May 13, 2020
Boxing wasn’t always the first love for some of today’s top performers in the ring. Football, basketball, soccer and even snooker are among the sports fighters such as two-division champion Terence Crawford, undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus and featherweight interim titlist Xu Cang grew up playing.
ESPN spoke to a number of fighters about the moment they realized they were good at boxing — and better than the rest — and asked what other sport they played well. We also asked which athletes from other sports could become good boxers.
When did you know you were good at boxing and better than everybody else around you?WBA “regular” featherweight titlist Xu Can has a great team in trainer Pedro Diaz, left, and promoter Oscar De La Hoya, right. Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images
Terence Crawford: I knew I was good at boxing as a kid because everyone who knew me, told me. I had gotten kicked out of the gym and was doing other sports, and everyone kept telling me that I was good at boxing and I needed to come back to the gym. Another sign was when I won the Ringside Nationals and saw the level of competition that was there. All of the great amateur fighters were at the tournament, and I knew I belonged.
Shawn Porter: I always knew I was good in boxing. I was a senior in high school when I decided to be a professional boxer. I think at that point in time I didn’t have the money, the funds to do what I wanted to do. A lot of the kids I went to school with had cars, they actually had bank accounts that their families had started for them, could hang out on the weekends, eat pizza and go to parties, things like that. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t have the money.
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So coming out of high school, I could either go to college to play football or box. I came to my dad and said just before I graduated that I wanted to be a professional boxer. The story I told him is, ‘Hey, if you play football, you never know what’s going to happen — 10 other guys may not be giving it the same amount of effort and heart. But in boxing, it’s just me in the ring, it’s you right there in my corner. I know what you’re going to do, and I know what I’m going to do. So we can control the boxing world, we can’t control what’s going to happen on a football field.’
My dad said, “All right then, let’s go for the Olympics and then after that we’ll turn pro.” That’s how it all happened.
Xu Can: My father was a teacher in elementary school. When I was 5 years old, he took me to his school to wrestle with his students. They were older than me, 7-, 8-year-olds. I remember maybe almost 10 kids wrestled me by turns, but I beat them all. At that time, [my father] thought I had a talent for sports. But for me, I never thought I had a talent in the ring. You know, I have no talent for power, and I lost two times when I was a rookie, but I still believe practice makes perfect.
Cecilia Braekhus: I was always good in sports. I did soccer for many years, and I skied and did dancing. But when I started with kickboxing when I was 14 years old, that just clicked right away. And from day one, when I went to the gym and tried out, I knew that was it.
Jerwin Ancajas: I realized I was good at boxing when I was at the Amoranto Gym in Davao City, Philippines. I was 9 years old at the time and my brother Jesar brought me to the gym. I sparred almost every day with two other kids who were older and more experienced than me. I beat them all, I didn’t even get tired. From that moment on I dreamed of becoming a world champion.
Avril Mathie: I come from a Muay Thai background, actually. I never fought Muay Thai, but I did it for fitness. But when I broke my foot I started in boxing. Really, I was boxing to stay fit. The coach I had at the time, he was teaching me the tactical side of it. So I said, ‘OK, I want to be tested, I want to make sure that I’m doing this right.’ It wasn’t like I knew I was good at it, so I wanted to prove myself.
It was more like I wanted to test myself and I wanted to make sure I was doing the training right, and having the motivation of having something to aim for. I started having a few fights and I was winning a lot of them. Then, in my second year boxing, I was still winning, but you’re not fighting beginners anymore, you’re fighting people with a little more experience — you win some, you lose some. I had to come in with a little more tactics, a little more of a game plan, and when I would do that and win, I was like, ‘s—, I got this. I did it and it wasn’t just because I wanted it more than the other girl. It’s actually the things I learned and implemented. I assessed the situation in the ring and came up with a game plan on the fly.’
I took a year off boxing and I really missed it. That’s the one thing I missed the most, so at the end of that year, I started training again. That’s when I was like, ‘You know, what? I want to give this a proper go. I think I can be good at this.’ I want to move to America to train.’
John Riel Casimero: One Friday afternoon while going home from high school, three men tried to beat me up for reasons I didn’t know. As the fight ensued, people were watching and one of the onlookers was a boxing trainer in our neighborhood. He talked to me after the fight and told me that he was amazed at my natural ability to fight. He also asked me to go with him to see his boxing gym and for me to try out to become a member of his boxing stable. I turned him down because it was getting dark and I had no permission from my parents to train as a boxer.
The next morning [Saturday] the coach went to my house and talked to my parents asking for their permission for me to train with him. That same day we worked on some boxing skills at his gym, then he offered me an opportunity to fight the next day — Sunday — in a three-round amateur boxing fight at our Town Plaza, with a $20 prize to the winners. Having no money in my pocket, I was obliged to agree.
