clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In defense of boxing: Lessons learned from the gym

Paul Johnson takes a look at what the sport of boxing, brutality and all, has taught him, and what it gives to so many others.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Recently, I stumbled across an article in The Guardianwritten by feminist academic Julie Bindel following Tyson Fury's outlandish and offensive comments in the media -- €”instead of responding to Fury, her comments attacked boxing from the ground up. She criticised the sport for its exploitative nature, going as far as saying "If your job is to knock somebody unconscious, it's unlikely that they have been raised to think that solving an argument with their fists is wrong."

I was surprised by her take on boxing as a whole, as this didn't strike me as the sport I knew. The claim that boxing is exploitative is understandable, but to reduce boxers to thugs and label the sport as the cause of these thugs' behaviours is a sign that someone hasn't taken the time to do their research and has instead allowed their preconceptions to lead them into the abyss. A poor showing for an academic.

If Bindel were to have taken the time to walk down to her local gym, or sample a handful of different boxing gyms in her area, she would have found an environment at odds with the revolting scene she set. Boxing isn't a sport of thugs, but of discipline, hard work and salvation. Sure, it has its idiots (here's looking at you Kevin Cunningham, Angel Garcia and Tyson Fury), but they are in the minority, and the number probably aren't any greater than in wider society.

Boxing through my own eyes

I've always been an overly moralistic person. I constantly worry about the rights and wrongs of the world, to the point of studying politics at university, because inequalities in my community and around the world bothered me so much. Then I earned a masters, followed by a career in international development, all because I couldn't handle the idea that I was blessed with opportunities that others might not have. My life and my actions are dominated by an extremely, and my friends and family might say annoyingly, moralistic approach to anything I do. My love of boxing has always seemed at odds with this. How can someone who so vehemently battles internally with ideas of right, wrong and social justice, be so passionate about a violent sport that, it could be argued, exploits and harms poor minorities purely for the entertainment of the masses?

"My life and my actions are dominated by an extremely, and my friends and family might say annoyingly, moralistic approach to anything I do. My love of boxing has always seemed at odds with this."

Initially, my love of boxing came from a primal instinct that many people have to some degree, especially those of us that fall deeply in love with combat sports. I felt drawn to the violence, and to the visceral nature of watching two men fight it out for all the spoils. But despite this, I often found myself questioning the morality of the sport, and whether or not I should feel guilt-free when enjoying watching two people smash each other's skulls in. To be honest, I still question the sport to this day. Whenever there's a terrible mismatch, or when someone is brutally knocked out and seriously hurt, I come back to questioning whether it really is okay to be a consumer of the sport and as a result a small part of the reason these things happen. So far, at least, I always come to the same conclusion. The sport does more good than it does harm.

I have come to this conclusion as a result of time spent in many different British boxing gyms. I first stepped into a boxing gym when I was 18 years old. It was a small, run-down hut that looked a bit like it might double up as an abattoir for local miscreants. I was scared to death, and my fears weren't eased when I was met with a sensory overload that started with a vicious assault on my nostrils. The pungent odour suggested the little murder hut hadn't been cleaned since it was last kitted out in the 1930's. Moreover, some of the terrifying monsters who were trying to break the equipment seemed like they might not have had a wash in a while either. I was there because I had developed mental health issues, and a problem with anger that was surely going to get me beaten up or locked up if it wasn't dealt with. The hope was that boxing would level me out, that it would give me the discipline to control my rage and that this gym would be the first step in becoming healthier. An expectation clearly at odds with Bindel's view of boxing.

My first boxing gym wasn't much to write home about--except if you were writing home to ask that they send help and cleaning products. But it was the start of a personal revelation that not only helped me to control my mental health problems, but a revelation that led me to a fascination with boxing at every level. Since then, I've been through the doors of many more gyms, and I've dealt with my issues both in and out of those gyms. Each and every one of them is still an intimidating place, with some slightly more dressed up than my first experience, but each and every one has helped me to grow as a person and has taught me lessons that I will carry with me for life. Lessons about self-discipline, hard work, healthy living and self-confidence.

A sport with a purpose

To many, boxing starts and ends with the Mayweathers, the Pacquiaos and the other big names that draw big crowds. But the sport goes far deeper than the bright lights of Vegas and Michael Buffer's waxy, leather face. It goes far deeper still than the blood and guts of low-level professional fights at York Hall, or any small hall around the world. The foundations of boxing are located in the local gyms, where most people training probably won't make a single penny fighting, and many probably won't ever make it through the ropes for a sanctioned fight. But for me, the justification for boxing as a sport comes in seeing these people working away, learning the sport, and learning from the sport.

In my time boxing, I've been through many gyms and met many different people, with lots of different reasons for taking up the sport. You meet the shy and retiring types, who need the sport to help their self-confidence, or the kid facing bullies daily who needs a way to defend himself, as well as plenty with rough upbringings who need the sport to stay on the straight and narrow. Many of the stories overlap, many of them compete, and all exemplify diverse and interesting backgrounds. Here's what Julie Bindel doesn't know: For most, a boxing gym offers personal, physical and mental development that isn't as available or as effective elsewhere. It changes lives.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bad Left Hook Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your global boxing news from Bad Left Hook