Alan Hubbard

When Daniel Jacobs, a 28-year-old practicing Presbyterian, retained his WBA world middleweight title with a first round stoppage over Peter Quillin in Brooklyn last Saturday, his first words were: ”First of all I’d like to give thanks to the Man above.”

And I lost count of the number of times new world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury literally thanked Jesus for guiding him to that astonishing victory over Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf.

Understandable, perhaps, as it was a bit of a miracle!

Fervent believer Fury had even wanted to name his son after the Messiah, but was dissuaded by his wife.

The post-fight scenes in Dusseldorf seemed more akin to a religious convention with a congregation of Fury’s family, friends and acolytes thronging the ring and chanting Amen to his every utterance.

The fight game seems to be littered with Born-again boxers whose constant proselytising seems more suited to the pulpit than the ring. They certainly appear to fear God more than they do their opponents.

I am not decrying it. Each to his own, but I just wish there was a little less wearing of religion on the sleeves of their dressing gowns.

Religion and I may have parted company some years ago but I respect those who have the faith, whatever that might be.

Daniel Jacobs dedicated his win over  Peter Quillin to
Daniel Jacobs dedicated his win over Peter Quillin to "the man above" ©Getty Images

So I hope I do not cause offence when I say I wonder if boxing is now suffering from surfeit of Bible punching, though it is not alone in sport in this respect.

Fury’s much-trumpeted Christian faith does seem to sit somewhat uneasily alongside his recent-and sadly current profanities and distasteful sexist utterances. Not least his views on homosexuality, abortion and paedophilia, and a threat to get one of his mates to "annihilate" and jump on the head of the British journalist who correctly reported some of them.

I feel fortunate that he only told me to "eff-off" when I once remonstrated him for the foul language he was using before an audience which included women and children.

Fury says he has only ever read one book –The Bible. How he can equate such obnoxious views with the Holy Scriptures, even his oft-quoted Leviticus 20:13, is beyond comprehension.

British cinemas have rightly decided that theirs was not the place for religious advertising and I respectfully suggest the same should apply to the boxing ring – indeed any sporting arena.

Not that this is really a new phenomenon. Sport and religion have gone hand in glove for years.

American players on the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players getting it printed onto a golf club.

No doubt they are well acquainted with three-holes of the back nine at Augusta, home of the Masters, known as Amen Corner.

Watch the Premier League. A huge number of players genuflect as they run on to the pitch. 

Romelu Lukaku is one of many footballers to display his religion on the pitch
Romelu Lukaku is one of many footballers to display his religion on the pitch ©Getty Images

Everton’s Romelu Lukaku immediately wheeled away, gestured to the heavens and crossed himself when he scored the equalising goal against Crystal Palace on Monday night.

Daniel Sturridge, the Liverpool forward, talks openly about dedicating the glory of his deeds to God; Javier Hernandez always dropped to his knees in prayer before the kick-off when playing for Manchester United.

David Luiz, the former Chelsea defender, has had a "Christ is Life" sticker on his car.

Other prominent members of football’s God squad are Lionel Messi, the aptly-named Cristiano Ronaldo, Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and Everton and USA goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Barcelona's Neymar gives ten per cent of his earnings to a religious charity.

Some years ago the Brazilian FA even got a rap from FIFA because so many of their players were in the habit of  displaying their faith too spectacularly.

After his AC Milan team had beaten Liverpool to win the Champions League final in Athens, Kaka knelt in the centre circle, spread his arms out wide, tilted his head back and turned his eyes to the skies in a gesture of worship and supplication. 

The Brazilian superstar was wearing a vest on which he had printed the statement "I Belong to Jesus". 

Probably the best-known religious British athlete was Chariots of Fire runner Eric Liddell who refused to compete on Sundays and subsequently missed out on qualifying for the 1924 Olympic 100 metres final.

Triple jumper Jonathan Edwards also was a "Never on Sundays" man, saying God had told him not to compete on the Sabbath. But that was before his famous leap of faith away from religion altogether.

Cricket had the late Rev. David Sheppard, who, when he dropped a catch in a 1963 Test Match, was reprimanded by team-mate Freddie Trueman thus: ”You might keep your eyes shut when your praying, Vicar, but I wish you'd keep 'em open and your hands together when I'm bowling.”

Among a host of religious tennis stars are sisters Venus and Serena Williams, both devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

These are just a few examples of the copious links between sport and spirituality but nowhere is this stronger than in boxing. Maybe it is because of the very nature of the sport with its inherent dangers that so many of its protagonists turn to their God.

Triple jumper Jonathan Edwards initially refused to compete on Sundays due to religious beliefs
Triple jumper Jonathan Edwards initially refused to compete on Sundays due to religious beliefs ©Getty Images

From Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam to Manny Pacquiao’s avowed Catholicism,  boxers have rarely been shy about proclaiming their religious beliefs, or preaching what they practice.

Punching preachers have been with us since the days of the Rev Henry Armstrong, aka "Hammerin’ Hank", the only man to hold three world titles at the same time before being ordained as a Baptist minister. Another ring Rev, George Foreman, said he heard God speaking to him in the dressing room the night he lost to Jimmy Young 40 years ago.

He now has his own church in Houston and still preaches there regularly.

Tiger Flowers, world middleweight champion in the 1920s, was known as the Georgia Deacon, always reciting the same passage from the Bible - Psalm 144 - "Praise be to the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle" -  as he walked to the ring.

Latterly Nigel Benn saw the light to become a minister with his own parish, first in Majorca and now in Sydney, where he lives.

Joe Frazier’s son Marvis, savagely ripped apart by Mike Tyson, recovered to become a Baptist minister.

The word of God was never far from Evander Holyfield’s lips, either.

And Pacquiao is on record as saying that he stopped his womanising ways after God has spoken to him personally and told him he was being a bad lad.

He repeatedly talked of his Born-again conversion in interviews leading up to his fight with Floyd Mayweather, even telling the Money Man, himself a  believer, that he hoped the pair could study the Bible and pray together after the event. There is no evidence this has happened.

Never mind punching the Bible - they hardly punched each other!

Manny Pacquiao is a devout catholic
Manny Pacquiao is a devout catholic ©Getty Images

Deontay Wilder, Timothy Bradley, Terence Crawford and Jacobs are among a host of devout American world champions – past and present - who publicly give thanks to their God from the ring.

Audley Harrison and Frank Bruno were British heavyweight boxers who displayed religious commitment. Bruno famously genuflected around 30 times before meeting Mike Tyson for the second time in Las Vegas – and still lost. Most religious boxers are either Christian or Muslim. I have yet to hear a fighter give thanks to Buddha for his victory.

Ali's religion continuously shaped his image and career. He missed three years of fighting in his prime by refusing the draft for his beliefs, which he continued to express despite the controversy behind the Nation of Islam group to which he formerly belonged.

In fairness to Ali, after his initial outburst when winning the title from Sonny Liston, apart from briefly praying in his corner, he never invoked Allah from the ring.

Nor does Amir Khan, unlike Naseem Hamed who, when he fought Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas, was preceded into the ring by an incense-spraying, prayer-chanting mullah. 

Naz had told us he could not lose because Allah was in his corner. Unfortunately he seemed to have done a disappearing act, along with Hamed’s skill and stamina that night.

By contrast Khan once told me: ”I don't take religion in the ring with me. Religion should be private.”

I agree. So please can we have a little less of the Hallelujah chorusing. I think most fans would say Amen to that.