Sport offers us many things in life. It lends the competition that complements our daily routines. It teaches discipline to children. It provides camaraderie. It adds drama that we may be missing in our lives. If it’s not drama, sports are an escape, or a therapy to alleviate humdrum. Some sports continually teach its practitioners something they can use in their real lives besides how to be in shape.
Besides random exercise and competition every once and a while, sport offers adults a farce. When we join leagues and use so much time to “just do it,” we are making caricatures of our frivolous selves worse than any imaginations implying that we are Nike advertisements. We play contrived games with the vigor of war. As fans, some of us even paint our faces and just want to feel like winners. Some of us commit much of our schedules, not as professionals, but as paying players (some of whom sit the bench). Some of us have not read a classic literary work beyond high school, but we waste every precious Sunday to feign exercise as a tailgate pregame to the bar where we praise heroes like groupies yelling at a TV we continue not to realize doesn’t hear us back. Some of us have been in farcical youth gangs, but we pretend we’re doing something positive now just because we’re no longer loitering; we’re just drowning in beer while neglecting other potential responsibilities. Some of us are middle-aged men who’ve known real war and have seen real heroism on, say, 9/11, but we each loudly wear a jersey with the name and number of a coddled foreign-import player we would want to be or who we think we resemble on the playing field. Some of us have children to whom we impose role models who do nothing worthwhile in their lives but do what comes easy to them in sport. Some of us have debt but give our money, playing into the marketing of millionaire athletes and organizations that do nothing for any of us but offer minimum wage jobs to the stadium locals whose failing credit will never be rescued. And we have false allegiances to teams that wear our city’s initials but have zero players who are from our city, zero men who’ve braved our uniforms. When do any of us look at how silly we are and ask ourselves, “Why in the world am I a grown man wearing someone else’s name and uniform on my back?” “What does being a fan do for me?” “What does being a fan say about me?” “What does play even do for any of us?” “What is my average-person, aspiration-less pursuit?” “Can I really purchase camaraderie and imitate glory?”
Some of the sports I condemn breed little more than fantasy. There are 45 year olds who find nothing more productive in their lives but to compete on a moot level, and whine in every game they play. Some of us play sports that can be mastered, and if we get close, we continue on the same exact road for the rest of our lives – perfect scores or pars every other month. Many of us play sports at the same level every year. What are we really doing if we aim for nothing but an achievement so inconsequential, so redundant? Every person’s struggle is subjective, but winning means little if we “have it coming.” But if we fight for it, like grasping beyond our reach and by the skin of our teeth (forgive the cliché but we are talking sports) and being great for once never to be duplicated, it is only then that it really means something. We, as individuals in society, just want to belong to something. We want unity, the feeling of family, but that, in and of itself, is pathetic for any man who has ever had real family or real friends. What happened to the man’s battle cry: “Do it yourself?” Very few of us jibe with the notion of facing individual competition, so we band together like hooligans who each have a need to compete on the strength of someone else. (This social dynamic could be why most of us are such losers content in doing what everyone else is doing…or we bowl or golf.) One game, golf, reserves one of the most lowly spots in farce. It’s one of the biggest tricks life plays on people. The time spent perfecting swings, traveling to places just to miss real sights, chumming with bad athletes who have the slightest of fortitudes to practice, false achievements, business affiliations made with phony hand-shakes, overpriced fees, courses’ sprawling lands wasted on nothing. I can go on, but it’s simply the worst of any farcical game.
Whether citing individual accolades or those of gang’s, I do not take pleasure in taking away from anyone’s achievement in games like Uno or Old Maid or War (the card game), but sometimes sport is akin to such basic games, whether video-game, roll-playing game, or board game: if we play it enough, we’re eventually going to win on some level. Maybe sport is simply about that, persistence. But if that’s the element that makes sport significant, I suggest playing numbers and scratch-offs instead. And one may say that competing is about love of the sport – that may be enough to evade the commiserable notions of its meaningless alone, but the dedication and love and joy is what is commiserable. How about finding something more worth loving? Can we muster any other interests? And if we must play sports, or watch it, the love of gambling would be the only other way to confer our nobility when we cheer.
