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Hit Don't Get Hit - The Sport of Boxing

When I was 19, my housemate introduced me to boxing by inviting me to the free class he went to every week. Now to give some context, I was far from an athlete growing up. Yes I played football as kid, but I seldom made the team. My parents remind me how when I volunteered myself to play for rugby D-team, my tenure as a fullback started and finished the moment I grabbed the ball and was immediately tackled to the ground. A trial for the cricket-team ended when a fast-bowled hardball smacked into my finger and took a nail off. Occasionally I was able to make the hockey team, but generally speaking I didn’t have the aptitude for team-sports. 

As I grew up I found I was much better at sports that didn’t require a team; I grew into kayaking, found some good strength and endurance in running and learned how to effectively let the sea beat me up and repeatedly break my nose through Surfing. To succeed in these, it was solely down to me, myself and I, and measured by how far I was able to push and endure hardships. 

I was extremely nervous about this boxing class, what would happen to me and how much of a fool I would look? Apart from a lack of dexterity with the skipping rope, the result was pretty much the opposite my fears, and that started a relationship that is a bit of love, a bit of fear, but overall fascination. 

Looking at face value, one fighter punches another, hit and don’t get hit, but there’s a hell of a lot more to it. To me, boxing (for that matter any combat sport) is the truest representation of self-belief and discipline. Everything is put on the line once those gloves are tied up and you stand face-to-face with your opponent. Bravery can be rewarded just as much as it can be punished, generally speaking you get as much as you give. What is unequivocally transparent through boxing, however, is your work-rate. In it’s truest sense, failure to prepare is a preparation to fail. 

I was fascinated with the transparency of it all, and with the few sessions of sparing I did myself, I quickly gained a huge respect for those who take this to a professional level.  

No Lies in the Ring

Probably the best way to learn about boxing as a sport is by starting with the heavyweight “money” division; and lucky me, just as I was getting to learn about the sport, Anthony Joshua suffered his first career loss to Andy Ruiz, a result that seemingly shifted everything and will go down as a huge moment in heavyweight history. That shock loss taught me something immediately: you can look like the stronger fighter, have the better press, and be the fan favourite, but that’s all just show and talk. Any weakness can be exposed in the ring because there are no lies in the ring. 

It’s a truth to every division across the sport, and can lead to some tragic, sometimes hilarious, results. Fighters need to show confidence, they need to know they can win if they want any chance of succeeding; as was the case with Anthony Joshua. 

6’5, build like a statue with three world championship belts to his name. Anthony Joshua was the face of British boxing and had proven himself as a titan with combination punches, his record was untarnished. In comes Andy Ruiz, a last minute replacement who was just over 6’0, already had a loss on his record and, to put it more delicately than some fans would, didn’t have a shape that visually rivalled Joshua. 

For two rounds it looked to go exactly as you expect, and the third-round a knockdown from Joshua. Fantastic. But Joshua had a weakness that was exposed in that fight; on an attempt to finish Andy Ruiz in the third round, he was exposed to the left and in-came a hook from the underdog. Immediately Joshua was wobbled and soon after found himself on the floor, got up to fight again before he was floored a second-time. I would say for anybody, fan or not, that round is one hell of a spectacle to watch. 

Joshua had a weakness, over-confidence? Naiveté? Or a weak chin? Rumours came out afterwards, but that moment made a noticeable change that redefined his fighting style for years to come. He was no longer the fighter he and everyone around him had been built up to be. 

6 months prior, and another moment in the heavyweight division that was just as astounding. On Tyson Fury’s first title fight against Deontay Wilder, a fighter armed with a mega-punch that had knocked all prior opponents out, he took a punch in the 12th round that had flattened him. Seemingly having lost the fight, the count begun, and by some miracle his eyes opened wide. Within 10 seconds he had gone from being laid out on the canvas to running around, to then bringing the fight back to Wilder. 

With the whole backstory of Tyson Fury prior to this fight, what we witnessed was a display of belief unlike any other, and proved one person’s determination to be recognised as the best in the world. It was crazy and inspiring. What followed this were two rematches where Fury had Deontay’s number and twice-over got the knockout himself. 

Closer to home and many weight divisions lower is Leigh Wood, a man who has fought through so much adversity to get the knockout and win in spectacular fashion. In his last 4 fights he has faced tough opposition who, on scorecards, have taken more rounds than him. Often he looks spent, sometimes he’s sent to the floor, one occasion he lost. Regardless, he has been able to fight through and knock out each of his opponents to achieve his win, or avenge his loss. 

