Rio Ferdinand, flanked by the bookmaker’s communications head, Barry Orr, insisted his move into the fight game at the age of 38 was a genuine sporting endeavour. Orr said Ferdinand’s health was the company’s primary concern, not a significant boost in brand awareness from having its name attached to one of the country’s most recognisable sportsmen.
A publicity video suggested Ferdinand would be bidding for a belt to add to six Premier League titles. A few hours later, the former Manchester United defender was feeling less bullish, insisting an accompanying TV documentary would chronicle the journey with no guarantee of a professional fight as its conclusion.
“I’m taking it stage by stage,” he said, “I won’t say I am going to do x, y and z when I have so many hurdles to get over. I don’t look at this as a circus, I’ve got the utmost respect for boxing.”
The possibility of winning a cruiserweight title at his age – and with the admission he has not fought since settling disputes on his south-London estate as a teenager – is seriously unlikely. It emerged Ferdinand has not yet applied for a licence from the British Boxing Board of Control and will do so only after a few months’ training intensively with the Team GB consultant coach, Richie Woodhall. The leading promoter Barry Hearn said he thought there was only a 50/50 chance Ferdinand would be granted a licence. He told BBC Radio 5 live: “It’s laughable. I like Rio, don’t get me wrong, but this is an advert for a reality TV show.
“If Tony Bellew, David Haye or Anthony Joshua hit Rio Ferdinand it would probably be prosecutable by the police for using a deadly weapon. He could get himself badly hurt. It’s OK if it’s just a bit of fun, making a TV show and making some money. I wish him luck. I hope he enjoys it but be very careful, because it’s dangerous.”
Ferdinand took exception when one journalist asked how much he and the Betfair shareholders stood to benefit financially from the escapade. “It’s a great question, you’ve really lightened the mood with that one,” he said.
His personal reasons for accepting the challenge were understandable. The money – thought to be in excess of £250,000 – was attractive but he also said it was a good outlet for lightening his own mood. Ferdinand has been admirably candid about dealing with the grief after his wife, Rebecca, died of cancer two years ago and said that was a primary factor in accepting the challenge presented to him three months ago.
“I’ve been through quite a few things in my life and this is a way of trying to channel that aggression, that anger sometimes, into something I can be really focused on,” he said. “My first focus was getting stuck into work and this is an extension of that.”
His two young sons do pad work, alongside playing junior football, and Ferdinand is keen to continue setting a good example for them through boxing. “This is another opportunity to show them in life you need to be focused and disciplined,” he said. “I am going to learn from this but I am hoping they will too.”
Ferdinand will enlist help from his friend Anthony Joshua and the former Sheffield United midfielder turned boxer Curtis Woodhouse is a good blueprint, although it took him six years to win an English title and eight to win a British belt. Betfair is the firm which sponsored Victoria Pendleton’s successful attempt to ride in the Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016.
There was no talk of when Ferdinand’s first fight would be or opponents but behind the scenes Betfair insiders are insisting he is capable of winning a national title and, of course, the firm are offering odds on it