Sport, beyond the possibilities of making money doing it, is just a sham made for people who need to play games and feel important. They are substitutions for the identity – like anything can be – but sportsmen seem to do it emptier and with more pretense than much of anything else. But one sport is not for the false partisans of softball players trying baseball or runners playing football for the first time at the age of 24. It’s not for good blockers who will only play the line, or good throwers who will never make a catch. It’s not for overweight asthmatics who think they’re getting exercise bowling a consistent average for decades. Boxing is not for consummate losers who just want to do something because they can’t be more creative, intellectual, or busy. Boxing is not a pseudo sport and it wasn’t contrived as a displaced competition. Boxing is actually ONLY for the epitome of what a true sportsman, at his best, should be: a fighter. And fighters are bred differently.
Fighters are built from trials, setbacks, tribulations, and overcoming. What separates fighters from everyone else is that every one of them from every society and socioeconomic bracket is bred to be indifferent to conceivable loss. They are unequivocally fighters because, by their nature, they can lose worse than anyone else and can win worse than anyone else. They can also win better, with more personal glory than anyone else. Boxers take on all comers (cliché, I know). They don’t size-up anyone like the average idiot in a commotion at a bar; boxers don’t really size-up anyone until the first round of a fight (at least they’re trained not to). Yes, the tale of the tape is for all the guys at the bar who, at some point in their lives, were that idiot. Fighters, boxers, look you in your eyes, having learned manhood as boys in the gym. Boxing is a game of mistakes and opportunities – not inches, not numbers. It’s the likeliest microcosm of life and the most dynamic macrocosm of chess. And the fighters risk more than anyone. In boxing, there are no full-ride colleges where you play having nothing to lose and get awarded things just for potential or you lose your opportunity over an irrelevant quotient, be it intelligence, grades, or behavior. Only champions make money in boxing, at the risk of losing their health for every step up to contention.
Boxing on any level enhances life experience. It’s scary. It’s primal. And it’s also incomparably strategically intense. When someone becomes MVP of some mid-week beer league, it means little other than the pride and glory it embellishes up on the mantel. Or it’s just a game they tried hard to win, did, and are going to do because it’s fun. Fun is not at all what moves a boxer, even if one may interpret it as that. He actually does it, and loves it, because it isn’t fun; he’s moved by the challenge. In boxing, just stepping in the ring and competing, means more than any such personal reflections that trophies convince its owners of – it actually is a validation of dedication, heart, and character, or it’s the confirmation of the lack thereof. Boxing is not about seeking praise; it’s about being worthy of it. It’s not about being able to say you are the best; it’s about being worthy of humility. Not to say that other sports don’t carry those qualities, but those qualities are prerequisites in boxing. Some other sports offer personal, spiritual gain, but are a far second from boxing, at best because those are often just possible by-products of other sports. Some other sports are purely recreation, or purely for competition, and they may be arbitrary in what they mean to one’s soul. The inexplicable satiation of overcoming something you have an easy choice to quit is something you only get from boxing. It’s so easy to quit because it’s so damn difficult. “No Mas” was a major aside in boxing long before Roberto Duran.
History is relevant in boxing. It’s not a self-absorbed practitioner’s sport in which “the now” only matters and a hall of fame only pays homage. Boxing has a tangible, lineal passage of championships. Today’s champions beat the men who beat the men all the way to the implementation of the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Boxing has evolved over decades and it carries the evolutions of every previous era. New fighters borrow from old fighters, but each represents himself for his career. He doesn’t change hometowns (just where they may fight “out of”), move positions, or have a refashioned role depending on his coach. And boxing, beyond sport, is obviously not contrived; there is no founding father to it because it has existed as long as fighting has – the Bible even sites Cain and Abel to have thrown punches.
In America especially, fighting fair fights with the fist has been part of culture for centuries. It is self defense, but it is not cheap. Of course, there are no rules in street fights, but there is an underlying respectability to being good with the hands. If someone has a problem with someone in the neighborhood, he settles it with the hands – he doesn’t hit the groin and much of the time, at least in many US ghettos, he doesn’t wrestle – fighting is about dignity and bravado, and honor and respect, so it greatly matters how one fights a fight. In this regard of growing up, to many people other combat tactics are not wholly appreciable without aversion. There is no jiu-jitsu for the poor, no upstanding self-defense system just for survival; if survival were the only reason for fighting, in all realism, there would be an art dedicated to attacking the groin in all of its maneuvers or there would be a martial art akin to sprinting, but there is no such martial art ever to have been created. Perhaps, it’s because such an art would be too easy. And for such a mentality, art is moot, and so, many kids agree, simply carrying guns probably because they can’t fight a lick. “They’re just trying to survive.”
