In Defense of Boxing

The New York Times barely covers professional boxing. Nevertheless, on Sunday, March 28,  the newspaper of record ran two long-form boxing stories. One, “In Everybody’s Corner” is a tale of empowerment and covers Toronto’s Newsgirls Boxing Club. The Club is a refuge for hundreds of transgender people. The other story, “Fight," is a tragic tale about a debut professional contest in Youngstown, Ohio, between Anthony Taylor and Hamzah Aljahmi. Taylor won, and the nineteen-year-old Aljahmi was sent to his grave from the hurricane blows that swept over him in twelve minutes of non-stop action. Dan Barry, author of “The Fight,” fully frames the depth of character and promise of the combatants. He also presents an accurate account of the hard life at the first rung of the professional-boxing ladder.  

Laudably, Barry does not tell his audience what to think about the ring death; however, readers were quick to announce their conclusions. One wrote,  “Sanctioned, commercialized assault leads to a death. Tragic, though not unusual or surprising as those involved claim. A civilized society would ban it.” Another moralizes, “Two men entering a ring for a fight is wrong.” Still another chimes in, “I hope the cavemen sports such as boxing, professional and caged wrestling, together with American football will soon be banished to prevent further damage to the athletes and rein in our primitive tribal instincts displayed at the sport arenas and ball parks.”

As a boxing trainer for thirty years, I can vouch for the fact that professional pugilism and even amateur pugilism is a parlous activity. There have been nights under the klieg lights when I’ve witnessed the blood lust of fans, inept refereeing and trainers. I have sometimes shaken my head in disgust and asked myself—what am I doing in the world of the ring? Later, however, back in the gym, with young men and women who do not have the means to take their energy and ire out on the ski slopes, I remember why I am taping hands and holding the heavybag.

Boxing not only reveals character; it develops it. As Aristotle and Kierkegaard taught, there is a risk in not taking any risks. Courage is the lynchpin of the moral life. Building courage takes some practice coping with fear, and anyone who avoids all activity that comes with the possibility of physical harm is going to find it hard to develop the mettle that the moral life demands.  As the piece on the Newsgirls Boxing Club makes plain, when well supervised, boxing provides a workshop for learning how to deal with fear and other emotions that can level us like a left hook.

The gloved game has a special appeal for youngsters who won’t be going surfing or rock climbing over spring break. We all need love. There are millions of kids who never hear a kind and nurturing word at home. It is the same at school. Some of them make it to the boxing gym, and if they stick it out, for the first time in their lives they feel the sunshine of love, of someone telling them they are good at something. There is a sense of family feeling in a boxing gym that you don’t get on the diamond or gridiron. Kids drag themselves to the sweat-and-fear parlor everyday, and in the process some of these young boxers develop a sense of discipline, self respect, and self control that is transportable outside the gym. It is for this reason that former heavyweight champion (and ordained minister) George Foreman once told me, “Boxing makes kids less violent, because it teaches them how to control their emotions, their anger and their fear.”  

So much for the positive reasons for boxing. But I have an eyebrow to raise. Is there a class prejudice behind the blows directed at boxing?

Take three not-so-extreme sports that the rich, the famous, and the upper-middle-class enjoy—namely, skiing, cycling, and rock climbing. Between the three endeavors there are thousands of head injuries and deaths that occur globally every year. Yet you never hear a murmur about prohibiting these activities. But if injuries and death are what concern us, then why shouldn’t the government step in and ban access to the slopes and rock-faces?

No doubt some will answer that it's all about intentions—that unlike boxing, these other sports that mangle the lives and limbs of thousands of privileged people do not rest on brutal intentions? While it is true that boxers step between the ropes with the aspiration of knocking each other’s block off, they usually exit the ring with an enduring and tender sense of respect for one another that's hard to match elsewhere. Boxing does not make its practitioners more brutal. Last night, after their third epic encounter, in which the two champions furiously hit each other about the head and body, future hall-of-famer Manny Pacquiao hugged his  friend and rival and invited him to a prayer breakfast the next morning. There is not only respect between boxers; there is a level of affection that goes the extra mile beyond cooly acknowledging the agency and dignity of one's fellow human beings. The ultimate intention behind mano-a-mano is not to harm but to develop courage, strength, community, and self-mastery.

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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