‘I was done with boxing when hypochondria set in – now I’m deadlier than ever’

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    Josh Kelly referred to his armpits when talking about the time it has taken for maturity to set in.

    Despite overcoming plenty of setbacks such as his loss to Kazakhstan’s Daniyar Yeleussinov in the 2016 Olympic Games, Kelly, 29, admits he has always felt much younger than he was. Which, if anything, is fitting. His babyface characteristics, youthful charm and chiselled facial features earned him the ‘Pretty Boy’ nickname he is now accustomed to.

    He returns home to Sunderland on Saturday, to face Placido Ramirez at the Beacon of Light, the arena next to the Stadium of Light, home of the former Premier League giants and the team he has supported all his life. It will be a special night for the WBO No.1 ranked super-welterweight in the world. Yet, Kelly admits he was close to turning his back on the squared circle and evenings like this.

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    In 2021, he was emphatically stopped by David Avanesyan at Wembley Arena when the EBU European welterweight title was on the line.

    Kelly was the main event on the Matchroom undercard. It was a chastening defeat. Yet, his biggest battle was soon to follow. Over the course of around 14 months, Kelly often found himself feeling unwell.

    A dry throat, a blocked nose, a general feeling something was not quite right, or would not be right in the future kept on overcoming him. He would tell his baffled coaches, who would look him up and down and not see anything close to what he was talking about.

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    It would disrupt training sessions, fighting preparations and, eventually, his whole entire life. Yet, there was no cold, no virus, no sickness bug or anything along those lines. Still, he could not evade those feelings of uneasiness or queasiness. Eventually, Kelly and his team would realise he was suffering from hypochondria, a health anxiety disorder characterised by constant feelings of illness or a persistent worry they were about to become seriously ill.

    “When something, not even necessarily boxing, or an event that was happening somewhere else, I took the pressure on my shoulders,” Kelly said, in an exclusive interview with Daily Star Sport.

    “Then I would be like, ‘ah I feel like I am getting ill, I am getting sick’ then I would be like, ‘ahh my throat is hurting, I’ve got to go to the doctors, I’ve got to get some antibiotics’. I’d be putting myself on courses of antibiotics with a private doctor and everybody would be like, ‘Josh, what’s this for’ and I’d be like, ‘I really, really need them, I can feel it’.

    “Then, when the event was over, I’d totally forget about everything and I’d be back to normal, I would be fine. It had been happening for years beforehand. I remember going away to fight in America, I was just drinking Lemsips all week. I was just thinking, ‘what am I doing here? What am I doing?’ It was a joke.

    “When you have an overthinking mind, it takes over your mind and it controls your every little move in life. It was horrible. It got to the point where my coach was like: ‘listen, I don’t even want you boxing until you sort yourself out and you sort your mind out. Unpick everything that’s gone on’. Then I talked to a few people, did a few sessions here and there with a few different people.”

    He added: “I have a new mindset. The hypochondria was something else. I’ve spoken to people who have also had it and they were like: ‘I thought I was having a heart attack’. I thought I was having a heart attack as well. I thought I was having everything. It’s horrible. You’re living in a trap, constantly washing your hands with no skin on your f***ing hands left. It was a joke.”

    Those with little to no understanding of the condition may believe sufferers are simply afraid of the world around them. Kelly is a brave fighter. He turned everybody’s heads in the boxing world when he drew with Ray Robinson at Madison Square Garden in 2019.

    In isolation, it was an impressive performance against a fighter who boasted a strong 25-3 record with 13 knockouts. Yet, Kelly entered the lions’ den with a broken hand and still managed to secure a draw.

    “I had an injection in my right hand when I boxed him,” Kelly said. "Before I went out to fight, he just came off a draw against Egidijus Kavaliauskas.

    “All these fights. I was looking at myself, and I was saying: ‘you're just a kid and you were suffering all of that whilst you were doing it’?” When Kelly reflects on his previous difficulties, an almost disbelieving smile comes across his face. Even now, he shares a laugh when discussing his next opponent. Ramirez is a late replacement for the dangerous South African Roarke Knapp, who was his initial opponent, but had to pull out with an injury.

    Last minute injuries followed by even later new opponents are a common factor in boxing. Yet, Kelly admits if this was to happen two years ago, he may not have been able to stomach it. “I would have overthought the full thing. I would have been like: ‘Why has he pulled up? Why is that? Who is this opponent? No, no, no’. I would have been ill. When the first opponent pulled out I probably would have been like, ‘Listen, you there’s no point in me boxing. I was focused on him’.

    “But, this is boxing, this is life. You get tossed curveballs like this and you've just got to deal with them.” As well as a Kelly buoyed by the atmosphere of his hometown fans, Ramirez will be facing Kelly at his most mature.

    “I matured very late in life as well. Like, physically, I didn't get hair under my arms till I was, like, 16 or 17,” he laughs. “I was honestly such a baby. I've matured. I'm not killing myself in any way. I'm feeling like I'm growing into a solid 154 I need to take over. I need to do what I believe I can do and enjoy it."

    Watch Josh Kelly vs Placido Ramirez, live on DAZN from 7pm on Saturday night

    • Boxing
    • Premier League

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