year-old Pablo Zabaleta his only competition.

Moyes’s brand of football is not necessarily fun to watch but it will minimise the deficiency’s in the squad’s defence.

Without Fabianski, the Hammers leaked goals due to their defence not being as good as the players going forward. Finding a way to mix the defence up without creating a lack of understanding will be one of the biggest tasks ahead for the West Ham boss.

David Moyes for a season or so could build them in the way they need to as he seems to have some good ideas moving forward like it or not this is the situation that they’ve put themselves in Moyes could be a crucial part of the hammers revival.

Signing former Hammers back-up goalie Darren Randolph from Middlesbrough for £4m means that, if something happens to Fabianski, the Hammers don’t have to rely on Roberto, who has been a flop and is likely to be moved on, or Martin – a decent keeper but not of Premier League ability.

Their new boss has also seen that the centre of midfield is a problem as well with Noble and Rice being their only two serious contenders. This is due to inheriting Jack Wilshere’s injury record rather than his footballing talent, while Carlos Sanchez has proved to be a free transfer that hasn’t worked out.

West Ham need someone to fill the back-up void for Rice, who has played all 21 games in the Premier League this season.

Can Moyes keep West Ham up?

The Hammers have some tough games between now and the end of February, with a six-pointer against Everton at the London Stadium, followed by an away encounter with high-flying Leicester City.

They also face Liverpool twice in the space of just under a month, but between those games, they have a winnable tie against Brighton. On February 9th, they travel to the Etihad Stadium in an unlikely search ofor points before ending the month hosting Southampton. By then, they could be in a real fight if some of these games don’t go their way.

Overall, West Ham should have just enough and could nick some surprising points to see them finish between 11th and 16th. Next season is going to be really important for the Premier League side if they are going to challenge like the fans and owners want them too.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by Hasegawa Takashi under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0