That Sunday I became $20 richer, plus I earned my confidence to pursue a career in boxing.
If you could change to another sport, what sport would you play?Former welterweight world titlist Shawn Porter played football in high school. John McDonnell/Getty Images
Crawford: It would be football because I used to play and I was pretty good. I was undersized, and going into high school, I was 4-foot-11. I had a growth spurt in the 11th grade, but I was too far in boxing at that point. My principal wouldn’t let me switch sports because he said my calling was in boxing. He said I was too good at boxing and that was my sport. I feel like I would have been a key player in football. I played safety, quarterback and linebacker.
Porter: Football would be the other sport. I was a pretty good football player in high school. I would still like to think that I would start in the NFL, but we’ll see. I played all around the field, offense and defense. But I think if I played in the NFL I would be more of a punt and kick returner, as opposed to just being in the backfield and taking the ball.
Braekhus: I played soccer and I was pretty good at that. But I’ve been fascinated by swimmers, their discipline and their routine. Also, I love the water, so I’d say swimming. I think I’d be pretty good because I love the water and I think whatever you love, you will be good at it if you work hard.
Ancajas: Basketball. I love basketball so much. I started watching LeBron James and I fell in love with basketball. My style is similar to Allen Iverson and Kyrie Irving. I see myself playing in the NBA.
Mathie: Either jiu-jitsu or beach volleyball. Jiu-jitsu because I just love to fight. For me, jiu-jitsu is my retirement. Boxing you can only do for so many years, you can do jiu-jitsu forever. And beach volleyball because I actually see a lot of similarities with boxing as far as the tactical side of it, the game planning, the tricking, how you move. I just love being on the sand, being outdoors and just diving for the ball and getting those shots that no one thinks you’re going to get. It’s like boxing, you set things up and you land shots. It’s that excitement of achieving the point.
Xu: Maybe snooker? Billiards was my favorite hobby when I was a child and I often play with my friends for fun. But I know I won’t be a professional player. When I was 12 years old, my father took me to a snooker room, but I didn’t [do well]. He said, ‘Son, you better give up your dream because you don’t have the talent.’ Honestly, I don’t think I have a talent, either.
My father was my first tutor of my career. He hoped that I could be a professional athlete when I was a child, so he was willing to develop my interest in sports. I knew boxing from my father. He is a big fan of kung fu and boxing. When I was 14 years old, I chose boxing and started training in a professional gym. From that time, boxing became the most important part of my life.
Casimero: I will choose soccer. I love the game, all the running and controlling of the ball at the same time — and my height will not be a problem as long as I am good at it. I don’t have any idea how good I will be as a soccer player, but I will surely try to be the best.
Which athletes from another sport would make good boxers and why?LeBron James, center, could be a great boxer according to WBA “regular” featherweight champion Xu Can. Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Crawford: Patrick Beverley from the Clippers. He’s so competitive. He’s always getting in people’s heads and he never backs down from any challenge.
Xu: LeBron James. Basketball players have good physical talent, just like [heavyweight] Deontay Wilder. Before he chose boxing, he was a basketball player, but [it only took] three, four years to make him a good boxer. More importantly, he knows how to invest in his body and he always has an extreme self discipline. That’s why I believe that if LeBron becomes a boxer, I believe he can be a world champion.
As for a Chinese athlete, I think Wu Lei has potential. He is the best soccer player in China. He has good speed and endurance. Also, he has self-discipline.
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Porter: The first thing I thought about was basketball because those guys are usually pretty quick and elusive. So I would go with an NBA guard. I think they could make it in boxing simply because they’re quick on their feet and they have to make quick decisions, as well. Just like we have to control the ring, they control the court.
Braekhus: I trained with some handball players and they are very strong, they’re physical and they have good upper bodies, and they have strong hands. Handball players take to boxing surprisingly well. I’ve had training sessions with handball players and they pack a good punch.
And I think a person like LeBron James would be good at anything. I think he would be a great heavyweight boxer.
Ancajas: Any MMA fighter. They are born to be wild and to be warriors. They are very good in striking and they already know how to absorb punches.
Casimero: I believe that any top-caliber athlete from another sport can excel in boxing if the athlete has the heart and courage of a championship-caliber fighter. For example, basketball players often get into tough battles during their games and never back down. They would have become boxing champions.
Dennis Rodman and Shaquille O’Neal would qualify because they are huge and strong and aggressive and they are not scared of receiving or inflicting physical damage during the game.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant might have also become world champions if they boxed because they are super-talented athletes who work really hard to perfect all their moves and counter moves and they have the best work ethics.