By Ian Aldous: You don’t play boxing. It’s a familiar phrase that we hear when talking about the sweet science. It’s something that former IBO World light-heavyweight champion, Sven Fornling (15-2) knows only too well. He was the underdog in a lot of his big fights yet prevailed in so many of them.
“I saw this documentary about Roberto Duran, and he was over fifty and still fighting, and someone said: ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ He said: ‘It’s the only thing I know how to do – I’m a fighter.’ And I can feel that sometimes too. Boxing is my arena, so to say. I feel myself when I’m in the ring.”
Unfortunately, his six-year pro career has concluded following a brutal and unsuccessful defence of his IBO crown last November in Germany. Dominic Boesel stopped the defending champion in the eleventh round. Fornling had split with his coach just weeks before the clash and had been out of the ring for almost a year. A shin injury that scuppered a huge fight with Artur Beterbiev had also taken its toll. Luck wasn’t on his side.
“In the second round, I caught a blow in the back of my head, and I took a count. I didn’t really reflect on it; I just wanted to get back and fight. I should have complained or made some sort of issue about it,” the thirty-one-year-old explained. “I recovered pretty quick, but the longer the fight went, the more it affected me. In round five/six, I felt I was getting the upper hand, and by round eight/nine, I started feeling weak and dizzy. In round ten and forward, I can’t really remember everything. I was just trying to stay on my feet. Dominic was slick and had a great tactical game. He used his abilities and my weaknesses in a smart way. Most things that could go wrong went wrong in that fight.”
His title was gone, but that was the least of his and his family’s worries. He begins with a sigh as he explains the events that were to unfold in the aftermath of the fight.
“I felt in round ten that there is something wrong. I couldn’t really tell what the feeling was. I just felt something is wrong in my head. After the fight, directly afterward, I said to my team: ‘I don’t feel so good.’ They were worried, of course, and a doctor was looking at me. They said I need to get to the hospital as soon as possible. I got into hospital and, I don’t have a lot of memories from this, I just remember I’m freezing all the time. I can’t really tell what’s real and what’s my dream. Afterward, people told me I was babbling about crazy things. At first, I got an MRI scan, and they saw it was a bleeding in the head. They were going to (perform) surgery on my head. But then, they waited a little while, and another MRI scan said that it had stopped, so they waited a little bit more for another MRI scan, and if the bleeding doesn’t start again, then I might be able to recover without the surgery. The next MRI scan – there was no bleeding anymore. They kept examining my head once an hour. A few weeks later, I felt bad; severe headaches, I couldn’t focus on anything and had trouble sleeping. But, if I compare it to other people who had the same thing I had – I got off pretty easy. In four or five weeks, I was pretty much back to normal and training again and felt pretty good.”
He had to make a decision. The vast majority wanted and hoped he’d walk away from the sport with his head held high. Common sense implored it. Yet, when fighting is what you love, the crossroads Fornling found himself at, was one in which he didn’t know which way to turn.
“It was really, really, really tough,” he said. “First off, I wanted to continue fighting. I had a talk with my promoter, Errol (Ceylan), and he told me: ‘Are you crazy, you almost died? You have an education; you have children; why would you keep fighting? You should retire now!’ I still wanted to fight, and I had plans to go back, and I had talks with other promoters. The definite decision was when I had a talk with my wife. I have two small children, one is eight months, and one is two years. She said directly after the fight: ‘We have to talk about your future in boxing. It’s been horrible for me. I thought you were going to die’. A couple of months after, we had a talk, and she said: ‘Well I thought about it Sven and if you want to continue, I’m going to be horrified and I don’t know how I’ll make it, but if it’s what you want, then go ahead, you have my support.’ When she said that, I decided not to continue. I have great memories through boxing, but she’s gone through so much with the fight game. When I was at the hospital, and the only one she could talk to was my manager, and she thought I was going to die, her parents had to come over and take care of my children for me – I couldn’t do that to them again. When my kids grow up, I want them to feel like they can be anything. If they want to fight, go ahead, do it. But, how am I going to explain to them that I almost died and the doctors told me not to fight again, but I still fought and went completely brain-dead? Her accepting me to keep fighting, (pauses) that broke me a bit.”
So many leave the game only to return years, or even months, later. I had read talk of him competing again at 168lbs. I asked if this was a meaningless rumor and not something he’d partake in. I questioned it as a concerned citizen wanting the best for someone myself, and the boxing community considers a genuinely nice guy.
“I had some suggestions and some friends with ideas, but no, this is it for me. Everything can change, but at this time, I cannot see anything that will make me go back in a ring.
Despite that, Fornling is still a frequent visitor to the gym and just completed a workout prior to our conversation. A career as a trainer or coach isn’t something that appears to appeal to the former champion.
“I’m not sure if I want to go full in because everything related to boxing for me is going to be a paler shade of what has been. Everything’s going to remind me of when I was at the top, and nothing is going to top, in boxing, the emotions and feelings I had when I became world champion.”
Away from the ring, Fornling has been a public accountant for a decade and plans on pushing his body to new physical limits as he trains to become a fireman. Thankfully, he and his family weren’t reliant on the money he earned through boxing. He’s in an enviable position that a lot of pugilists from the past didn’t find themselves in when quitting the ring.
“That, of course, makes the decision easier also. It’s not like my family is dependent on me earning money from boxing. We make it without boxing.”
As we wound down, we reflected on his crowning achievement. On December 15th, 2018, Karo Murat – a man only beaten by Nathan Cleverly, Bernard Hopkins, and Sullivan Barrera – all elite light-heavyweights, surrendered his IBO 175lbs title to Fornling via unanimous decision. The underdog prevailed and etched his name in Swedish boxing history.
“I have three memories. The first one was in round eleven or twelve when Murat was really close to knocking me out, but I knew he wasn’t going to do it. Even when I couldn’t stand straight, I felt: ‘I got you, you ain’t doing this, not tonight.’ The second one is when I came out of the ring, I don’t know if it’s my wife who told me this, but the first thing I said to her was: ‘Never again, I’m not going to do this again. I can’t be this beat up once again because I’ll die in the ring’. The third one is when I’m sitting with my manager waiting for the media to enter the locker room, and they were taking the (urine) sample for the doctor. It’s just me and him in the room, and we looked at each other and were just like: ‘F*cking hell man, we did it, we f*cking did it'(laughs).”
As our phone call ended and I wished Sven all the best, I sensed a man content with what he achieved, but someone who also yearned for a few more years in the game. It’s a satisfying balance when you consider those fighters who never attain the heights that they dreamt of or those who can’t walk away from the sport long after they should. Sven Fornling did neither. He achieved what he wanted and left when the time was right.