Gary Sykes has been struggling with mental illness for several years and when he last spoke to BN in 2019 there seemed to be some light at the end of the tunnel for the former British champion. Then the pandemic, the lockdown and that all too familiar darkness followed. By Lewis Watson
“I WAS convinced my kids were going to die if I didn’t do something… so I took a knife to my throat.” The call goes silent yet the tension remains. Former two-time British champion, Gary Sykes is clearly suffering but speaks candidly to Boxing News in an attempt to punch through the stigma of his mental health struggles. Sykes’ bravery, honesty, and willingness to speak out are inspiring. Following his retirement in 2016, the Dewsbury fighter has attempted to slalom through life’s obstacles yet, at almost every turn, all that awaited was darkness. A familiar, inescapable, darkness. That darkness is caused by bipolar disorder – more specifically, mania – and the 37-year-old details how it impacted his life more severely after the decision was made to hang up his gloves.
“After I retired from boxing everything started going wrong, to be honest with you,” he said. Sykes is affable and engaging, but the faint scar across his throat is a visible reminder of how serious this conversation would be. “I lost my job and me and the missus split up; I left her with our nice house. I started drinking more than before, and I basically lost my mind. I’d manage to go through stints of being sober and then I’d slip once again, and the cycle would start all over again.”
Along with depression, mania is a common symptom of bipolar disorder. It is defined by the Medical Dictionary as “an abnormally elated mental state, typically characterised by feelings of euphoria, lack of inhibitions, racing thoughts, diminished need for sleep, talkativeness, risk-taking, and irritability. In extreme cases, mania can induce hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.”
Sykes alludes to experiencing a number of these states throughout multiple episodes, with 2020 – fused with the Covid-19 pandemic – proving one of the hardest years to navigate. “I’d stopped drinking for a while, but then a year ago I completely lost my head again,” he admitted. Sykes openly documented his struggles on social media, raising concerns across the boxing, and wider community.
“To prove to everyone that I was okay, I decided to attempt to do one million burpees on camera,” he continued. “I wanted everyone to think I was still fit and healthy. In my head, I was a superhero that was training to fight coronavirus. After loads of videos were posted on Twitter I had friends and family calling the police on me as they were clearly concerned. To be honest, a lot of it is a real haze. I black out a lot after my worst episodes and can’t really remember what happened.”
Before being admitted to Wakefield’s Fieldhead mental health hospital, Sykes resisted the long arm of the law, breaking a police officer’s cheekbone in retaliation and fear of being sectioned. He squirms with embarrassment while attempting to recall the altercation, and struggles to piece the events together with real clarity. “I go through cycles of episodes that are really hard to control,” he continued. “One of the most recent ones was the scariest. I was watching the television and I was convinced that it was in the future – like, the TV was showing me what was going to happen in my life. It was to do with my kids – who are my world. I was terrified that they were in some sort of danger. I don’t really know why I turned to the knife, but I had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to do something.
“During an episode, the feeling can be amazing, it’s just the crash and burn afterwards that is the hardest part. It leaves me feeling lifeless, fed up, and without any motivation.”
Sykes survived and returned to Fieldhead where he was treated and given a safe space to rehabilitate. Previous attempts to check himself into Sporting Chance Clinic – a mental health charity founded by Tony Adams MBE, former Arsenal and England football captain, for current and retired athletes – were unsuccessful due to the cost and a lack of support for ex-boxers. “I struggled mainly with the medication,” he explained. “But in hospital, I could stay away from trouble, temptation, and just lead a fairly normal life. You can watch television, play on your phone, socialise – I couldn’t just easily grab a drink like I would at home.”
Addiction is a running theme throughout Sykes’ story – each turn of the page made harder by an internal battle with control. He takes small, but important, crumbs of comfort knowing that he is not alone. Alcoholism has had a vice-like grip on the life and vocation of the retired British champion, and there is an undercurrent of regret despite his achievements inside the ring. “I struggled with alcohol throughout my career,” he explained. “That’s addiction for you. Between six-eight weeks before each fight, I’d manage to stop drinking, but other than that I would be on back-to-back benders.
“I’m not trying to blame other people, but I had a lot of bad influences throughout my career. I’m from Dewsbury – there aren’t any other boxers from here really so my career was different. I wasn’t able to surround myself with fighters doing the same thing as me day in, day out.
“I found it impossible to live the life of a professional fighter. That dedication I needed to reach the highest level just wasn’t there and the party-side of my personality outweighed it. If I hadn’t lived like that in-between camps, I would have been a world champion – guaranteed.”