To the point I am trying to make through these examples, boxing can be seen as the truest test of one’s strength. They are put through immense pressure to perform, and are in a space that exposes them entirely on a physical and mental level. To succeed in this sport, you cannot shy away from any weakness, but you can rarely rely on your strengths alone without being exposed. Soon enough flaws get found-out, mentalities get tested, and its the determination and persistent mental steel that will allow you to beat your opponent. 

The examples also operate at the highest levels, but anyone who has ever sparred knows this is true at the lowest level also. A three minute round doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but when you are constantly moving, reading your opponent, throwing punches, reading yourself and trying to cover-up any weaknesses in yourself, it becomes extremely taxing. Getting punched is no joy-ride, and the strength you need to withstand those can only be understood by doing.

To be good, you need to be physically and mentally correct. 

Politics and the Fanbase

My fascination is obvious, but it’s not all sunshine when I speak about this sport. As an entertainment, it’s unbelievably ridiculous and stupid. This is for a number of reasons that I’ll lay out right now: egos, money, politics. 

Firstly to talk about ego, you don’t become a good fighter if you don’t back yourself. To back yourself, you need ego. That fact makes the sport a joy just as much as it makes it a frustration to follow. 

Boxing is unlike any sport because there is no set-season for a fighter. In games like football, we are guaranteed a set number of games every year because everyone operates within a league and needs to regularly prove their talent to stay on top of that league. A boxing professional’s career can last as long 20 years, a well-trained amateur going professional has a career of maybe 15-10 years. 

At the top level, you typically get 2 fights each year, 3 if you’re lucky. When you’re a star, everyone wants to fight you, but you don’t necessarily want to fight everyone. This might be because you want a challenge, or just as much it might be to protect that record. 

Boxer’s records are as close to their identity as their name, and obviously a lossless record looks incredible, but it can present some issues. Just as much, in waiting for a career-defining fight, fighters need to stay active and will ideally take a fight that isn’t risky to help them stay match-fit for the next. 

This results in too many times when we see the most skilled and refined fighter go against the most-mediocre in one-sided fights that are obviously going a specific direction. Sometimes they surprise you, other times it just feels like a glory-match where the attraction is the name of the good fighter. 

What an entertainment, and it’s fantastic to develop a “knockout reel” for both fans and the athlete, but it can often defeat the sense of this being a sport. 

This feeds into the much larger problem of boxing, today it can be just as much a business as it is a sport. 

When you’re a fighting superstar, you not only have a record to keep, you have a brand to manage as well. Companies attach themselves to you. Then you become a great asset for other brands marketing and, to the promoters, you are a great asset to sell tickets. With all that corporate reliance, coupled with the ego discussed earlier, it must feel scary to know that one punch can change everything. 

It happens, even in the short time I’ve followed the sport names have come in and disappeared after a loss or two. Sometimes they come back, others you rarely hear from again. It can be a scary thing, but what makes it even scarier for them are the promoters who run the show. 

Boxing as a business is no better exemplified than in the promoter. As the title suggests, they are responsible for advancing the fighters career and giving them a platform to be a champion. They connect boxers to the TV channels, provide the venues and sell the fight and the fighters themselves. In the UK, the professional scene is dominated by two promoters, Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, who promote Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury respectively. 

For the sport, this role is the double-edged sword. On the one hand, we wouldn’t have the sport so public without them. We wouldn’t have fights big enough to sell-out Wembley, or have fights all across the country. With them, objectivity basically dies. 

This manifests in the most recent debate that is probably about to resurface (depending on what happens in the coming weeks): who is the best heavyweight in the world? 

Ask Eddie Hearn, he will tell you Anthony Joshua. A fighter with a fantastic resume who is a two-time world champion, beaten generational greats and proven his worth through a wealth of title-defences. As well as that, he isn’t afraid of any opponent and is always ready to take a risk, no matter the cost. 

Ask Frank Warren, and Anthony Joshua has fought nobody. As far as generational greats, Joshua only beat them after Tyson did, and Tyson is the best heavyweight in the world. A lineal champion who has not yet been beaten. A man who has fought with the heaviest puncher three times. Any question about his resume, you will be reminded of the dangerous division where one-punch can change it all. He has defended his title multiple times and can’t be beaten. 

All to say, you can see why this is so divisive. Opinion is this sport is currency, and opinion is built up by moments in the ring. Anthony Joshua has avenged his loss and has only been beaten by, arguably, the best talent in boxing. Tyson Fury has survived a punch no other boxer can and has given an excellent account of himself when fighting the reigning world champion in Vladimir Klitschko. 

But those moments are surrounded by an overwhelming amount of context, and so can be swung so easily to benefit a promoter’s interests. This also proves issue when, as before discussed, a bad fight occurs. 

