By Jonathan Drennan
A year ago Luke Jackson was preparing for the biggest night of his life. How does he recover after missing his one big chance?
Luke Jackson calmly and politely pauses the interview. “Excuse me mate, I’ve just got to save a mother duck and all of her chicks,” he laughs. Jackson slows his car in suburban Hobart to shield the family as they cross the road. Seconds earlier, Jackson had been talking about a childhood that included drug abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts. The sudden conversation shift to saving fluffy ducklings provides a welcome respite for a fighter who has always lived a life of extremes.
Hobart is a beautiful city on an island state that retains an atmosphere that is distinct to mainland Australia. Tourists flock to the city in Tasmania to revel in its majestic waterside views and sample the delicious fresh food in its famed Salamanca market. However, Jackson’s childhood in the suburb of Glenorchy does not easily reflect the glossy tourist brochures.
“I spent a hell of a lot of my childhood alone,” he recalls. “My mum and dad broke up, so I was spending a lot of time on my own from a young age. I had problems from 12 with drug abuse and I became this horrible person. I would steal from anyone you could think of to feed this habit that grew and grew.”
Jackson’s drug use coincided with problems in the classroom, finding it nearly impossible to focus on academic problems. As his habit grew, his school attendance plummeted until he finally dropped out in his early teens. He can’t remember the exact year. “From that age I dropped out until I was 18, those were dark dark years. I would just go into a daze and didn’t care about anything or anybody, much less myself. I’d sleep, steal or be on drugs. I became obsessed with thoughts of death. Sometimes I would drive the car with my eyes closed just to see what would happen.”
Boxing has saved so many troubled youths that it has almost become trite to say it. Jackson says calling the sport his salvation is underplaying it. “People always ask me how I found boxing. I tell them that boxing found me. I stepped into a boxing gym at 18 or the reason that, I suppose, I wanted to be known for something good, because up to that point there hadn’t been much positivity about me. Boxing almost acted like a parent for me. It taught me good habits: when to go to bed, what good foods to eat and how to treat people with respect and decency. All that I learned about being a good person came from boxing.”
Boxing gave Jackson discipline but he also had a natural aptitude for the sport. “I am all about extremes. I cannot give anything less than 100%. Maybe that’s where my OCD diagnosis, which came later in life, has a rare positivity. I find calmness in giving complete effort and dedication. In that boxing ring, I am calm and at peace with the world. After 13 fights I went to the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and came away with a bronze medal. For the first time in my life, I had gained respect.”
Once Jackson started competing seriously in boxing, his drug use stopped completely. He replaced a painful addiction with one that offered him a lifeline. His dream as a boxer was not to become professional, but to go to the Olympic Games and then stop. “I have never cared about money. All of my life I had never managed to do anything, yet with boxing I had a chance to go to the Olympics and make people proud of me. That was a dream that kept me going. I would pray to God to just get me to those Games and that is me happy. That’s all I wanted.”
Jackson narrowly missed qualification to the 2008 Olympics, losing to an opponent he had beaten three times previously. He admits he was out boxed, but his biggest opponents were coming from outside the ring. Jackson’s then undiagnosed OCD was haunting him with an inner voice that dared and taunted him at all hours. Simple tasks became a torment. When cutting a raw chicken breast for dinner, his mind would become obsessed about picking up the pink flesh and eating it. He knew he would get food poisoning and become sick, but his mind would not stop its narrative.
Even breathing could feel onerous. “My mind would become obsessed on the task of deep breathing and it would torment me that I wouldn’t be able to catch my breath. Then sometimes, I would lying terrified about my breathing. The night before my final Olympic qualifier, I was awake all night worried about my breathing, unable to tell anyone what was going through my mind.”
For the next four years, Jackson worked away from the eyes of the boxing world in sleepy Hobart. His form on the amateur circuit was so impressive that he was selected as team captain for Australia for London 2012. However, after dreaming about the Olympics, the reality of competition proved a nightmare. Jackson was beaten convincingly in his first fight, losing 20-7 to Qiang Liu of China. He had climbed a sporting mountain only to be pushed off at base camp. Dormant demons climbed on to Jackson’s slim shoulders and started taunting him again.
“After the Olympics, I just thought: ‘Fuck this.’ I had fought like shit after dreaming for so long for something. I was just in a daze. Old bad habits started to creep back in and I was terrified that I was going to go back those dark old days. I didn’t go into professional boxing for money or fame. I went in because I had to have that focus back and the gym gave me that calmness and saved me again.”
Jackson’s professional career started in spartan casinos and town halls across Australia as he slowly built an adoring fan base. He climbed to the top of the World Boxing Organisation rankings and was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Belfast to fight Carl Frampton for his interim WBO title in Windsor Park.
The venues Jackson had fought in across Australia never held more than a few thousand people, many of whom were friendly faces. Did the thought fight in front of 24,000 screaming partisan fans play on his mind? “Not at all. I’m not really meant to be here. I’m meant to be dead. The fact I was able to compete at that level was everything I was working towards. Whether it’s 24,000 or 1,000, as a professional fighter you have to tell yourself it’s just noise. The thing I love about boxing – and where I feel this huge sense of calmness – is that, after the noise, it’s a ring, with just you and your opponent. Obviously I had great respect for Carl, but I was ready to compete.”
The fight was stopped in the ninth round after Jackson took brutal punishment from Frampton. Jackson had fought bravely but he found the loss difficult to process. “Boxing is a lot about pride. You work towards these occasions, fighting for a world title in front of thousands of fans in a packed stadium. I worked my guts off, dedicated everything. Then on the night, I just found that he is too good for me. Could I have done things differently? Maybe, but losing is a very hard thing to process for any fighter.”
It was Jackson’s first defeat since London 2012. Again, his physical cuts and bruises have healed quicker than the damage done to his mental state. “I was scared of falling again. I am lucky I had a good woman by my side throughout it all. I needed to get back in the ring, as that is what gets me through those difficult times, having that ability to channel the pain into training.”
Just before Christmas, Jackson returned to the ring in the humble Emporium Function Centre in Western Sydney to face the unheralded Indonesian fighter Rivo Rengkung. Weeks before the fight, Jackson realised he had damaged his right hand, which meant he could only use his jab in training. Thousands of miles away from the bright stadium lights that had shone on him in Belfast, Jackson bit hard on his gum shield using his jab and occasional right hooks to win a convincing points victory.
Jackson is now 34 and knows that, while his boxing career will not be infinite, his OCD will always be an unwelcome member of his entourage. How will he find peace when he stops fighting? “I honestly just don’t know, but the truth is I absolutely need to find something. I am thinking hard and want to help the young people and give back to the sport that has given me so much. Maybe at the end of my career I’ll be able to pass something on and give hope.”
Originally published: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/behind-the-lines/2019/jan/25/boxer-loses-title-fight-luke-jackson-boxing-olympics