In boxing there is no latent stimulation of any sort, but violence. It is what it is: two people trying to inflict more damage upon the other person by means of punching. There is no Freudian complex available for debate in boxing. Unlike in football or mma, there are no homosexual undertones to address (see Into the End Zone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytical Consideration of American Football by Alan Dundes). Some may joke about the shirtless men exchanging sweat and clinching in boxing, but the amateur ranks, the large proportion of boxing as a whole, consist of almost zero clinches, and the boxers wear shirts. Sportsmen always argue for their sports. Football players may think other sports have no contact. Basketball players may think other sports take no athleticism. Soccer players may think other sports require less stamina. Baseball players may think other sports don’t need fast hands and hand-eye coordination. Hockey players may think other sports take no grit. But no sportsman worth his stripes, unless he only supports team sports, can deny the qualities and qualifications of a fighter. And for all the childish benefits of team games, there is more to be said to go it alone. Mike Tyson best accounted for the hardships of fighting when he said this about being a champion: “No one can challenge me, people adore me… People say they’d love to be me, but if they were me they would cry.” Perhaps, if it were not for fighting, something like mountain climbing would be the choice recreation. I think it would just mean more crime.
Historically, boxing has proved to be a sport for the poor and underprivileged. It has given more children direction and changed more lives than can be enumerated. There are countless more kids saved from boxing than the champions it produced. Boxing clubs are the antithesis of country clubs – monies do not pour into boxing clubs, yet boxing clubs do so much more good dollar for dollar. Yet boxing has created fewer millionaires than most other sports. It’s because boxing is not about the paper championships. And it is much more than business or, some may say, corruption. Rather, it is about overcoming only in the most personal sense, and the boxing gym is about community even on a macro level (when, and if, boxing is anything other than that for anyone, consider it an exercise worthy of quitting just like anything else). Boxing doesn’t consist of the role-playing and fantasy that oozes from the majority of adolescents when they play other sports. When you see a young boxer paining himself in a dingy gym, he is doing it for himself and by himself, and not pretending to be anyone else. For all of Kobe Bryant’s successes, we may never be able to say the same even for him. The evidence is that omnipresent.
In other sports we root over our affiliations – uniform, organization base, our parents routed for them, we watched them from a young age; we route for fighters for much more – character, personal affinity, the individual story, and skills. Those skills, in boxing, will never be traded to another team or change due to a team’s philosophy, and they tend to exceed boundaries of cultures. And when our favorite fighter retires, we may have no other fighters to route for, because our applause was that legitimate. With other sports, we just cheer for an organization along with millions of other brainwashed fans. And you better believe that we’re brainwashed to our affiliations from the time we first watch sports. It’s like religion, and it should be considered something just as confounding. Boxing is much less dull, because, typically, it is not made of associations so devised.
In regards to other combat sports, boxers get hit in the head more than fighters do in any other sport because boxers fight in the pocket. The pocket is the most difficult range to master. It’s the most dangerous to be in. Boxing takes the most skills to be an expert in. And because it’s not the safest range, it is arguably more of a reason that one should be well-schooled in it. And even more so than that, it is a range that one cannot avoid in most fights of any sort. There is a “population fallacy” in mma – when there are more boxers, other arts are deemed to be more difficult. This also applies to the converse – when there are more people good at grappling, boxing is deemed to be less effective. Boxing is just so misunderstood. Many people wrongly think it’s about “shoot-outs” and “going toe to toe.” Because boxers fight in danger and the head is one of only two main targets, it does not connote ineffectiveness. Boxing is about angles and skills, taking power out of one’s opponent’s hands. The nuance is what makes boxing so profound of an art. Even kick-boxing is relatively arbitrary in how its fighters tend to throw punches; and in kick-boxing, there are too many tools and not enough time and attention for a fighter to be proficient at them all (a fighter has to have a mastery of his tools – his attacks and defenses – before he can have a semblance of strategy in his arsenal). Boxing probably takes a higher fight IQ than any other combat sport because it revolves around a multitude of combinations of “to-do’s” and “never-do’s” with the same focus group of tools under maximum duress; a fighter just doesn’t get many chances to mess-up or to not know what to do. In mma, however, if one doesn’t know what to do, he can simply avoid that exchange altogether or possibly hold a position. While I liken boxing to be like chess, mma is like sex; the latter has many more maneuvers, but much less strategy and somewhat of an unclear winner (I joke, but there’s truth in there somewhere). While it remains a consensus that mma fighters should be effective in multiple disciplines, I believe that, if the boxing community warmed up to the sport of mma (it may never happen), we would see more boxers in control of mma. Every other combative art has its antagonists to challenge its supremacy – wrestling has jiu-jitsu, Thai-boxing has taekwondo. But boxing is universally recognized as the preeminent authority on the skill-set of punching. No other art beats boxing with the hands, period. And no other martial art can make a similar, valid claim.
