Free Solo Mentality

How Tyson Fury’s mindset inadvertently echoes that of death defying free soloist Alex Honnold

There may seem at first glance absolutely no similarities whatsoever between top flight boxing and the dangerous world of free solo climbing. I disagree. I believe that the mindset of those currently reigning at the top of both sports have far more mental characteristics in common than you might think. Tyson Fury is currently deep in preparations for his February 22nd rematch with fearsome puncher Deontay Wilder and is a household name for boxing fans, Alex Honnold however is not. Alex is best known for ‘Free Soloing’ a type of climbing where you simply walk up to a rock face and start climbing; no ropes, no equipment, no safety net, nothing. He has scaled some of the worlds hardest climbs this way including Yosemite’s two most daunting rock faces, Half Dome and El Capitan. He came to prominence after a documentary about his heart palpitation inducing ascent of the later won an academy award for best documentary and grossed $21 million world wide.

The first and most obvious comparison is one even the most uneducated observers can see, risk. The reaction of most when they see Alex Honnold hanging from only his hands on a ledge or precarious overhang is “oh my god he’s going to fall”. This is because most of us, the general civilian, focuses on the risk we see evident in that scenario. The same can be said of seeing a person standing in a boxing ring opposite Deontay Wilder, the 6 foot 7 WBC world champion who has knocked down or out every single man he has ever stepped in the ring with. Both scenarios are fraught with risk, one slip on the wall and you will die, one slip in the ring and Deontay Wilder will remove you from your consciousness and will do his level best to cause you serious harm. To most in society these risks do not seem worth taking, why risk death or injury? In our day to day lives we try every single second to avoid taking a risk that could cause one of these things. The difference in Fury and Honnold however is their vision of greatness, of what being great at what you do really means, both have spoken about the need to overcome what they see as the toughest challenge in order to achieve their aims of greatness, they see not the air between them and the ground or the terrifying fighter in front of them as the risk, but as an obstacle to greatness. To conquer the most fearsome odds is to them the path to the greatness that lies at the top of the cliff or the final bell. The embracing of risk in order to achieve a goal is something that every person shares, we take small risks to achieve small goals and big risks to achieve bigger goals. Top flight boxers and free soloists however have an inability to limit this instinct, they push it all the way to its illogical conclusion, to pursue the hardest challenges for the biggest and most prestigious of awards, despite what others tell them about the high risk nature of the activity. Fury evidenced this all or nothing approach in a recent interview with Tris Dixon on BT sport where he stated “I didn’t come back to boxing to just be a pro boxer and get a few wins i came back to be the best or nothing, so thats my mentality…I jump in at the deep end, sink or swim, i just usually swim”

The conquering of fear is the logical obstacle from which most question these extraordinary men, ‘are you not scared?’ is again the layman response to those who pursue the most dangerous of professions. Here it is a control within one’s mind, a superb confidence from which one twists away the concept of fear itself, is paramount. Honnold said when asked about fear in relation to his free-soloing, “obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way,” he said. “It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”. This demonstrates a calculating nature from which he can control the one emotion that most of us find impossible to control. Fury, in a far more brash way to Honnold, demonstrates the same technique, to use his confidence to manipulate the fear out of his mind, to simply will it away. He said in the recent press conference for his rematch with Wilder “The thing is, I don’t believe anybody can match my heart and determination. I will put my iron will on Deontay Wilder and we will see. I am not afraid to go el mono-el mono with the biggest puncher of heavyweight boxing.” This statement, although more egotistical and promotionally driven than Honnold’s, demonstrates the same thing, Fury has manipulated fear out of his head and with supreme confidence in his ability he has overcome what to most, would be fearful odds.

The final thing these two extraordinary athletes share is a propensity for spartan like training only to the skills they hone in a profoundly unorthodox way when they execute them at the highest level. Both Fury and Honnold act with total abandon for the norms and traditions of their craft while performing, despite both having gruelling training regimes that both endure to get to that point. Alex Honnold’s preparation for a big Free Solo climb is meticulous; he abseils down to find the best route, he sketches it on maps, he writes a journal of every single hold he will encounter and he climbs it several times with the safety of ropes. Tyson Fury’s preparation is almost identical bare the fact his opponent is a man not a rock face. Studying his opponent, working out their moves, working on counters, combinations, minute details of footwork and head movement that will give him the edge in the fight. Instead of doing it with ropes he Spars, the 16oz gloves acting as the safety rope. All this said, every climber practices, every boxer spars, but not all are elite at their craft, the difference is the fluidity they bring to the final execution of the thing they’ve spent so long practicing for and leading up too, a willingness to go off plan and taken further risks, confident in their skill, in an already risk rich environment. When Honnold scaled the precarious face of Half Dome in Yosemite, a 4,737 foot sheer stone wall, Honnold went off route, seeing an opportunity to beat his own time and took on what is described by Yosemite climbers as ‘Sheet Glass’. There is no hand or foot holds more than a fraction of an inch wide or deep, but because of his ability to trust his training to do something spontaneous he managed the climb and in record time. Fury too defies convention and his own plan sometimes when faced with the opportunities that adversity creates. In his fight with the future hall of fame champion Wladimir Klitshcko Fury’s game plan was to use his height and orthodox jab to upset the rhythm of Klitschko and pot shot his head. Although Fury did do this and very effectively, from the third round onwards he also began to deploy an arsenal of creative techniques to cement his hold on the fight, he switched stances continuously, he targeted the body with lead hooks. He circled his head left his body right and despite this putting him in more danger in an already dangerous fight, his performance became more dominant. Both have attained a level of fluidity that few can achieve while performing under intense pressure. Fury and Honnold have an innate ability to enter what psychologist Csíkszentmihályi first called the flow state allowing them to perform with creativity in a situation fraught with life threatening levels dangers.

To me the mindset needed to free solo El Capitan is the exact same as that needed to defeat a fearsome boxer like Deontay Wilder. You have to have a brain that does not conform to normal standards of being in the 21st century western world. Both Fury and Honnold have spoken of how their passion has caused difficulties in their mental health, their abilities to form interpersonal relationships and other issues, however above all this their brains possess a gift that few of us have, the ability to harness fear, to use it for their own benefit. Honnold has been scanned extensively and it shows up a low activity rate when shown stimuluses, only the most extreme things can wake up the parts of his brain that would normally light up for far more basic stimuluses. The doctors argued that this is why he seeks his highs from the most extreme ends of life and sport. I am almost certain that if they hooked Tyson Fury up to the same equipment they would yield the same results, only the extremes of life, of competition at the highest level can satisfy his complex brain.The great trainer Cus D’Amato once said “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” and this is what makes Fury and Honnold the heroes of their own tale, the ones that dear to be great despite their fears, despite the concern of others, despite the odds stacked against them, they simply are. They exist in a sphere of excellence that few manage because of their mental fortitude and ability to dictate their own fear.

Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx🥊

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