Tasmanian boxer Luke Jackson's eternal fight inside

Luke Jackson was in the ring, but couldn’t breathe. 

Opposite the Tasmanian was Filipino boxer John Mark Apolinario, taking him the distance.

As 1000 fans and media watched on, Jackson was in two fights that night. The crowd could only see one.

His obsessive-compulsive disorder was playing up, and gripped him during the ten-round WBA Oceania title bout.

“No one knew about it,” Jackson said. 

He felt he needed to catch his breath, an obsession that had developed long before the Hobart fight in March. 

His breathing problem had lingered since 2007. But in his training before the fight, it took over.

“If I can’t catch my breath, I feel like I’m getting tired.”

He found himself thinking about that, and not his opponent.

Earlier that day he’d been lying on his bed, trying to breathe. He struggled on that night, nursing a shoulder injury too.

Jackson won one fight that evening and became the title holder, keeping his perfect record intact and moving to 11-0 with five knockouts. 

Two judges scored the fight 98-92, and the other marked in Jackson’s favour 99-91.

The win propelled the featherweight fighter to 13th place in world rankings.

“After that I said I can fight anyone in the world.”

Media crowded around the champion and asked him how he felt. 

The day’s events and the mental battle he’d fought had their effect. He spoke honestly, and told them about his OCD. 

“It was really, really bad,” he says months later. 

“I pretty much won that fight while not being able to breathe.”

His fight with OCD started in childhood. When he moved into his dad’s home he’d clean his house obsessively. Soon he developed a compulsion to touch things a certain amount of times. Usually the number involved was seven.

His anxiety about problems later became obsessions. 

“It’s still a battle I deal with everyday.”

His career speaks of personal drive and determination, but an ingredient to his success has long been unknown to the wider public.

A bronze medal at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and a boxing captaincy at the 2012 London Olympics came with a work ethic borne from the pressure Jackson put on himself.

Behind the success was an obsession with his goals that energised his training. 

He would pray, saying that he could die once he’d made the Olympics. The obsessive drive focused him.

Jackson, living in Moonah, credits it with helping him build his life. 

He’s defied odds stacked against him as a child. 

The boxer dropped out of school in grade 7, used to smoke cannabis and had an unsettled home life as a child. He fell into and out of welfare as a teenager.

His gym, house, car, Olympics appearance, Commonwealth Games medal and WBA championship came about partly with his condition, Jackson says. 

“The reason I got everything is me working, and without OCD I wouldn’t have that.

“But it’s come at a big price.”

After the 2006 Commonwealth Games, he isolated himself as he became driven towards his next goals. At other times depression, an illness associated with OCD, took hold.

“I was very sick and I caused myself a lot of miserable days.”

He’s starved himself before to achieve the body shape he wanted. OCD has also affected his relationships. 

At a young age, people close to him died by suicide. Thoughts of killing himself have intruded into his mind since, even when he’s been happy. 

“It can really stuff with your head if you let it.”

Jackson said he’d be dead if he hadn’t sought professional help. He sees a psychologist and psychiatrist, who give him mental tools to manage his condition. 

“It’s definitely a lot easier once you understand more about the situation.”

OCD, believed to develop from both genetic and environmental factors, will affect about 3 per cent of Australians in their lifetime. About 2 per cent will experience it in a given year.

The symptoms, including compulsive behaviours such as repeated checking, can draw deep shame from people with the condition that prevents them from seeking help.

Jackson rejects the stigma that mental illness is a weakness. 

Dealing with OCD and depression has required toughness and determination beyond many. 

“I have achieved more than anyone ever thought I would have, and I’ve achieved more than many people will.

“I never judge people, because I never know what they’re going through.”

Some days he’s felt like missing training and staying in bed, but has pushed on regardless.

Jackson’s preparing for his next fight. He’s mindful of his OCD.

“It is there. I think it could be different.”

He said it was important for people struggling with mental illness to look after themselves. 

“You just got to start talking to other people.”

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