Boxers are often measured in terms of “stock,” which is to say the perceived value of their ability. Stock rises after big wins and victories, and generally goes down after a big defeat. It can more often than not be in the best interest of the promoter to keep stock high for a fighter to keep them as a asset for business revenue. 

Lastly, the politics. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about boxing is how it is regulated. In football, regulation is done by one governing body who oversee everything and then each league is overseen by another. Games are largely domestic so its easier to contain and have all athletes compete to a set standard. Other sports generally follow this pattern to keep it a fair and just contest with a rightful winner. 

Boxing is different in that it is regulated by at least four bodies, WBO, WBA, IBF and WBC. While generally they keep the same contest among them, each have their own rules, standards, and in some cases their own weight divisions. 

On top of this, they all have their own rankings within each division, and have the authority to call mandatory fights for their champion, meanwhile the “Ring Magazine” is its own ranking system on top of this. It can be ludicrously difficult to setup fights with the best when mandatories and sanctioning get in the way. 

Talking about this, I will stubbornly refuse to include talking about national governing bodies and the different drug testing agencies, all of which have come to light due to recent events and make the sport even more complicated to follow. 

It’s this system that removes any glimpse of objectivity to the sports, and can at times be infuriating to follow as a fan. This is especially true with the most recent ranking of former UFC fighter Francis Ngannou being ranked as a top-10 heavyweight by the WBC, despite the record of one loss only. 

It is here when I side more with the underpaid UFC fighters, who operate under one governing body and are given much less leeway as to who they can fight. A loss is much more acceptable in the UFC, and regularly you see the best in the division fighting the best in the division. 

When opinion can be this rife for so many reasons, you can understand why being a fan can be just as frustrating as it can be fun. It may sometimes lead to good conversation, but other times find yourself spending hours explaining to someone why exactly you have the opinion you have. 

If you’re to take anything from this section, it would be to not ask me my opinions on individual fighters after 4 beers or more. 

Discipline and Persistence is Everything

After first trying the sport, I went back and did it some more. I continued boxing for the next 2 years. In 2022, I was continuing to run, but health matters meant I stopped boxing and haven’t done so since. Now while I do believe that an appropriate reason, it does often leave me wondering when I will next pick it up. 

I’ve sparred before, sometimes I’ve been able to hold myself up and it’s been great and feels fantastic afterwards. As macabre as it can sound, after a good session I couldn’t wait to get in and fight again. After a bad session however, you can feel exhausted, defeated, and it’s a tough feeling. 

It’s a holistic sport that requires almost your entire body. Your legs need to be strong enough to stay stable, but nimble enough to effectively manoeuvre around your opponent. You need a great core to sustain a punch and keep your balance when a bad one comes. You need to be powerful, but have enough cardio to sustain that power over a given-time period. You need to be confident, but not cocky. Smart, but not over-analytical. This all falls into what is lovingly called “the sweet science of boxing,” and it’s all about sitting on that right balance both physically and mentally.  

A defeat is a real test, when it becomes less about your defeat, and more about how your react to it. I, like many others, have experienced this generally in life and know well enough that no defeat is defining unless you make it. Defeats are valuable in what you learn and how you develop from them. In the case of boxing right now, I haven’t been back since a defeat about the end of 2021. I didn’t have the discipline or persistence to make it past those tough loses and face my fear head-on. It is those qualities that make a successful boxer thrive. I never proved that to myself.

Maybe part of it is down to determinism, but another is certainly a case of the mental toughness I hadn’t built for boxing. 

That sob-story is to say that talent alone will rarely get you far in a sport such as this, and hard work is rewarded far more. It’s obviously the same in other sports, especially in the context of the elite level, but I find it hard to picture a sport where so much of you is exposed for both the world and yourself to see. Everything is on the line. 

Now I can’t end this without giving acknowledgment to the darker side of boxing. I have, on two occasions now, seen fighters stretchered out of the ring. It’s a sport that is incredibly dangerous and at times can leave you in a life-threatening state. 

Very recently I recalled the story of Spencer Oliver and his fight in the Albert Hall. An unbeaten bantam-weight, his first ever loss resulted in a coma and subsequent fight for his life. It is a part of boxing that brings with it a lot of controversy in the media. Death isn’t uncommon, especially when you are being whacked in the head for a living. 

This fact has brought with it a lot of controversy that now surrounds the sport in regards to safety, and there have been many questions as to the future of the sport. It’s place in the Olympics, for example has been under scrutiny many times. I’m not here to really discuss this or offer an opinion, other than to say it is, at times, a very dark sport. 

With that, there are my overall thoughts on boxing and why to me, it’s a fascinating, frustrating, yet all around great sport. 

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