There is a humility in being bred a boxer that other sports don’t retain. Even though the public sees contradiction in the flashiest egos that litter PPV promotions, it is not an accurate representation of boxing. A few boxers earn their huge egos only to inevitably find out that the only way to be honest is to be humble. There is just too much competition in boxing that there is always someone better at what one does. It’s not like pitching beating batting or a wrestler beating a kick-boxer. In boxing, to be beaten, you must be beaten at your own game, and it happens all the time. So, he has to be humble. The ubiquitous boxer doesn’t sit around and ponder being Thunder, Mauler, or Iron. Boxers are kept in check as individuals because of their experiences, the rigorous training and repetition of punching. Another sportsman is not designated to his sport through a comprised set of trials, setbacks, tribulations, and overcoming. He is a player if he wishes to be and that is it. And if another sportsman works hard and makes it, he may never have had to overcome anything but being cut from a team. Boxing, on the other hand, is not an average guy pursuit with everyday hurdles. Average people just don’t do it. We can’t get any guy with interest in boxing to even consider learning the basics, much less have the courage to try it for real and forge his way onto the competitive playing field, the ring. The vast and embarrassing majority of people step in the gym and end up quitting because it’s painful and frustrating and embarrassing before it ever gets fun. Yet boxing never gets easy for anyone. How, then, can one not be humble in becoming a boxer? Empowered, maybe, but humble, a must. “Don’t think you’re the best until you’re ranked 2. And don’t put on an act like you’re the best when you only need to know it.”
Boxers are indeed humble, but not by way of hierarchy, because boxers don’t have bosses. Whether it is teammates or an actual manager, boxing isn’t even like The Ultimate Fighter television show in which fighters are continually asked to perform for the sake of their teammates. Unlike most other sports, boxing is not for guys who went nowhere and are going nowhere living weekly fantasies mimicking heroes between scurrying home to watch televised games. For adolescents, the structure and modeling means a lot. For adults whose characters are already built, that would be nothing but indignity. When I see Master boxers (over the age of 35) in a gym, I see a much different athlete than those I see at parks participating in other sports. Often, they may be bitter guys who believe they could have been contenders, but still, they are on another path than anyone else. They continue to learn about themselves and challenge their souls. It is, in actuality, a martial art. Whatever the definition is of sport and art, the latter fundamentally cultivates itself; sport is dictated, in the absolute, by rules and it is cultivated by popular demand or an authority’s say, if not the whims of culture. I don’t have to romanticize boxing, because in all its vulgarity, there is true beauty and truth in it; it is the ideal of all sports. Speaking to an old master boxer over the phone who was trying to get back into the gym, I vividly recall what he said: “When we box, it’s not a game and we’re not playin.’ And I wanna see how much I can still take.”
Boxing is alive and thriving. It is from the bottom rungs of society, but it exceeds race and exudes class – real class not bought into. A child walks into a gym and can’t afford a mouthpiece, but the boxing gym gives him one with gloves and a locker, all to be earned. Boxing is so great because it will never be big. Not enough people are willing to humble themselves. But enough do to be great. It’s not access that keeps a kid from boxing instead of on the football field. Don’t believe the myth. It’s the fear of not being able to lie that keeps him out of the gym. In every other sport, a man can lose or his team can get beat, but he can pretend he is someone he’s not. He can get tackled or he can get pinned, maybe even slammed, but he doesn’t have to withstand the humiliation of being punched in the face not even fathoming what would happen then, when he can’t pretend.
Boxing is simply the only sport, the only game, the hardest thing to play. And I guess I have my hero, too… the antihero, the boxer.
“If I told you to put away your extracurricular activities and do something that will reap you the rewards like no other thing can. If you are guaranteed to find personal strength and fulfillment you’ve never known before. If you will own an ability that everyone else would like to have, but all you have to do is be different by making a commitment to only yourself and work hard even when it’s easy to say no and quit. Would you do it? So why not fight?” – Al Alvir