Boxing has always been seen as a hyper masculine sport. With more attention being brought to British boxing than there has been in years, we talk to welterweight title-holder Luther Clay about his career so far, how he maintains his mental health in such an intense sport and how attitudes towards mental health are changing.
Clay (birth name Luthando Mtimkulu) was born and raised in South Africa, but moved to Bracknell at a young age. Clay recalls how his experiences of racial prejudice and ignorance in a generally white area resulted in frequent fights in which he felt that he had to defend himself and protect himself from the insults of others. This energy was then crafted into a skill when Clay began boxing around age 19. Since then Clay has gained attention through his hard-work, determination and success at welterweight level. The road hasn’t always been smooth, but with a title belt already in the bag and his next fight coming up this month, we catch up with Clay to talk about how he has built his success so far.
- Congratulations on your welterweight title this year! How did it feel to win that fight against Dario Morello?
The fight with Dario Morello was a good performance. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be- I thought he’d be a bit more tricky and awkward but I dealt with him quite well. I’m disappointed that I lost composure and didn’t get the knock out after the two knockdowns but I’ll learn from it.
- So, what got you into boxing?
I always used to get into fights at when I was younger; when I was in South Africa I went to a private school so I dealt with racism quite a bit. I just used to fights and the same thing happened when I got to England. I think I was about 6 years old – this was about 2001 and at that time there weren’t many black people In Bracknell. I had a very African name “Luthando Mtimkulu” so I found myself getting bullied and I just used to fight in response to how people treated me.
- Your boxing name is really powerful. Where did the name ‘The Black Panther’ come from?
When I was younger I was fascinated by the civil rights movements in America; I loved listening to Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jnr, the Black Panther Party Movement speeches and, later on, rap music like Public Enemy so that’s probably where the name came from. I’ve always been proud to be black so those things influenced me quite significantly.
- In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that you thrive on going outside your comfort zone. Have you always been like this? What advice would you give young men who are intimidated by breaking out of their comfort zones?
You know when you get comfortable you don’t improve or evolve, whatever it is in life that you’re trying to achieve you have to get out of your comfort zone in order to progress. Hanging round the same friends, doing the same things as everyone else will never help you. If your trying to achieve something you need to get outside of the norm, whatever that may be.
- Boxing seems like a more isolated sport than other sports, like football or other team sports. How do you manage your mental health with all the pressure on you as an individual?
For me, I’ve always been a bit of a loner. I have many friends and I alternate between different friend groups but ultimately I just do my own thing. Boxing in this aspect for me worked perfectly, I am in control of my own actions and the outcome is ultimately up to me. It can be very lonely and sometimes when I do get overwhelmed I take time to see my friends and then I can refocus. When you are alone for so long it can be detrimental to your mental health, but on the whole I do like the solitary aspect of boxing.
- Boxing is such an adrenaline-charged sport. There have been a couple of moments where you’ve lost your cool (e.g. following the Oshane Clarke fight). How difficult can it be to manage that passion sometimes? How have you learnt to manage your emotions?
I’m a relatively reserved person, I don’t really talk a lot either inside or outside of the ring. For me when something annoys me or gets to me I kind of bottle it up and use it for motivation and usually it works out well because I focus all my efforts into the fight. But on the occasion you are referring to it came out in a negative manner because of the personal rivalry. Boxing is a sport but really the objective is to hurt your opponent; I’ve learned that I am quite volatile if pushed and in the future I will remember to just show respect after everything is finished.
- How would you describe your mental health? How does your exposure to the public impact on your mental health?
I would say overall my mental health is in good standing- I work hard to keep myself focused and grounded. I don’t really care for media, getting lots of attention or really being liked or disliked. I want to be the best fighter I can be, everything else is extra. When you win they love you and when you lose they write you off so I don’t spend time trying to impress or gain anyone’s approval.
- How have you found that exercise has helped boost your mental health?
For me it gives me structure. I like training, having a routine when I wake up in the morning and knowing what I have to do makes it easy for me to have control and balance in my life. Once I’ve done my training it feels like everything else falls into place.
- Boxing is still considered a very masculine sport. Within boxing, how do you think attitudes towards mental health are changing?
Yeah I think it is a very masculine sport but I think athletes and boxers know how they feel and can relate to the stories of depression and anxiety because we deal with feelings of nervousness, the pressure of needing to perform, where the margins between success and failure can be life changing. Boxers may not speak about these things as often as other athletes, perhaps because they are very stubborn, but they definitely relate because they go through these emotions and pressures on a regular basis.
- From the outside, it seems that bravado and fronting are a large part of boxing publicity. How do you find that side of the sport?
It really depends on the individual, some people put on a brave face in order to fool others and themselves while others simply embrace their nerves and fears honestly. Whatever works for you works for you because ultimately you still have to fight and you’re aiming to beat your opponent. What’s most important is that you know your truth and you’re not afraid to be honest about it, at least with yourself.
- Anthony Joshua is bringing so much light to the British boxing scene. Do you think we’ll see more investment at grassroots level? Do you notice the popularity of the sport increasing with young people?
Anthony Joshua, Matchroom Sports and promoter Eddie Hearn have had a big role in the increase in popularity of the sport. Before the two came together the sport wasn’t as prominent as it is right now- even I didn’t pay attention to British fights like I do now! However I don’t believe that this will have any effect on investment in grassroots boxing. Boxing is very top heavy, when you’re at the bottom it can be a very dark, lonely and poor existence and at the top it’s lights, fans and the money is good. But you are always one or two losses away from the bottom. It’s an unforgiving sport and whatever side you are on, top or bottom, you must always remember that.
- Why is boxing such a popular sport? What does it offer that people aren’t getting from other sports?
Boxing is a popular sport because it allows those without much to become something. All you need to do is commit yourself, work hard and stay consistent. Of course you need a good trainer and manager but your options aren’t as restricted as they are in other sports. In football, for example, if you haven’t been playing consistently since you were a kid and haven’t been in the club circuit or scouted, you’re unlikely to make it professionally. But in boxing anybody from the streets can become something. Of course it’s better path if you have started through the amateur route, boxed in international tournaments and won medals, but at the end of the day it’s a fight and this often appeals to people of all backgrounds, races and nationalities. It’s very relatable, primal sport and sometimes that is when people need in their lives.
- Unfortunately, youth centres are disappearing all around us. One thing we are working on is getting investment to open up youth centres in London. What role did accessing youth sports clubs/ boxing gyms play in your life as a teenager/young man?
The first boxing gym I attended was at a youth centre called “The Ways”. I wasn’t good at sports growing up and didn’t like PE in school but the boxing gym was a good place for me. I stayed out of trouble, made friends and even found people to look up to. It’s a shame that youth centres seem to be dying out. I do believe councils should bring youth centres back because they provide a safe space for kids to socialise, do sports and just generally enjoy their childhood where they might not be able to elsewhere.
- To finish up, you’ve got a fight coming up against Freddy Kiwitt just before Christmas. How are you feeling about it? How have you been preparing? Where can people see it?
Preparations are going very well and I’m looking forward to getting in the ring. I’m excited to get on Match Room boxing show and getting the exposure I’ve worked so hard to get. People can watch live at York Hall, Bethnal Green, London or watch on Sky Sports or on the Matchroom Facebook page- I believe it will be televised free!
If you feel motivated to try out a boxing session then check out the UK Boxing directory to find your local club.
To find out more about Luther Clay check out the socials below.
If you feel that you want to talk about any of the issues that are discussed her, jump to the Talk page to find the right organisation for you.