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Boxing: An Ancient Tradition, A Necessary Skill

Sep 5, 2008
Obviously, no one knows when the first fistfight took place; nor do we have much of a clue when the art of smacking folks in the face began to be codified, the rules written down, judges and evaluators brought in. But we do know that boxing seems to be an unshakeable part of human culture, celebrated by the roughest and the refined alike.

Indeed, the art of boxing challenges those terms: "rough" and "refined." On the one hand, it's a display of naked physical aggression, the kind of thing that we often (and rightly) hope to avert, contain, or sublimate through things like law, ethics, community norms, and diplomacy. On the other hand, the true boxer obeys a set of rules that are themselves highly refined, an honor code both written and unwritten. Boxing is not a moral free-for-all in which two Darwinian predators try to kill each other. For example, when one well-known boxer bit off the ear of an opponent in a late-90s fight, he was widely perceived to have betrayed (not exemplified) the sport.

The ritualization of the basic fistfight seems to have started fairly early in recorded history. Archaeologist E.A. Speiser (who went on to do some of the definitive scholarly work on the book of Genesis) found, in 1927, an Iraqi tablet that shows two men getting ready to duke it out - a picture that attests to a sport that already involves planned, observed, ritualized fistfighting, perhaps as long as seven thousand years ago. Ancient literary works from India and Greece, including the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabhrata and the Greek Iliad - attest to the presence of boxing in those cultures.

The Greeks and Romans brought boxing to the level of a science, instituting rules and awarding prizes, although these were still not what we would consider civilized fights: the contests sometimes ended in death. In later Roman culture, boxing in gladiatorial contests was one of few avenues to freedom for certain slaves and criminals: if you won, you went free. (This social arrangement may remind some readers of the way that boxing in America has, at certain times, represented one of comparatively few economic opportunities for poor people of certain ethnicities - a situation that the great black writer Ralph Ellison attacks, with all the energy of a prizefighter, in the opening chapter of his 1952 novel Invisible Man.)

The violence of Greco-Roman boxing- its tendency to end with one of the two pugilists dead - caused it to be banned by 500 CE, with Theodoric the Great arguing that a sport that, literally, defaces its participants is an insult to God (whose image, according to the Christianity that Rome had by then adopted, is reflected in the human face).

Boxing survived on an underground basis, enjoying a major resurgence in eighteenth-century England. This time, various authorities tried to regulate the sport to prevent permanent injury and death. Heavyweight champ Jack Broughton introduced the practice of counting thirty after a knockout in 1743, and he also proscribed punching a person who's down.

The Marquess of Queensbury rules, set in 1867, basically define modern boxing: it introduced the idea of three-minute rounds, mandated gloves and ten-second counts, and prohibited wrestling moves (think of the combined wrestling-and-boxing contest between Hulk Hogan and Rocky that begins Rocky III).

These changes not only kept boxers alive, they forced boxers to think strategically-boxing could no longer be simply an all-out punching contest, but a subtle psychological war largely determined by who could outthink the opponent.

For the first time, you could win by a point decision instead of a straight-up knockout. Boxing became more of a thinking person's sport, and the great ring strategists and head-warriors of modern boxing followed: Muhammed Ali, Lennox Lewis, etc. (This intellectualization of the sport perhaps also gave rise to the love affair between twentieth-century writers and boxing: Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates have all written of their love for a good fight. F.X. Toole built a whole body of work on it, including the story Million Dollar Baby was based on. To cite a more recent example, writer Emily Votruba brilliantly considers women's boxing in her essay "The Violent Season.")

Boxing isn't for everyone. For its violence, and for sociological dynamics that some consider questionable (see above), it remains controversial. Nevertheless, there are a few pointers everyone should probably consider:

1) Keep up your dukes. The elbows should cover your chest, and your knuckles, when not hitting your opponent, should be resting against your cheekbones (not near, but against them), where they can block a punch.

2) When throwing a punch, keep your elbow tucked in. Letting your elbow swing outward dilutes the force of the punch. You want your arm thrown out as straightforwardly as possible. As your punch comes out, twist your knuckle.

3) When hitting with your left, drop your head behind your shoulder to keep your face protected.

4) Don't extend your arm all the way out - stop the punch when your arm is just short of full extension.

All of this is, in practice, very hard to do - and we haven't even said anything about footwork! (Feet should be shoulder-width apart and perpendicular; only your head and shoulders, not your trunk, should be facing your opponent head-on; as you move forward, keep your weight on your back foot, and the opposite going backwards; keep a constant distance from your opponent; etc.) Nor have we said anything about double- and triple-punches or combinations. So the last rule is: practice!
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