That opportunity almost came knocking in 2012. Sykes was scheduled to fight for Adrien Broner’s super-featherweight belt inside Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, but the contest was eventually pulled due to the main event – Lamont Peterson vs Amir Khan II – falling through. “That was the best I had ever prepared for a fight – I was completely heartbroken when it was cancelled,” he admitted. “Most young kids dream of becoming famous footballers and playing at Wembley, but for me, the dream was always to fight in Las Vegas. I was up training at 2am to prepare for the time difference in Las Vegas, eating right, doing all I could. I couldn’t have been more ready.”
Despite these crippling regrets, Sykes is also able to look back fondly on his successes. His boxing genesis is a well-trodden route having followed a friend to a local boxing gym aged 15, but the talent he unearthed is less common.
Self-deprecation is a characteristic shared by many of us. A comforting smile appears on his face when he’s allowed the space to reminisce about some of his greatest nights as a fighter. “Winning the British title for the first time against Andy Morris [w pts 12] is an obvious highlight,” “Five Star” explained. “Hearing the announcer say ‘from Dewsbury’ is something I’ll never forget – I knew then that I’ll probably be the only fighter from Dewsbury to achieve this accolade. The reaction was incredible. I remember going to visit the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and ploughing through a load of wine beforehand. I stuck the Lonsdale Belt on him for a couple of pictures and he told me how proud he and the country were of me.
“Defending it successfully against Kevin O’Hara [w pts 12] was another standout moment, but beating Carl Johanneson has to be my best win. Carl was a massive puncher. To be honest, I never really thought I’d be good enough to mix it with him after he put me down in sparring. There was real fear coming into that fight and to recover after being knocked down in the ninth round proved I belonged in there.”
Sykes enjoyed two spells as British champion across a professional career spanning 10 years, but a 2009 victory over Anthony Crolla was the earliest indication that he could elevate his game to the very top of the domestic tree. “I knew after beating [Anthony] Crolla that I could go onto become British champion – before that, I’m not really sure I had the belief. I was a fairly late starter to the sport [at 15], so always felt that I was a couple of steps behind. I did the weight bang on and felt so strong on fight night. I could have easily done another 10 rounds.”
Sykes had to navigate plenty of setbacks along his career. Two attempts at a Prizefighter crown ended in defeats to Gary Buckland [l rsf 1] and Terry Flanagan [l pts 3], while an injury to his hand following a British title defence against Jon Kays [w rsf 10] saw part of his finger amputated after an infection spread. “Everything became harder after that operation,” he explained. “Training was tough as I’d lost all the grip in my hand, so I could no longer lift the sort of weights that I had been previously. It was also impossible to clench a tight fist after that.”
He’d go onto lose two of his last three fights against Liam Walsh [l pts 12] and Luke Campbell [l rsf 2] before calling it a day. But his hardest opponent would remain. “Boxing gave me structure and a real purpose,” he added. “I could balance my life better with a career, but as soon as I retired it became so much harder. I used to be ‘Gary Sykes: the boxer’, but then that disappeared overnight. Now, I can do what I want, eat what I want, drink what I want.
“I didn’t get the support that I needed after retiring. I’m not exactly sure what the British Boxing Board of Control could have done, but anything would have helped.”
Advice on how to navigate the boxing afterlife is rare and boxers willing to listen, particularly when at the height of their careers, are even more so.
Sykes has found his own way of looking on the bright side – though the consequences of his condition exhibit the seriousness of it. He laughs as he recalls a previous manic episode where he held a lighter to his arm for 30 seconds, feeling “nothing”. “Gary ‘four-and-a-half stars’ Sykes, I should be called now,” he quips, referring to the remains of a tattoo of a star that was left after being scorched off.
He also tells the story of fighting his local pub landlord for charity a couple of years ago. Ian Murray — landlord of the Station Pub in Dewsbury – agreed to the bout in order to help Sykes stay sober through a regimented training camp. The thanks that Murray got was a set of broken ribs, but this act of altruism was a good demonstration of how boxing could still shape Sykes’ life for the better.
Sykes still has his back against the ropes but he won’t stop fighting. He’s back in the gym working on his strength and overall fitness, and with the help of mood stabilisers is able to navigate his days more peacefully. His courage to speak out is admirable, and he takes solace in knowing that his story could well help others that suffer.
“The mind is a powerful thing,” he concluded. “I’ve slipped a few times since coming out of hospital, so at the moment I am just concentrating on staying sober really. Boxing was such a lonely sport. It’s only you in that gym; it’s only you in that ring, but at least I had the sport. Now, my next goal is to stay sober for a year.”
Perhaps, that would be Gary’s greatest victory of all – certainly his most important. And we are all behind him. All in his corner.